Brotherhood by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr | Book Review

A few thoughts about about one of my favourite books I have read recently, Brotherhood (Terre Ceinte) by the Senegalese writer, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, a winner of the French prestigious 2021 Prix Goncourt for La plus secrete memoire des hommes  (Men’s Most Secret Memories).

Written with maturity and unmatched sensitivity and empathy, Brotherhood explores many aspects of life under the Islamic fundamentalist regime. This book is multilayered, told in two parallel narratives: one told through the letters of grieving mothers and second one told through the story of a group of friends who stand up to the barbarism of the Brotherhood through publishing the journal condemning the crimes of the group. Mohamed Sarr explores a variety of subjects from different, often opposed, angles including the notion of freedom, family ties, human nature, individual and collective responsibility, courage, personal interest, the meaning of political and religious ideology, suffering, grief, position of women and children in the misogynic society, the power of word, written words in fight for the individual freedom. This book shows life under the authoritarian regime – in the book this is the religious, Islamic extremism but the themes explored in the book can resonate with people who have lived through the various political authoritarian regimes as well.

“Those who submit to tyranny and those who stand up against it are united by fear, cold – blooded fear. There are no heroes or cowards, and as a result courage has no more meaning or value than cowardice. At first, there are only those who are scared and who decide to do something with their fear: they fly with wings that fear has granted them, or they stay on the ground, paralyzed, their feet in shackles.”

This book includes profound philosophical discussions, literary references to the writers such as Victor Hugo and Apollinaire as well as historic references to the Senegalese history (although the name of the country is not mentioned in the book). My copy of this book is highlighted almost on every page – there are so many memorable passages with multitudes of perspectives which are worth rereading.

The story of Brotherhood is set in the fictional city of Kalep, in the unnamed North African country, where the Islamic fundamentalists calling themselves, the Brotherhood took over and imposed their ideology on the population of Kalep through fear, public executions, censorship and their way of life is the only way that is allowed. At the beginning of the book, we witness a scene of extreme violence, a double execution of a young couple whose only crime was that they loved each other.

Kalep has changed significantly since the Islamists took over. The city’s carefree spirit has been replaced by fear. The city that was once bursting with life is now covered by a veil of religion. The streets have once been filled with cheerful cries, laughs, sounds of celebration and music, now they are empty and silent. It is a sad place with no hope.

“(…) propaganda insidiously manages to convince those it targets that the extinction of their voice is a welcomed necessity. The people become silent because they no longer deem it necessary to speak, since everything seems clear and obvious to them. Of course, nothing is really clear. And in the face of this false clarity, ideology deafens, grows, and thrives. “

One of the narratives is told through a series of letters between two grieving mothers, who lost their children in the double execution mentioned on the first pages of the book. Those letters explore the subjects of motherly love, motherhood, the memory of those who are gone, the importance of a grave, faith, suffering, position of women in the deeply abusive society – especially older women and the ones who are unable to bear children, they are considered invisible and useless by their families as well as by the society.  Through mothers’ letters, we learn about a full scope of dehumanization of those by the Brotherhood who decide to stand up to their barbaric ideology. Dehumanization of their opponents does not only occur when they are still alive but also when they are dead. Mothers often have different views on the way they deal with the suffering of losing a child and how to face the regime they live in. Although often these are opposed views, neither of them is necessarily wrong. The author shows the reader that there are many perspectives on profound issues depending on one’s place within society, personal circumstances.

Second narrative, told in parallel to mothers’ letters, is a story of seven people from various backgrounds who decide to fight for their freedom through written word. Following many meetings in the basement of an old tavern, the group came up with the idea of the journal with the objective to bear witness to the barbarism of the Brotherhood, to reflect on the madness they imposed on their fellow human beings. They want the journal to contemplate the situation from every angle: political, religious, philosophical, military, ideological and simply human, with all the facts portrayed in all their complexity. They shared tasks between them: writing articles, reviewing, designing layout, printing, binding.

This was their way to fight for their freedom. The journal’s objective was to give people their hope back. They wanted the journal to show people what they are unknowingly subjected to. Each article was supposed to contain the arguments against the Brotherhood supported with the quotes from the Quran. Every word was weighted, every argument studied, laid out, proven. They were profound, solid ideas, founded on a precise reading of the Quran which was a big threat to the ideology of the Brotherhood.

Upon the first publication of the journal the city became an inferno of fear. The Brotherhood promised rewards for the information about the identity of its authors. People started falsely accusing each other for money, for revenge, out of mere suspicion. The journal’s objective was to save people and not push them towards hating each other. The authors hoped to plant the seed of rebellion in people, instead they planted the seed of fear and greed. The group of friends started a discussion about moral responsibility for what’s happening – they exchanged their different views and different perceptions; some thought that they were responsible for the situation because they did not predict human nature; others thought that their responsibility ended when they published the journal. Some think the issue here is not of moral responsibility at all; that there is no issue as the journal has its own destiny. They decided to vote on the future actions; one of them wants to stop distributing the journal; others want to continue but with different views on how often to distribute and on what scale.

One never truly measures the extent to which every war is also, perhaps mainly, an initiative of destruction through the manipulation of language. Words are distorted to comply with people’s passions and used as rhetoric to express conflicting goals, which are all still alike in their allegiance to violence.  Because every war is a manipulation of language, or worse, its absolute alienation, it ultimately becomes a fundamental attack on Truth.”

There is also a perspective of Abdel Karim, the chief of Islamic police of the Brotherhood. He joined the Brotherhood as an 18-year-old man to understand better what it means to be a Muslim. He was “an intelligent fanatic”.

 “This man was an incarnation of fanaticism in its most dangerous form: he was an intelligent fanatic, if those terms can even be rightfully juxtaposed. He was a fanatic capable of conveying his thoughts through clear argumentation. (…) Real fanaticism finds its most authentic and dangerous expression in the elites who embody it: in those educated, at least partly, in western schools, in those who master rhetoric, who grasp subtleties (…).”

Abdel Karim describes people joining the Brotherhood and the reason behind it as follows: some are lost and looking for a substitute family, others often former bandits are looking for a form of redemption, some just wanted to fight against the State, there were those who just wanted to be empowered by the idea of holding a weapon in their hands and deciding who should live and who should die. They all saw the Brotherhood as a new collective entity where they might be able to rebuild their identities. In his view, only few came to search for God, and only a minority has any knowledge of Islam – he calls them “dreadful morons”.

The book ends with the Brotherhood burning the Library followed by a short-lived rebellion and even a shorter period of freedom from the barbarism of the Brotherhood. Soon the Brotherhood takes over the city of Kalep again and even greater madness starts all over again.

The book ends with a very short remark on the international community which (following the civilian rebellion) promised to provide the assistance, but no one is aware when that’s going to happen and what kind of assistance they think of.

Obviously, I highly recommend this book to everyone. It is a difficult read but undoubtedly it stays with you for a long time. Mohamed Sarr is a skillful writer of profound empathy. I very much look forward to his other books that should be published soon in English as well. 

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