Elnathan John Born on a Tuesday: Nigeria’s Invisible Voices

Born on a Tuesday Photo and © Carmen McCain
Born on a Tuesday Photo and © Carmen McCain | Photo: © Carmen McCain

Elnathan John’s debut novel, Born on a Tuesday, is an arresting depiction of life in North Nigeria at a time of Islamic radicalisation. The story of young Dantala’s search for a place in society offers a human perspective on the violent ideological conflicts of the contemporary world.

According to Elnathan John, the most invisible people in North Nigeria are the Almajirai, the multitudes of Quranic scholars. From early childhood onwards, they’re alone in the world and must earn their living as errand-boys, street vendors or beggars: ‘in their own country they’re treated like numbers. People only notice when they get violent. They’re not thought of as human beings. But they have stories, feelings, dreams and aspirations, just like everyone. ‘In his 2015 debut novel, Born on a Tuesday, Elnathan John gives a face, a voice and a life to the Almajirai through his young protagonist Dantala: ‘I wanted to talk in my book about invisible people, to tell the stories that aren’t being told. The part of Northern Nigeria I’m writing about happens to be about 90% Muslim. You can’t talk about them without talking about the conflicts between them.’

North Nigeria is Elnathan John’s home: He was born in 1982 in Kaduna, studied law in the town of Zaria and worked as a lawyer until 2012, when he decided to dedicate himself to writing full time. He self-published a short story collection in 2008, and has also had stories published in magazines including ZAM Magazine, Evergreen Review and Per Contra. His stories Bayan Layi (2013) and Flying (2015) were both shortlisted for the Caine Prize. Born on a Tuesday, published in 2015 by Nigerian publisher Cassava Republic Press, and in the US in 2016 by Grove Atlantic, was chosen as one of the ten best debut novels of winter/spring 2016 by the US bookseller’s association Indies Introduce. As a satirical writer, John embraces the position of ‘always looking at what no one else has noticed or doesn’t consider worth looking at.’

DANTALA´S STORY

The starting point for Born on a Tuesday was Elnathan John’s short story Bayan Layi, about the daily life of street boys in North Nigeria. The five part novel that developed out of it spans the period from 2003 to the present, a time characterised by a radicalisation of political Islam. The young, bright Dantala, one of the Almajirai, tells his own story of his search for a father figure amongst companions he meets who have varying interpretations of Islam.

In Bayan Lani, a fictional North Nigerian town, Dantala joins a street gang and befriends its leader, Banda. During electoral unrest, the youths flee from the police. Banda stays behind, while Dantala shelters in a mosque in the nearby town of Sokoto. His predominantly violent memories of his father, the mental disturbance of his mother and the conversion of his brother to the Shiites have all caused Dantala to be estranged from his family. He finds a trusted friend In Jibril and rises up the ranks to become the favourite assistant of Sheikh Jamal. But violence breaks out when the Sheikh’s closest advisor, Malam Abdul-Nur, founds his own radical Salafist movement to oppose the Sheikh’s, at first clandestinely, then openly. In the midst of experiencing the confusion of first love, Dantala is plunged into a whirlpool of uncertainty and is required to choose sides.

Born on a Tuesday occupies a singular position within North Nigerian literature in two respects. Firstly, in order to reach a wider public, John has written the novel in English rather than Hausa, the language widely spoken in West Africa. Secondly, the novel is distinctive for its strong relationship with real events. Elnathan John undertook extensive research on the development of political Islam in Nigeria, ‘in order to include all of its elements in the book.’ This allows his work to offer us a glimpse into an ordinarily inaccessible world.

External events and associative memories combine in Dantala’s mind, producing an atmosphere characterised by intense suffering and destruction, but also by hope. John’s language is pared-down and precise, his narrative style empathetic. The matter of fact-ness with which power structures are laid bare gets under the skin, while the intimate first-person perspective provides both poetic and humorous moments. ‘I also wanted to show the little things in Dantala’s life, the things we all have, that bring joy,’ says John.

