By Tolu Ogunlesi
Lamenting the presence of Nigeria on the US government’s list of “countries of interest” (in the war on terror), Nigerian writer and first African Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka told British journalist Tunku Varadarajan, at the Jaipur Literary Festival in January: “[Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab] did not get radicalized in Nigeria. It happened in England, where he went to university.”
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is the 23 year old Nigerian man whose arrest on Christmas Day 2009 while attempting to detonate a bomb aboard a Detroit-bound plane caused the country's blacklisting.
In 2005, at the age of 19, Umar Farouk enrolled in the University College London (UCL), for a degree in ‘Engineering with Business Finance’, after high school at a British-curriculum school in Togo. From all indications UCL kept the young man busy. In his second year he was elected President of the Student Union’s Islamic Society, organizing a “War on Terror Week” during his tenure.
Five decades before Umar Farouk became a student in England, Wole Soyinka was admitted to the University of Leeds. In October 1954 the future Nobel Laureate left the sleepy city of Ibadan, Western Nigeria (where he was studying at the University College), for England. He was 20. Soyinka would spend the next six years in England, returning to Nigeria on the eve of the country’s independence from Britain.
It can be argued that England was the breeding ground for Mr. Soyinka’s genius; the playwright was, in a sense, forged between the stiff upper lips of Poundland. It wasn’t only Soyinka the playwright that was made in England. Soyinka the father was too. He would during his time in that country fall in love with an English woman, who in 1957 bore him a son, his first.
When Mr. Soyinka left for England, the Nigeria he was leaving behind was merely one colony in an Empire that stretched across the world, and Mr. Soyinka was a subject of the Queen of England. The England he was leaving for was not the one in which multiracialism had become the politically correct thing; this was still an England that wore its racism rather comfortably on its sleeves. One of Mr. Soyinka’s most anthologized poems dates back to that time, a cheeky send-up of racism, which to all intents may have been autobiographical:
It features a young black man in England, speaking on the phone with a potential landlady. The phone conversation is a prelude to a face-to-face meeting. But he feels the need to make a “self-confession”:
“Madam,” I warned, / “I hate a wasted journey—I am African.” / Silence.
The landlady’s interest is piqued.
“HOW DARK?”. . . “ARE YOU LIGHT / OR VERY DARK?” she wants to know. She repeats herself, for emphasis.
“You mean – like plain or milk chocolate?” the narrator suggests. Then he has a color-coded brainwave. “West African sepia,” he concludes.
“A brief but untidy struggle”
The Soyinka who wrote “Telephone Conversation” was the same one who, in 1958, declined to take part in an improvised performance of the play ELEVEN MEN DEAD AT HOLA (by Keith Johnstone and William Gaskell), set around the tragic (and factual) events at Hola Camp, one of the detention centers of colonial-era Kenya, set up by the British to contain persons arrested on charges of belonging to, or being sympathetic to the Mau Mau liberation group. The eleven men were beaten to death by their guards. The young Soyinka, when it was time to appear on stage, refused to move. A fellow actor, standing nearby, attempted to drag him onstage. What ensued was “a brief but untidy struggle… quite visible to a part of the audience.”
In his Nobel acceptance speech Soyinka revisits the incident:
“The role which I had been assigned was that of a camp guard, one of the killers. We were equipped with huge night-sticks and, while a narrator read the testimony of one of the guards, our task was to raise the cudgels slowly and, almost ritualistically, bring them down on the necks and shoulders of the prisoners, under orders of the white camp officers. A surreal scene. Even in rehearsals, it was clear that the end product would be a surrealist tableau. The Narrator at a lectern under a spot; a dispassionate reading, deliberately clinical, letting the stark facts reveal the states of mind of torturers and victims. A small ring of white officers, armed. One seizes a cudgel from one of the warders to demonstrate how to beat a human being without leaving visible marks. Then the innermost clump of detainees, their only weapon – non-violence. They had taken their decision to go on strike, refused to go to work unless they obtained better camp conditions. So they squatted on the ground and refused to move, locked their hands behind their knees in silent defiance. Orders were given. The inner ring of guards, the blacks, moved in, lifted the bodies by hooking their hands underneath the armpits of the detainees, carried them like toads in a state of petrification to one side, divided them in groups. The faces of the victims are impassive; they are resolved to offer no resistance. The beatings begin: one to the left side, then the back, the arms – right, left, front, back. Rhythmically. The cudgels swing in unison. The faces of the white guards glow with professional satisfaction, their arms gesture languidly from time to time, suggesting it is time to shift to the next batch, or beat a little more severely on the neglected side. In terms of images, a fluid, near balletic scene.”
