Under the Most Difficult Circumstances, Kindness Prevails

By Keisha Bush

When 6-year-old Ibrahimah is told by his older cousin Étienne that good Muslims get 72 virgins when they arrive in Paradise, the boy asks, “What’s a virgin?”

“A girl,” Étienne answers.

Ibrahimah thinks about this. He doesn’t want to live with 72 girls in Paradise; after all, he and Étienne barely have enough to feed themselves here on earth: “How is having to share food with 72 girls a reward for being good?”

“No Heaven for Good Boys,” Keisha Bush’s unflinching and poignant debut novel, explores the meager rewards and harsh trials of these young talibé in Senegal. (As Bush explains in an author’s note, talibé are boys who study the Quran at residential schools with teachers known as marabouts.) In Dakar, where the novel is set, Ibrahimah and Étienne are dispatched by their marabout to beg for money, food, rice or sugar. If they don’t make their increasingly higher quotas, they are beaten and abused.

Bush writes that she based her novel on observations made during the four years she lived and worked in Dakar; that authenticity rings through the book. We look through Bush’s eyes: “No one can mistake the sight of a talibé: the economy-sized red tin tomato can, bare callused feet, shaved heads patched with eczema, skinny bodies and faces of children without love.” These children are deprived of sufficient food and medical care, left to sleep on “ratty pieces of cardboard” while they listen to Marabout Ahmed abuse Étienne, whose “howls of pain diminish to grunts, then a low whimper.”

[ Read an excerpt from “No Heaven for Good Boys.” ]

However, Bush manages to spin a tale threaded with kindness, love and even magic while showing us the hardships Ibrahimah endures. The book opens with a visit from a red bird that reappears throughout this coming-of-age story. Ibrahimah asks the bird if it is his fairy godmother; it shakes its head no, but still comes to him and Étienne in times of danger. The boys take a rare trip to the zoo and an attendant lets them in free, with a wink. A street vendor gives them meat patties. A wealthy boy’s mother feeds them and bathes Ibrahimah’s wounds after a severe caning.

These small but significant acts of human decency and kindness made me love this book. As someone who lived in an unheated apartment and worked in a factory as a child in New York City, I often find narratives that revel in the more sensationalistic aspects of poverty to be inauthentic and exploitative. Yes, there are innumerable hardships, humiliations and suffering, and we as authors must not flinch from them. But there are also moments of joy and love, strangers who astonish with unexpected generosity; there are fellow sufferers who share what little they own. Bush walks that line — portraying the bad without aggrandizement and illuminating the good without sentimentality.

The narrative takes us back and forth through time and place to reveal Ibrahimah’s parents’ fight to keep him in their rural village and their reluctance to give him to Marabout Ahmed. In the end, they are forced to concede because “only Allah has the power to ignore familial and societal obligations.” Even then, Ibrahimah is supposed to be returned to them after a year, but Marabout Ahmed refuses to let him go. We catch glimpses of his mother’s own heart-wrenching past and experience her grief over the loss of her only son.

We follow Ibrahimah with our hearts as he dodges rival packs of talibé, escapes black-market organ traders and other criminals, and survives the cruelty of his marabout while student protests mount in the streets. Even after Ibrahimah and Étienne come close to dying at the hands of a would-be kidnapper, they are beholden to Marabout Ahmed’s daily quotas: “They have a lot of work to do to make up for the lost day of income yesterday.” In elegant, understated prose, Bush highlights the poignancy of Ibrahimah’s loss of innocence. He realizes that, more than money, what he needs is time: “Time to find food to fill his belly. Time to work. Time to find his way back home. Time to be a boy.”

As readers encountering this narrative of extreme poverty and suffering, we are confronted by our own limitations. How can we be good people while living in a world where innocents must endure like this? But we can’t save everyone. We can’t fix such large-scale problems (although Bush does provide a list of organizations in her author’s note). This is why one cat abandoned during a blizzard will receive hundreds of offers of help on Facebook while long-term, immense issues like famine or war are ignored by many. We feel helpless when faced with the enormity of human suffering.

Perhaps a part of a solution lies within the dappled darkness of this novel. Perhaps we need to learn to be bits of light, to provide tender acts of kindness within a devastating narrative.

After Ibrahimah almost dies, he says: “In the dark you can’t see what is there, or what is coming, but if you run away then you will never know. You will never see the light. When you stop being afraid, you will find the path to heaven.”

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