After having to abandon the gang of homeless boys he was a part of, the street kid Dantala ends up in the mosque of the moderate Sheikh Jamal and is offered food, shelter, and a religious education. Gradually, he becomes one of the sheikh’s most trusted assistants, while at the same time, the sheikh’s previous right-hand man forms a radical movement that threatens the fragile peace between the different sects in this region of northwestern Nigeria.
Under the guise of a coming-of-age story, Elnathan John presents a commentary on the destructive force of fanatism, religious extremism, and political corruption that can all too easily lead a society to bloodshed or even incite a full-blown civil war. The religious landscape is extremely complex, as there are not only Sunnites and Shiites living next to each other, but also followers of movements with varying degrees of extremism that exist within these sects, as well as converts from both sects and even christianity whose true allegiance and motivations are often quite opaque. Although there is a seemingly broad consensus to reject any kind of westernization or a society modelled on Western democracies, but rather to work towards an Islamic state, there is no agreement on how to go about it, or what exactly should be implemented. Religion is the great divider which rips families, friends, and a whole people apart because everyone claims to have the sole truth, while it is also a tool for many political and religious leaders craving power and wealth.
Much of this information is relayed more or less between the lines because Dantala only has a limited understanding of the bigger picture and a rather narrow point of view, mostly due to to his age and lack of education. That Saudi Arabia, for instance, is an important player in the region, and is sponsoring some of the movements to further its own goals is mentioned only in passing, and the political goings-on are never made entirely clear to the reader, because the narrator doesn’t quite know what is happening either. Nonetheless, the gist of it is not hard to deduce, and that the situation as a whole resembles a powder keg just waiting for someone to light a match is not surprising, but when it all goes up in flames it is still a shock, to the sheikh and Dantala, but also to the reader.
This is a fantastic book from beginning to end because it explains a very difficult subject in such an accessible way, while also telling a story that hardly lets you put the book down. Dantala is a likeable character that I rooted for to succeed and find a better life, and I even had sympathies for the sheikh although I could not agree less with him on politics and religion. At one point, he tells a story to Dantala and stresses that it has no moral. The story of Dantala doesn’t either, but it provides something that is more important than any moral could be, and that is insight. What to do with it, is entirely up to the reader.
CBR12 Bingo: Red