After that scene, they were supposed to act the ‘official version’ – the account that the camp guards had put forward in the report they wrote on the death of the eleven men. This account had it that the deaths had occurred due to poisoning from water.
“The motif was simple enough, the theatrical format a tried and tested one, faithful to a particular convention. What then was the problem?” Soyinka wonders, and then attempts to explain his reluctance to play his assigned role. One of the things he touches on is the way the world was in 1958 (which was also the year he moved from Leeds to London):
“We must bear in mind that at the time of presentation, and to the major part of that audience, every death of a freedom fighter was a notch on a gun, the death of a fiend, an animal, a bestial mutant, not the martyrdom of a patriot.”
That same year, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was published, the first book in an impressive body of work of which the author would say, more than a decade later: “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them.”
Umar Farouk’s England was a radically different one. In the fifty years between the Soyinka’s sojourn to England, and Mutallab’s, Poundland had changed. It now wore Multiculturalism with the same comfort with which it had worn Imperialism and Ignorance. The empire had long since crumbled, and lived on only in literature, and in the deep ruts it had etched in the collective unconscious of the conquered peoples. It had, like the statue of Liberty, opened up its welcoming arms to all and sundry. It was a ‘browned’ England.
In Soyinka’s England, there was no ‘Things Fall Apart’, no Salman Rushdie, no Ben Okri, no Zadie Smith. Mutallab’s England had all the above, and more; the Empire had not only convincingly written back, now it had acquired the confidence to initiate the correspondence. The Empire Writing First.
In the intervening years, between the young Soyinka and the young Mutallab, the mother of England’s future King had fallen in love with an Arab Muslim – and, had she not died tragically at thirty-six, might have had children for him.
The Old and the New
This is how Mr. Soyinka came to see the New England: “Colonialism bred an innate arrogance, but when you undertake that sort of imperial adventure, that arrogance gives way to a feeling of accommodativeness. You take pride in your openness.”
The Arrogance of the fifties had in essence progressed to become the Accomodativeness of the noughties. But in a sense they were merely two sides of the same coin. The Accomodativeness Soyinka speaks of is a variation on the theme of Arrogance. To wit: Soyinka’s “You take pride in your openness.”
Both involve Pride of staggering proportions. The Brits love to boast about how they are not as hung up on race as their Americans counerparts. Journalist Lola Adesioye, writing in the UK Guardian speaks of an “image that so many Americans have of the UK as a place which has a much more progressive attitude towards race.” (Whether this is true or not ought to be the subject of another essay). But at the Gothenburg Book Fair in 2008 I recall hearing Hanif Kureishi joke about his Commander of the British Empire (CBE) honour, granted him by Queen Elizabeth in 2008: “The Queen only gives medals these days to blacks and Asians.”
Sterling sans sadism?
In the light of the Umar Farouk incident Mr. Soyinka has very harsh words for England. It is like a son's bitterly frank public letter to a Mother he has grown apart from, and disillusioned of (Long ago Mr. Soyinka made America his 'intellectual base'; he has held teaching positions in U.S. Universities for many years now). An audacious thing to do to a land that once deemed Mr. Soyinka – just like his compatriot, Chinua Achebe – a “British-Protected Child”; the command center of an Empire on which, once upon a time, “the sun never set.”
Soyinka told Varadarajan “England is a cesspit. England is the breeding ground of fundamentalist Muslims. Its social logic is to allow all religions to preach openly. But this is illogic, because none of the other religions preach apocalyptic violence. And yet England allows it. Remember, that country was the breeding ground for communism, too. Karl Marx did all his work in libraries there.”
