Debut collection spins tales of African Muslims

August 07, 2005|By Judith Redding | Judith Redding,SPECIAL TO THE SUN


The Prophet of Zongo Street

By Mohammed Naseehu Ali. Amisted/Harper Collins. 212 pages.

At a time when al-Qaida attacks have increased fear of all Muslims, Mohammed Naseehu Ali's book of ten short stories, The Prophet of Zongo Street, offers a look at ordinary African Muslims. Ali alternates his tales of life on poverty-stricken Zongo Street in Kimasi, the largest city in Ghana, with stories about Ghanaian immigrants living in New York City. Although the denizens of Zongo Street are captivating, if elusive, it is the pieces about the Ghanaians living in the United States that provide real emotional resonance.

The stories set on Zongo Street evoke traditional folklore, such as "The Story of Night and Day," about the creation of the earth's diurnal rhythm, or "Man Pass Man," a Faustian yarn featuring Zongo Street's resident con man. Unfortunately, they tend to stop abruptly, just when the narrative starts to get interesting. Only the title story, a parable about a post office clerk whose intense reading drives him insane, and "Mallam Sile," the story of how an unassuming tea vendor gains respect on Zongo Street, offer the satisfaction of tale told completely.

Ali is on stronger ground when he writes about Ghanaian immigrants in the United States. In "Live-in," the young widow Shatu comes to the United States to work as a live-in maid so that she can send money home to her mother and children on Zongo Street, but life in America brings Shatu realizations about her home in Ghana. "The True Aryan," one of the best stories in the collection, offers up the conversation between a Ghanaian musician and an Armenian taxi driver as they travel to Brooklyn, a dialogue in which the musician is surprised to find common ground with the cabbie.

In "Faith," the book's most creative story, a Ghanaian in Brooklyn awakes one morning to discover it is judgment day. Suf-yan reviews his life and steels himself to be sent to hell for being a bad Muslim: for eating pork, for cohabiting with a woman not his wife, for doubting the existence of Allah. Ali's conception of the tribunal of the dead is truly inventive in the mode of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, with the Empire State Building serving as the court where souls are judged, and the angels of the Lord wielding Palm Pilots. The message behind the story starts subtly, and then roller-coasters to a slam-dunk ending.

Ali's maiden voyage between hard covers is a somewhat choppy one. The Ghana-born writer, who now lives in Brooklyn, has been likened to the well-known Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, but it is an unequal and unfair comparison: this is Ali's first book, written for an American audience; Achebe's oeuvre is written for his fellow Nigerians first, and western readers second. More than anything, the stories in The Prophet of Zongo Street need an editor who will help Ali expand and reshape them.

Judith Redding is an award-winning experimental filmmaker and the co-author of Film Fatales: Independent Women Directors. She lives in Philadelphia.

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