The Brotherhood, by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr (Europa Editions) is, on the surface, the story of one town taken over by an oppressive religious military force. However, its more than just your standard story of oppression and zealotry as Sarr depicts more than brutal violence of life under this type of regime.
The small town of Kalep has been taken over by a fundamentalist Islamic group called The Brotherhood. They have imposed their twisted version of Islam upon the town’s population through the use of military force. Fear stalks the streets of the town as these armed thugs patrol day and night imposing their brutal will on the town’s population.
Public executions are now the norm and one of the threads that ties the book together is the correspondence between the mothers of a young man and woman who were put to death for having a relationship before they were married. The letters are heartbreaking and brings the horror of life under The Brotherhood home on a deeply personal level.
From the descriptions of life in Kalep that Sarr has provided us we see a population cowed and seemingly broken. Some might want to resist and try to protest against what is going on, but they feel isolated. Who can you trust? When you see your neighbours participate in publicly stoning their fellow villagers to death how can you hope they will support resistance against The Brotherhood?
Still, a group of disparate individuals have decided to make the effort. While not openly defying their oppressors they meet secretly and try to device a means of resistance. They decide to put out a broadsheet journal decrying the terrors inflicted upon everybody by The Brotherhood.
While this does have the desired effect of articulating what a great deal of the population is feeling it also brings about rounds of reprisals and increased oppression as The Brotherhood seek to find those responsible for creating the journal and prevent its dissemination.
All of which makes the authors of the journal begin to question the validity of their actions. Has their act of resistance made things worse for the people of the town? Do they have the right to keep doing this and risk increasing people’s suffering? Yet, if they do nothing aren’t they complicit in the ongoing oppression?
This is the underlying tension that runs through the whole novel. How easy it is for a small force to coerce and bribe a population into living under set of rules completely alien to what they believe is right. Lies, force and religion are a deadly combination in any society.
On the surface The Brotherhood is about a fictional town in the Sudan, but it could be anywhere in the world. Sarr shows us how easy it is for a small group of dedicated people willing to go to any lengths to impose their way of life on the majority. Sarr has chosen to set his story in the Sudan as that’s the country he knows best. However this story could take place in any city, in any country, anywhere in the world. Even in your town.