ISLAMIC CONTROVERSIES

It is to Elnathan John’s credit that Born on a Tuesday does not pander to sensationalist conceptions of ‘Boko Haram’-style terrorism, but instead explores underlying complexities. The differentiated portrayal of various ideological positions attests to the fact that ‘there are controversies within Islam, and behind these are complex people, with complex relationships.’

The historical context is the division of Nigeria into the predominantly Christian south and the predominantly Muslim north, the latter characterised by greater poverty, illiteracy and religiously-motivated violence. The north has experienced many years of conflict between the Sufi and Salafist factions within the Sunni branch of Islam, the Dariqa and the Izala. Although the Sufis are in the majority, the Salafists have attracted attention through their political focus. A further conflict, rarely discussed in Nigeria, is the tension between the Sunnis and the young Shiite movement fighting for recognition. John gives a key role in the novel to the debate about Salafism between Sheikh Jamal and Malam Abdul-Nur. His main source was real debates between Sheikh Jafar Adam and Mohammed Yusuf, a former Almajiri who broke away from the Salafists to found the fundamentalist group Boko Haram. In the novel, too, Malam Abdul-Nur becomes a jihadist who wants to impose an Islamic state through violence, while Sheikh Jamal argues for the importance of education in creating socio-political change.

The dividing lines between fact and fiction in the novel are disconcertingly fine. Alongside the real-life parallels in the novel’s plot, the choice of Sokoto as the location rather than Borno, the centre of terrorist activity, suggests the transferability of events. The fictional town of Bayan Layi – ‘back streets’ in Hausa – is somewhere on the fringes of society. Elnathan John implies that the conditions for religious violence exist practically everywhere in North Nigeria: ‘In the end everyone is fighting someone else because they believe they are the ‘real Muslim’. Everyone thinks that.’ The fundamentalist belief in an order dependent on God’s will also leads to conflict with the state and with the police, as well as to the spread of anti-western sentiment. The novel hints at a complex network of power relationships that includes links with countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and England. John emphasises the global scope of the movements: ‘If you can gain influence over people you can influence their politics. Through that, you can influence everything.’

AN ALMAJIRI SEEKING MEANING

Although they are called Quran ‘scholars’, the general perception is that the Almajirai are uneducated. For Elnathan John, the major social problem is that many of them are exploited. Dantala’s passion for languages and books finds expression in his Almajiri duties of transcribing and reciting the Quran: ‘He sees books around him. That’s one of the things the Sheikh gives him.’ With the help of his friend Jibril, Dantala teaches himself English and becomes a member of the Sheik’s school. He finally exchanges the ordinary name Dantala (’born on a Tuesday’) for the prophet name ‘Ahmad’, underlining the remarkable journey he has taken, from anonymous Almajiri to person of status and representative of the Sheikh.

Dantala is able to overcome his circumstances through his ability to learn and look ahead, imagining alternatives to the status quo. However the questions his story poses about the motives of violence have no easy answers. Alongside the constant refrain of ‘Allah knows best’, another develops; that of ‘no one knows why.’ Even the process of recording his experiences cannot provide Dantala with explanations for things that are inexplicable. It does teach him about the capacity for language to bestow meaning on events, most importantly at moments when his grasp on external reality starts to feel tenuous. Elnathan John explains: ‘Dantala is honest, but there is a kind of necessary lie he tells to protect his own sanity.’

BRIDGES

Although Born on a Tuesday is written in English, numerous quotations make the language of Hausa feel ever-present. Elnathan John does not provide translations: the reader shares the inner life of the protagonist instinctively more than intellectually. ‘If you speak Hausa, you’ll get extra meaning from the book. But if you don’t, you won’t lose anything.’ As Dantala tries in his diary-entries to work out the meaning of unknown English words, he simultaneously creates a bridge to his own language for his (English-speaking) readers. An ambivalent marginal role is occupied by the book’s female characters. They remain in the background, rarely speaking, but transmitting presence and strength through their expressive body language. The novel pits this wordlessness against the continual sparring of different Islamic factions, which leads to violence. Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday mediates between these two sides, making an important literary contribution by providing conflict-plagued, ‘invisible’ North Nigeria with a human face.