Newspaper article International New York Times

Growing Up in Radicalized Nigeria

Newspaper article International New York Times

Growing Up in Radicalized Nigeria

Article excerpt

A Muslim boy witnesses radical Islam's rise in Nigeria.

Born on a Tuesday.By Elnathan John. 264 pages. Black Cat. Paper, $16.

Elnathan John is a Nigerian writer and blogger who describes himself on Twitter as: "Satirist; recovering lawyer; novelist ... not award-winning; not on any cool list; in an abusive relationship with Nigeria; bald." He tweets about alcohol, food, sex, man boobs and a certain male competitiveness (as in: "Benedict Cumberbatch looks much shorter face to face"). And he is never lacking for a quip: "I write for my landlord who basically has gotten almost all the money from the advances I got for the novel."

Those who may have dismissed John as someone who writes chiefly to get a rise will be surprised to hear that he has produced a thoughtful, nuanced first novel, employing a style that is as unadorned as it is unflinching. This young lawyer, who has twice been a finalist for the Caine Prize for African Writing, may be brash, but he is also capable of depth and subtlety. His restraint in handling difficult material is just one of his many gifts.

John was born in 1982 in Kaduna, in northwestern Nigeria. At that time, it was a cosmopolitan city, a place where Christians and Muslims lived side by side in easy companionship. But in the 1990s, a series of clashes between religious groups led to an effective apartheid, with people leaving their once peacefully mixed neighborhoods to live with those who shared their beliefs. The clashes soon spread beyond the city.

"Born on a Tuesday" begins in 2003, during the uneasy truce that followed. Dantala, the novel's narrator, is one of a gang of street boys who sleep under a kuka tree in Bayan Layi, a small northwestern Nigerian town. They steal sweet potatoes, smoke Nigerian grass (called "wee-wee"), brag about their exploits and get into fights. Dantala used to go to Quranic school, sent there by his father, until he drifted away. He's the smallest boy in the gang and the swiftest runner. He doesn't know how old he is, but says he has fasted for Ramadan "nearly 10 times."

During the elections, the boys are paid to cause trouble by the Small Party. They've been promised a shelter "for us homeless boys and those who can't return home or don't have parents, where we can learn things like making chairs and sewing caftans." When they attack the offices of the victorious Big Party, Dantala holds the matches while another boy pours the gasoline. A fat man runs out of the building, and Dantala strikes him with a machete. He is already dead when they set him on fire. By now, the police are shooting into the crowd, and Dantala's friend Banda, the leader of his gang, is killed.

Dantala runs until he can no longer hear the guns, then hitches a ride in the back of a truck and eventually makes his way to a big nearby town, where he is taken in at a mosque that offers free food, a place to sleep and the comfort of communal worship. …

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