The Broken Man

With these contradictory, daring, but deeply human questions Ben Jelloun’s novel challenges the reader and forces him to leave behind his own social and cultural background when he tries to make sense of them—and of all human dilemmas, for that matter.

What if integrity and honesty cannot offer a decent life ?

What if, in a marriage, love is gone and is replaced by greed, remorse and routine ?

  What if, tired of too much correctness, people decide to break free from themselves?

“I remember the first years when I was employed in an office working for the Equipment Seecretary. It was Hlima who had first suggested me to claim a  commission for every file I would sign. It was one of our biggest fights. At first, I tried to tell explain her that corruption was a cancer that was eating away the country, and that my education, my moral principles, my consciousness were firmly opposed to this practice. She told me I wasn’t man enough! This time I laughed. She could not bear this and started to throw objects at me.” (p.27, ABR translation)

Mourad is a middle aged father of two, married to a woman he does not love anymore. An engineer working in a famous firm full of corrupt people, he is the only one holding to his moral principles. Nevertheless, his refusal to give in to the “attentions” his colleagues receive leaves him with only his salary, barely sufficient to grant his family a decent living. Mourad’s life revolves around his children, Karima and Wassit, and Hlima, his bitter wife only interested in wealth and social status. In his forties and in a moment of crisis, Mourad thinks of leaving his unsatisfying life and of becoming someone else.

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Broken Man reminds the reader of Kafka’s dark and absurd universe, in which the human soul is caught in a maze of deceit and injustice. Mourad is a modern Josef K., caught in his own life as in a prison from which he is too shy, too lazy or too honest to escape. The escalating rhythm of the narrative leads the reader from the honest family man to the tormented character who breaks all the rules… and risks everything.

Set in present day Morocco, Ben Jelloun’s novel criticizes corruption as a way of life, of working, of defining oneself; Mourad’s tragedy is that he is constantly studying different possibilities of staying who he is deeply, of keeping his identity no matter what. To this extent, the novel is actually a long self-questioning confession.

Is it, then, possible for a man to become the opposite of what he used to be, just for the sake of change? Is it possible to break free even from one’s identity and try to create another one, in another space and family context?  And what are the risks of such an endeavor?

With these contradictory, daring, but deeply human questions Ben Jelloun’s novel challenges the reader and forces him to leave behind his own social and cultural background when he tries to make sense of them—and of all human dilemmas, for that matter.

The  Broken  Man by  Tahar  Ben  Jelloun

Editions du Seuil | 1994 | ISBN: 9782020214742

An Interview with Tahar Ben Jelloun


Review by Ioana Danaila


Ioana Danaila was born in Romania. She graduated from University Lyon 2 Lumière with a Masters in Postcolonial Literature and a First degree in French for Non-Francophone people. She has published short stories and translated books from French to Romanian. She speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish and teaches English to high school students in France.

Laughing Drums |David Amadu

History’s white hand wrote my country’s course
In a language that will come back and hunt her
In the twenty first century ;
The man at the round-about calls it exploitation
Beyond redemption.
But I say it is far beyond our imagination.
Who would have ever thought
Shedding blood for diamonds will be our lot?
Not even the ruthless bullies
Who scrambled for our land to please their hungry bellies;
Nor did big city dwellers in their luxury
Have the faintest idea of our misery.
The man at the round-about says
We are in a conundrum
But I say let’s play our joyful laughing drums
Play our laughing drums
To the sound of hungry children chewing crumbs.

History’s white hand wrote
Signatories and pernicious agreements both
As IMF loans and World Bank Killer packages
Inflicting unparallel wounds and damages;
The man at the round-about calls it Neocolonialism
Without Comparison
But I say it’s beyond human realism
So let’s play our joyful laughing drums
To the sound of children chewing crumbs.

David Amadu is a poet based in Sierra Leone.

