Re­li­gious di­vides in Africa

Los Angeles Times - - At the Movies - Julie Cline

The Tenth Par­al­lel

Dis­patches From the Fault Line Be­tween Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam El­iza Gris­wold Far­rar, Straus & Giroux: 336 pp., $27

Blame it on the “tsetse fly belt” di­vid­ing north and south Africa. Or the schizophrenic mon­soons in Asia. Blame it, El­iza Gris­wold sug­gests, on over­ween­ing hubris and near­sight­ed­ness. But don’t blame the cul­tural di­vide be­tween Is­lam and Chris­tian­ity on those “whose faith is bound to their strug­gle for re­sources and sur­vival.”

In “The Tenth Par­al­lel: Dis­patches From the Fault Line Be­tween Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam,” the ac­claimed jour­nal­ist and poet de­tails her ex­pe­ri­ences over the last decade within what is re­ferred to as the “Tor­rid Zone,” a po­lit­i­cally fraught re­gion that is home to 60% of the world’s en­tire pop­u­la­tion of Chris­tians and 50% of all Mus­lims. It is also the birthplace of the mod­ern con­flict be­tween Is­lam and the West, the author tells us. Far more than a trav­el­ogue, her book is a richly tex­tured fugue that dra­ma­tizes the dizzy­ing in­ter­play be­tween no­tions — faith, moral­ity, iden­tity — and na­tions.

Gris­wold’s “10th par­al­lel” refers to a lat­i­tu­di­nal line sep­a­rat­ing Africa’s mostly Ara­bic Mus­lim north and black Chris­tian south — and, mov­ing east, the largely Chris­tian Philip­pines and Mus­lim In­done­sia. Yet the author deftly un­cov­ers in­fin­i­tes­i­mal par­al­lels be­tween war­ring ide­olo­gies: mar­tyrs and mass tent re­vivals, the call to re­turn to “fun­da­men­tals” and a re­volv­ing cast of pros­e­ly­tiz­ers fight­ing for con­verts among “border pa­gans.” Take, for in­stance, Is­lamic re­former Uth­man dan Fo­dio’s 18th cen­tury south­ward ad­vance — ef­fec­tively halted by sleep­ing sick­ness. Or, in the same part of Nige­ria in 1904, the Ger­man Evan­ge­list Her­mann Karl Wilhelm Kumm’s ef­forts: “Kumm took two hun­dred African Porters and their fam­i­lies along with him, con­fi­dent that he would con­vert them to Chris­tian­ity dur­ing leisure hours. The party never stopped walk­ing.” Rather, they “hacked their way through dense bush wo­ven with wet vines … the party fell vic­tim to flash flood. Kumm and his ex­pe­di­tion ba­si­cally swam across Africa.” It re­calls Werner Her­zog’s 1972 film, “Aguirre: The Wrath of God.”

As if op­er­at­ing a metal de­tec­tor rigged for the un­canny, Gris­wold re­veals the fa­mil­iar in the strange, and vice versa. She vis­its Kaduna, a Nige­rian city di­vided by the 10th par­al­lel, and its op­pos­ing neigh­bor­hoods of Lit­tle Afghanistan and Tele­vi­sion. She watches the evan­ge­list Franklin Gra­ham prof­fer a Nike shoe­box full of Christ­mas toys to a dy­ing baby in Khar­toum; the in­fant is no big­ger than the pas­tor’s hand. She finds, among other war crim­i­nals, a Ji­hadist-cum-medicine man with ties to Osama bin Laden, only to hear John Len­non’s “Imag­ine” chim­ing from his head­phones. He makes it past air­port se­cu­rity with a pair of bun­nies for his son. “Will the X-ray ma­chine kill them?” he asks. A rhetor­i­cal ques­tion.

If Gris­wold’s in­sight is sur­pris­ing, it’s be­cause, as the daugh­ter of an Epis­co­palian bishop, she knows that the great­est par­al­lels be­tween Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam are the di­vi­sions within. Where Protes­tant lead­ers like her fa­ther saw progress, evan­ge­lists like Gra­ham see damna­tion. One of the author’s har­row­ing treks, then, in­volves be­ing forced to re­veal her “back­ground” to Gra­ham’s camp out­side of Bashir’s palace in Khar­toum.

Gris­wold is, a poet with a keen sense for words and a re­porter in tire­less pur­suit of their mean­ings. En route to an in­ter­faith wed­ding in Malaysia, a Mus­lim coun­try in which Chris­tian use of “Al­lah” has been an­grily and vi­o­lently dis­puted, Gris­wold oc­cu­pies the chil­dren who are pas­sen­gers with a round of hang­man. Which word to in­scribe? her al­lu­sion begs. Whose in­ter­pre­ta­tion? If the dot­ted line here marks ma­jor gaps in un­der­stand­ing, it also con­jures a Ko­ran verse — one that echoes the Bi­ble and opens “The Tenth Par­al­lel”: “Fa­ther, for­give them, they do not know.”

The book il­lu­mi­nates com­plex re­la­tion­ships, even as the author her­self ad­mits she does not un­der­stand them. “Peo­ple’s pro­fes­sions of their be­liefs,” she writes, “were ul­ti­mately mys­te­ri­ous, and could not be ex­plained away by self-in­ter­est, or any­thing else of this world.” It seems that faith, a su­per­nat­u­ral re­source, is a mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor as pow­er­ful as oil or wa­ter.

Given our world to­day, Gris­wold’s book is as timely as ever. These dis­patches are an ur­gent call — not sim­ply to over­look dif­fer­ences but rather, as she puts it, “to en­gage, en­gage, en­gage.” Cline is a writer and edi­tor in Los An­ge­les.

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