The kingdom fights back
So how did the Brits take this critique from a man who used to be their helpless subject; someone for whom selfless white British missionaries, “acting on God's behalf”, had braved malaria, heat, homesickness and the infinite Atlantic with a mission to cause deliverance from (to again borrow Chinua Achebe’s immortal words, and wield them out of context) “one long night of savagery”; someone who had conquered the world on the strength of the educational opportunities they so freely lavished upon him?
Leading the attack, Riazat Butt, the UK Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent, in a piece titled “Wole Soyinka’s rash words” described Mr. Soyinka’s words as a “blistering attack on England”, by a man “[t]housands of miles away with no firsthand knowledge or experience of Britain. Out of the country and out of touch.” In this regard she thought him rather like the Pope. (I wonder what the pleasure-loving Mr. Soyinka would think of being likened to the Pope)
Onto this bandwagon jumped many of the commentators who responded to her piece. Soyinka words were variously described as “ridiculous”, “poorly informed and wildly inaccurate”, “crap”, “ignorant”, “malicious nonsense.” One person said “[h]is articulation was woeful – it’s to be expected, he tends [to] live a rarefied [life] these days. Another saw it as evidence that “Nobel laureates do not have a monopoly on intelligence.” Yet another advised him to “team up with Rush Limbaugh.”
There was at least one hilarious one, which wondered if “perhaps [Soyinka wasn’t] just angling for an invite to one of Martin Amis’ dinner parties?”
The defensive posture that many commentators (white British I presume) adopted in response to his critique will provide much material for anyone studying the collective un/conscious of the Brits. At the heart of British society, I have come to conclude, is a raw pain emanating from the dispossession that has taken place over the past few centuries, that has seen the Empire replaced by a vastly diminished shadow. But that, also, is a subject for another essay.
For love of god
In my opinion a clear parallel may be drawn between the two men, the 23 year old Islamic radical, and the 76 year old literary giant; the Angry Young Man and the Angry Old One, who in their different ways (and eras) succeeded in stamping their country on the world map for all time. (Interestingly the Young Man was born in the year that the Old Man won the Nobel Prize).
Soyinka was shaped by the British Arrogance of the fifties; Mutallab by the British Accomodativeness of his own time. Soyinka embraced the “myths, rites and cultural patterns” (to borrow the exact usage of the Swedish Academy) of his Yoruba ethnic background, Mutallab embraced a vastly different set of myths; a toxic brand of religion, that hovered on the fringes of insanity; the sort of extremism that Mr. Soyinka has spent most of his life fighting. Both men's lives in England were certainly marked, in arguably similar ways, by “untidy struggles” – though I have a feeling that describing these in terms of “race and imperialism” (Soyinka) and “religion and imperialism” (Mutallab) might be a needless oversimplification.
The first canticle of Mr. Soyinka’s poem, “12 Canticles for a Zealot”, is in effect a biopsy of the moments –or months – leading up to the botched Chistmas day incident: “He wakes from a prolonged delirium, swears / He has seen the face of God. / God help all those whose fever never raged / Or has subsided.”
Elsewhere in the collection bearing those canticles (Samarkand and other markets I have known, 2002), the Nobel Laureate declaims: “Who kills for love of god kills love, kills god, / Who kills in name of god leaves god / Without a name.”
“It’s time to raise the rafters, time / To chant the primal sanctity of man / Beyond coarse politics, beyond meagerness / Of race and faith, time to disinherit / Nationhood, episcopacies – we declare …”
Britons may be justified in taking Soyinka to the cleaners for his “cesspit” allegation. Or maybe not. One thing I am convinced of: Umar Farouk would do well within the pages of a Soyinka book, or even better still, on the set of a Soyinka play. As a purveyor of misguided religious fervour; Umar Farouk would be a fitting tragic counterpoint to the comic, timeless “Brother Jero”.
Let me take you back to the 2008 Gothenburg Book Fair, to something else that Hanif Kureishi said:
“My father wanted me to be a British kid. I grew up wanting to be British and Asian; on The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix – and then I met all these kids who wanted to be Muslim…”
Might Soyinka have been on to something regarding that ‘cesspit’?