The Perceived Threat of the “Other”: An Interview with MH Sarkis

“What I learnt is you really need passion and dedication to stick it through and to continue sharing your work, because if you’re not lucky to have someone holding your hand or showing you the ropes, it likely won’t happen. Also there’s not much point looking for insight or approval from those who don’t know or care about what you’re trying to achieve, or waste time applying to things that don’t apply to your artwork.”–MH Sarkis

MH Sarkis is an artist whose work explores cross-cultural tensions and identity. In our interview with her, she tells us where her interest in art stems from, her influences, how it has evolved and her plans for the future.

profile - MH Sarkis
MH Sarkis

ABR: First of all, your name is fascinating. Anyone seeing it without first meeting you is more than likely to think that it’s a man behind the beautiful paintings? What’s the reason behind the pseudonym?
SARKIS: I’m happy the name sparks curiosity. MH is a shortened version of my full first name, which I feel good about keeping under wraps as I continue solidifying myself in the industry.
It’s interesting you should say one would think it’s a man behind the work; recently a national newspaper referred to me as a “he”. I suppose many still consider it to be a male-dominated profession.
Someone came up to me the other day and said “I didn’t expect to see a fine girl behind these paintings!”
I laughed. I don’t mind – I enjoy the element of surprise and challenging expectations and perceptions.

ABR: How did you develop an interest in painting and when did you decide to go pro?

SARKIS: I was always drawing and colouring in my childhood. Throughout primary school I enjoyed showing my work to adults and seeing their reactions. Then in secondary school our art teacher told me it would be a shame if I didn’t do anything with my skill-set. Although I didn’t think much of the comment at the time, it encouraged me.
I was more drawn to painting as a medium when I read about the Expressionists and how they explored the body and the self. I tried acrylic paint shortly after, and I fell in love with the “gloop”, its versatility, when I saw I could manipulate it well to the point of presenting something unexpected and visually striking. I had a gut feeling and when that happened I decided to go pro…
I then backed out of my English (Literature) UCAS applications. I wasn’t one to wait [for another round of UCAS] so I enrolled into a liberal arts institution which was happily quite international, and was painting of my own accord throughout undergraduate studies. No regrets o! None at all.

ABR: What was the first work you ever did and the first you ever sold? What has changed since then?

SARKIS: It’s hard to tell; just today I found another work in the house I grew up in, and I’m not sure of the date. The first artwork I sold was a large commissioned landscape piece that wasn’t really connected to my current practice but was a good experience at the time. That was years ago and what has changed is, as I’ve focused on my practice and continued exploring what inspires me, I am now sensing heightened interest from others inside the industry as well as outside.


ABR: What influences your style and what medium do you use in painting? 

IMG_20150829_153858SARKIS: Nigerian crafts (I grew up surrounded by carved work and not paintings per se). Masks, scarification, people. The grooves within and around the face. I am also interested in clash of cultures, or a harmony sometimes unexpected. The “other”, and the perceived threat of the “other”. They arise from my own experiences.

I mainly use acrylic paint because it allows flexibility: I can lay it on thickly and shape it, or thinly and as a wash. It also dries more quickly, which is often a good thing as it can encourage instinct if one’s an over-thinker, which I can sometimes be. On the other hand that can be quite dangerous, especially with my way of “digging in” while it’s fresh and workable.


 ABR: Your first exhibition in Nigeria “Back on the Island” is currently ongoing. What is the inspiration for your latest paintings?

SARKIS: All stem from real experiences and personal realities. The pieces are somewhat varied but at the heart of the works are notions of “cross-culturalism”, otherness, and identity especially relating to the Sub Sahara and Middle East. Scarification is a big inspiration, but the distinction in my work between markings and sculpturally-influenced lines are often blurred.


ABR: What memorable responses have you had to your works?

IMG_20150829_154004SARKIS: A lot of people (many of whom I don’t know) have stared at the works, and eventually, slowly stretch out a finger to touch. At first I would observe and not register how I felt about that as I wasn’t sure; you know often people advise against touching artworks for various reasons. But afterwards I realised I felt happy the work was that textural or tempting for them to just go for it, even when they knew full well the artist was standing a few feet away. Thankfully they were gentle.


ABR: How has painting influenced your life?

SARKIS: The painting process, as well as the surrounding and resulting events, has been cathartic. It is one of the strongest ways to express myself; I feel if we can’t express our story the best we can, we have the tendency to act it out in ways that are difficult to comprehend.

In short I have been able to understand my personal history, experiences, and triggers and tie things together through the medium. I am able to form relationships with others through sharing my work whereas previously, I had experienced feelings of isolation that can come with being a migrant here.


ABR: What setbacks have you experienced in your artistic journey and what did you learn from it/them?

IMG_20150829_153938SARKIS: I left university and didn’t have artistic contacts or networks to join in the UK (let alone Nigeria where I previously was). Most of my peers left the country after graduation. There was no tangible support system and I felt like I was starting from rock bottom. It was that sense of isolation and detachment, which I linked to “outsider-ness”, all over again. Getting online and applying to many open calls helped, as I then exhibited widely in and around London. I eventually came across the ‘Outside In’ platform, and the ‘Saatchi Art’ platform which then featured me a few times. This all happened back when I had a full-time job, and commuted well over an hour most days after work to my studio, and later to an artist residency with Free Space Gallery.

What I learnt is you really need passion and dedication to stick it through and to continue sharing your work, because if you’re not lucky to have someone holding your hand or showing you the ropes, it likely won’t happen. Also there’s not much point looking for insight or approval from those who don’t know or care about what you’re trying to achieve, or waste time applying to things that don’t apply to your artwork.


ABR: Aside from painting, do you do anything else to release your creativity? If yes, what are they?

SARKIS: I enjoy writing poetry and prose now and then. I used to write short stories often but haven’t written one in a while. The last one was based on a real-life event in Lagos and involved Pidgin. I was pleased with it but my computer crashed and I hadn’t backed it up. I still get worked up thinking about it! Now that’s where painting has the upper hand!

ABR: You’ll be going for your residency in Egypt soon. How did that come about and what are your plans afterwards?

Mh Sarkis and ABR interviewer, Chioma Nkemdilim

SARKIS: The Gallery Manager and Managing Director of ‘Gallery Ward’ saw my artwork and invited me to join them as artist-in-residence at their base in Giza, which I am looking forward to especially as I understand Egypt is a culturally unique yet influential place, and a meeting point between Sub Saharan Africa and the Middle East, aspects that currently concern my work.

I look forward to seeing how the residency could inform my practice but at the same time perhaps give me a fresh start.

I can’t say exactly yet, but my general plan for afterwards is to continue taking things up a notch in terms of visual presentation.


ABR: What is your ultimate goal professionally?

SARKIS: I often feel wary about saying too much in future tense, also because I don’t feel there is an “end-point” or set goal. But at the moment the aim it is to take myself back home and keep me mobile. I also would like to solidify a connection between the places that have influenced me and mean something to me. I want to solidify myself. I want my work to continue hanging here in Nigeria, in the UK, and in Lebanon. If it trickles over their borders, that would be good too.


ABR: Where can we find your art work? 

IMG_20150829_154310SARKIS: Nike Art Gallery and Quintessence at the moment. Online, mainly within my Saatchi Art portfolio (

For updates as well as artworks you can follow my Instagram (@sarkisartist) or Facebook page (

Happy New Year: A Letter from Our Editor

Dear African Book Review reader,

The African Book Review marked its second year in 2015. During this period we reviewed established and debut African literature. We also interviewed leaders, development coordinators, and other people at the forefront of change on the continent. Mid-year we focused on reviewing poetry from some of the continent’s legends, Gabriel Okra, Kofi Awoonor, and others. We also had delightful conversations, full of insight and passion with writers of our current generation including Yvonne Owuor, Dango Mkandawire, and more. 

The African Book Review wouldn’t exist without writers, editors, reviewers, and readers around the world. We’d like to say thank you to everyone who has been a part of this incredible project, especially our 2015 team:

Ioana Danaila: Ioana is our lead reviewer. From Romania, she is based in France and speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish. In addition to reviews of books written in English, Ioana has allowed us to expand our coverage and interview African novels written in French.

Viola Allo: Viola is a Cameroonian-born poet and essayist based in the United States. She published her first chapbook of poems Bird From Africa in 2015. Viola writes on her blog, Letters to Cameroon.

Chioma Nkemdilim: Chioma is based in Nigeria and conducted many of our interviews this year as a collaboration with her website, That Igbo Girl.

(If you want to join our team, just reply to this email with a link to your blog or sample of your writing)

We’re excited to collaborate with more readers, artists, and writers; those concerned about the continent, those engaged and active within Africa, and those whose works reflect the vibrancy of African literature, as ours does. 

To a great 2016!


Etinosa Agbonlahor Founder, Editor | The African Book Review

New Year’s Eve Midnight | Gabriel Okara

Now the bells are tolling–

A year is dead.

And my heart is slowly beating

the Nunc Dimittis

to all my hopes and mute

yearnings of a year

and ghosts hover round

dream beyond dream


Dream beyond dream

mingling with the dying

bell-sounds fading

into memories

like rain drops

falling into a river.


And now the bells are chiming–

A year is born.

And my heart-bell is ringing

in a dawn.

But it’s shrouded things I see

dimly stride

on heart-canopied paths

to a riverside.

Gabriel Okara was born in 1921 in Nembe in Rivers State, Nigeria. He is one of the most significant early Nigerian poets. Often concerned with the identity of his people, throughout his poetry, there is evidence of the influence of the traditional folk literature of his people. (Culled from A Selection of African Poetry, annotated by K.E. Senanu and T. Vincent)

The Cathedral | Kofi Awoonor

On this dirty patch
a tree once stood
shedding incense on the infant corn:
its boughs stretched across a heaven
brightened by the last fires of a tribe.
They sent surveyors and builders
who cut that tree
planting in its place
A huge senseless cathedral of doom.

Kofi Awoonor (13 March 1935 – 21 September 2013) was a Ghanaian poet and author whose work combined the poetic traditions of his native Ewe people and contemporary and religious symbolism to depict Africa during decolonization. He started writing under the name George Awoonor-Williams, and was also published as Kofi Nyidevu Awoonor. He taught African literature at the University of Ghana.

The firewood of this world/ Is only for those who can take heart/ That is why not all can gather it…[Professor Dr. Kofi Awoonor – A Tribute] (Songs of Sorrow I)

From A Place by Titilope Sonuga

From A Place by Titilope Sonuga

I come from a place

where mothers go to battle each day
with a baby strapped across their backs
another still clinging from their breasts
childcare at its finest

A place of street businessmen
who don’t need a white collar to make deals
they sign contracts with handshakes
shirtless sometimes shoeless
they will show you how to make money
make money

You will find anything in these streets
from hubcaps to toilet seats

It has been said
if you leave home naked
find yourself caught in the gridlock traffic
of Lagos roads
they will have you dressed
boardroom sharp
briefcase in hand
between the mainland and the island

I come from a place
of jaw dropping mansions and

where a child hawks goods in the blazing sun
next to an air conditioned Mercedes Benz

There are dichotomies here
abject poverty chewing at the seems that bind us
but we are the same people who built a city on fire
who bent fire and metal to give you art
built empires before the world’s first breath

Check your textbooks
better yet check your encyclopedias
read between the lines
you will find us there
you will find us everywhere
every continent, climate, country
speaking Portuguese, French, Italian
and they call us uncivilized

We can show you how to perfect pair
your caviar and wine
and still get down fingers deep
in a plate of pounded yam

I come from a place
where the world’s best storytellers first spoke
who taught you
You Must Set Forth At Dawn
be No Longer At Ease with that
Thing Around your Neck before

Things Fall Apart

So when you ask me where I come from
there are things I want to tell you
that are louder than my bright green passport
things that are heavier than the failed explosive
cradled in Mutalab’s underpants
things that are more colorful than a well crafted
419 email

You will never understand who I am until you know
exactly where I come from

Poem taken from the Spoken Word album ‘Mother Tongue’. Reproduced from

Titilope Sonuga released her first spoken word album Mother Tongue in 2013. Her second poetry collection Abscess was released in 2014 by Geko Publishing. Titilope is the winner of the 2013 EMCN RISE (Recognizing Immigrant Success in Edmonton) award for Art and Culture and the 2014 National Black Coalition of Canada Fil Fraser Award for outstanding work in literary performance and/or visual arts. Visit her at


The African Poetry Book Series invites submissions to the Sillerman First Book Prize from all emerging African writers who have not yet published a book-length collection of poetry. 

The winning manuscript receives publication with the University of Nebraska Press and Amalion Press in Senegal and a prize of USD $1000.

An “African writer” is taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, who is a national or resident of an African country, or whose parents are African. Past winners include Madman at Kilifi by Clifton Gachagua, The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony by Ladan Osman, and Fuchsia by Mahtem Shiferraw.

Poetry manuscripts should be at least 50 pages long. All entries will be read anonymously, and the winner will be chosen by the African Poetry Book Fund Editorial Board. There is no fee to submit, and no application forms are necessary. Writers may submit more than one manuscript. The Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets accepts electronic submissions ONLY.

Click here to submit via Submittable.

“Everyone talked about #Bringbackourgirls, but what about the girls who escaped, did anyone come to see them, to support them?”

Nelly Ating is a development coordinator, gender activist, journalist, and photographer working in Yola, Nigeria. We met with Nelly to talk about her work with internally displaced people in Northern Nigeria (survivors of violence, or people who fled their homes in anticipation of Boko Haram attacks), why she’s not a fan of the #BringBackOurGirls movement, as well as her personal writing, and her travels.

Nelly Ating

ABR: Please tell us about your work with internally displaced people (IDPs) and how that came about. 

ATING: I work with the American University of Nigeria, Yola as a writer. The university identifies itself as a development university and partners with local organizations to identify vulnerable youth in Yola who need support.  One of those local organizations is the Adamawa Peace Initiative–an NGO that aims to maintain peace and create new avenues for sustainable development in the state.

In March 2014, the group decided to aid IDPs who were camping at the Emir’s palace in Mubi. I was just an intern then, but I heard stories of victims of the insurgency, and I wanted to see firsthand. Luckily, I was assigned to cover that story.  It became a routine, I was always assigned to cover stories about IDPs, and also help distribute food to them. The University fed more than 270,000 internally displaced persons who lived in and out of that camp in 2014 alone.

ABR:  Where are some of the IDPs from and how is the program helping reintegrate them into society?

ATING: Some of the IDPs are from Borno, Yobe, Michika, Madagali, Hong and other neighboring local governments. Some fled from Cameroon as well. The Adamawa Peace Initiative established a farming system to reintegrate the IDPs community. The first group of IDPs who benefited from that project, are now members of Bole Community where the university is located.

ABR:  What are some misconceptions about IDPs both in terms of media portrayal and what other people understand about them? What are the things you’d like people to know instead?

ATING: The media portrays IDPs as illiterate and incapacitated. But it may shock you to know that among these IDPs we have teachers, head masters, local government IMG_0976workers, village heads and so on. These people are picking up their lives notwithstanding the violence they’ve survived, they are creating small businesses to keep them going. Others are farming, and some volunteered to continue their professions in the refugee camps.

When the media comes here, they walk past all the educated IDPs, the ones who have set up shops, have become teachers and farmers…they go to the townships and look hard to take pictures of flies buzzing around hungry-looking people.

The conflict is not a religious fight, we have both Christians and Muslims living together in peace. The media attention is what this insurgency group [Boko Haram] feeds on, they need this publicity to instill fear in people.

ABR: Tell us a little about the escaped Chibok girls. Where are they now, what progress are they making?

ATING: Pure Joy! That is how I felt when I saw two of the girls who were very broken when we picked them up last year; enrolled in our Fall academic session as freshmen. I couldn’t help but hug them and whisper congratulations. They are really doing fine. They have been able to blend in the AUN community and continue their education.

ABR: You’re not a fan of the #BringBackOurGirls movement, can you tell us a little about why?

ATING: Whether we like it or not, our generation is changing gradually, women are beginning to challenge the status quo. A feminist friend of mine once said, “Women changed social science.” We can unchange all those ideologies that the female child is not as important as the male child. Education is for all.

But please tell that #BringBackOurGirls campaign group; they might be acting with the knowledge they have, but I still feel they act out of their own selfish interest. I haven’t seen them come to Yola to visit the escaped girls schooling in AUN. If you believe in fighting for education, first of all support what others are doing.

“Everyone talked about the #Bringbackourgirlscampaign, but what about the girls who escaped, did anyone come to see them, to support them?”

ABR: You’re a writer, photographer and traveler.  Tell us about your relationship to those three professions, how do they help you understand the world?

ATING: I enjoy creative writing– I can be inspired from a picture of the cloud. As a traveler, I yearn to understand what other people think. African culture is really outstanding. There is more to see in the world and write about.

ABR: Who are your favorite African writers/artists who have influenced your work?
ATING: Chimamanda Adichie is a prolific writer who has influenced my work. Asa’s music is also an invigorating influence, it is truly African.

ABR: What has your role working with IDPs taught you?

ATING: That the only factor that holds us bound is our mind. If you choose to IMG_0228dwell on a situation or your condition it might kill you, but when you see your condition as just a momentary step down, you can excel. Those IDPs are the most resilient people I have ever met.


ABR:  How can people get involved in terms of giving or volunteering?

ATING: Visit The American University of Nigeria website to support our work.

ABR: What are some upcoming projects you’re working on in terms of travel, development work or creative work?

ATING: South America is my next destination and recently I have been trying to blend creative writing with journalistic writing. I will be hosting a workshop very soon on that. I am also working on a documentary about child beggars in Yola.

Silence Is a Steady Hand, Palm Flat

“What you hear is not my voice.

I have not spoken in three years: not since I left boot camp. It has been three years of senseless war, and, if the reasons for it are clear, and though we will continue to fight till we are ordered to stop—and probably for a while after that—none of us could remember the hate that lead us here. We are simply fighting to survive the war.

(…) We have developed a crude way of talking, a sort of language that we have become fluent in. For instance, silence is a steady hand palm flat, facing down. The word silencio, which we also like, involves the same sign, with the addition of wiggling fingers, and though this seems like a playful touch, is actually means a deeper silence, or danger, and as in any language, context is everything.”

My Luck, a fifteen year-old soldier, wakes up after an explosion and discovers his platoon has disappeared. He then decides to go back to the destroyed villages to find his comrades. On the way, My Luck relives his old memories, thinking about his dead parents, his friends, and Ijeoma—his girlfriend who also died in a guerilla attack.

As the journey unfolds, the reader discovers that My Luck cannot speak because his vocal cords have been cut; the boy and his comrades communicate in an invented sign language. My Luck’s language becomes both a means of communication between mute people, but also a poetic and metaphoric way of seeing and understanding the world: silence is “a steady hand”, night—a “palm pulled over the eyes”. Any feeling or notion can be expressed by tangible gestures.

Abani’s brilliant novel is concerned with language and with how people preserve their dignity by communication.

Humans are dependent on language, on expression, on representation, this seems to be his postulate. My Luck’s tone is simple, focusing on the beauty of words and the deep connections communication fosters between people. In spite of the nightmarish things he goes through, My Luck’s luck is his language—and Abani’s novel is proof that communication keeps us alive.

Song for the Night by Chris Abani

9781846590573| 2008| Telegram Books

Review by Ioana Danaila

Ioana Danaila was born in Romania. She graduated from University Lyon 2 Lumière with a Masters in Postcolonial Literature and a First degree in French for Non-Francophone people. She has published short stories and translated books from French to Romanian. She speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish and teaches English to high school students in France.