Quick, identify this scene: At dusk, believers flock to a shrine, following the pounding of drums. They come to hear the rhythmic chanting of a living saint. A leafy stimulant is passed around, and the men and women chew it until they reach a transcendent state, rocking and dancing and chanting along with their leader until, exhausted, they collapse at dawn.

Is it a Native American ritual? An ancient Christian cult? A Grateful Dead concert? No, it’s Islam — as practiced several decades ago in Harar, Ethiopia, where hundreds of shrines dot the ancient walled city and men and women chew qat leaves for relaxation and religious inspiration.

This description of Thursday night ritual worship comes from Sweetness in the Belly, a novel, released earlier this year in paperback, by anthropologist Camilla Gibb. The novel follows the story of Lilly Abdal, an orphaned British girl raised as a Sufi Muslim in North Africa, as she creates a life for herself in traditional Harar, only to ripped from the city during the 1974 overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime.

While the novel delicately traces the haunted emotion of refugee life — Lilly cocoons herself with fellow Ethiopian exiles in London — it also tells a religious story. Lilly starts out as a thoroughly traditional North African Muslim girl: She memorizes Qur’an with the Sufi master who has adopted her and obediently accepts the insular, male-dominated world around her.

As a teen-ager, she lives with a poor family in Harar, teaching the children to memorize the Qur’an while performing the everyday tasks of poverty and tradition: hauling water, grinding grain, visiting neighbors and honoring the saints. Her world expands when she falls for a doctor at the nearby hospital and is led toward the sins of hand-holding, kissing and more. Just as she is struggling to reconcile her haraam longings with her narrow religious devotion, she suddenly finds herself uprooted and dropped, a stranger, into London.

Lilly works to keep the religion and ritual she knows: burning incense to lift prayers to the saints, caring for fellow Ethiopians and immigrants who need help. But the religion she finds at the mosques in Britain is strange to her:

This is what happens in the West. Muslims from Pakistan pray alongside Muslims from Nigeria and Ethiopia and Malaysia and Iran, and because the only thing they share in common is the holy book, that becomes the sole basis of the new community; not culture, not tradition, not place. The book is the only thing that offers consensus, so traditions are discarded as if they are filthy third-world clothes. “We were ignorant before,” people say, as if it is only in the West that they have learned the true way of Islam.

Lilly refuses to accept the strict, Wahhabi-inspired preaching she hears at the London mosques, where the Sufism she practices is derided as superstition and wrongful religious innovation. Instead she moves toward a quasi-secular spirituality, still attached deeply to her tradition, yet allowing herself to love and maybe marry a Hindu man — something forbidden by the religious law she once embraced unquestioningly. For Lilly, religion is embedded in the smells and dust and laughter of a particular place and time. Unlike fellow Muslims in Britain, she is unwilling to simply extract the theological commonalities and distinguish between “true Islam” and “mere culture.”

In this sense, Lilly rejects the globalized, homogenized Islam she sees in the West. She belongs to a religion of the particular, of the past, and when those traditions can’t fit into her new, Western life, she lays them lovingly to the side.

Although Lilly’s voice exists loudly in this novel, it is but a small peep in the religious marketplace of Islam today. Wahhabi or not, many if not most Western Muslims adhere to the idea that cultural practices must be stripped from the religion to reveal a pure, true core — the essence of faith. The weakness of this approach has been well-argued by Dr. Umar Farooq Abd-Allah, a long-time American convert to Islam (see his article, “Islam and Cultural Imperative.”) This voice, however, remains a minority, and the remnants of an Islam rooted in place and time may be found, in the West at least, only among the older generation, who sit quietly in the corner, whispering to the saints.

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Visiting a slum in Nairobi is like walking through a haunted house: a horror around every corner. You have to step carefully to avoid slipping into the open sewers. You see and hear and smell that people are living in situations very close to hell on earth. It’s hard to fight the overwhelming urge to get in a car, lock the doors and drive fast in the other direction.

In her sensitive first novel, Mercy, out next month from Other Press, author Lara Santoro describes, through her protagonist, Anna, what it’s like to spend the night in Korogocho, one of Nairobi’s many slums:

I tried to sleep but the sound of coughing kept me up all night: coughing from a million directions, all of it so close, so intrusively maddeningly close. More than once I had to resist the urge to stand up and scream at everyone to shut up. … All of the walking around earlier in the day-the bile, the blood, the corpse-strewn pathways, the rigid muteness of people consumed by the virus-all of it failed to give me the true measure of Korogocho’s madness. Beyond the hunger, the filth, the violence, beyond the trauma of constant loss was the insanity of overcrowding.

Anna, a foreign correspondent for an American newspaper is visiting this slum to report on the ravages of the AIDS virus. The very next night, she finds herself at a fancy cocktail party across town in the company of her lover, Nick: “The perfect alignment of his teeth, the frivolity of his white linen shirt were obvious antidotes to Korogocho’s pain.” Strung between these two worlds, seeking refuge in alcohol, Anna ends the night shouting at a stranger, slapping her lover and stamping off into the darkness by herself. The raw chasm between have and have-not brings her down into her own darkness.

Anna is a wild character. She drinks too much, cheats on her boyfriend, lies to her boss, going so far as to fabricate a coup attempt in Nigeria to escape another moment in Nairobi with her cuckolded boyfriend. Anna is a fallen creature, seemingly unable to get her life together, and yet driven forward by a full-bodied desire to make moral sense of the world. She risks her life interviewing a war criminal so she can plumb the depths of his empty eyes; she makes late-night calls to an Italian priest who works in the slums, seeking absolution.

What Santoro so ably captures in her novel is the despairing wildness that results from witnessing human horrors first hand and being unable to avert them. Anna recalls covering a famine in South Sudan: She and her photographer are watching a starving Sudanese boy crawl across the desert landscape on his hands and knees, looking futilely for sustenance.

The boy is inching forward in the dust and this time I can’t help myself. I kneel in front of him and put a small carton of juice to his lips. Gerard, my photographer on this trip, catches me just in time. “Are you crazy?” he yells, galloping toward me. “Give him all that sugar and he will die!” I stand back, horrified. The boy lets out an animal wail, his eyes filled with tears.

But of course the foreign correspondent does have the tools to alleviate this suffering, right? By writing an article, taking a photo, filming a scene, correspondents can stir the rest of the world to action. But correspondents in Africa face a special problem: the Western public has only so much attention for the tragedies they cover.

Anna’s boyfriend, Michael (based on Santoro’s real-life boyfriend, Associated Press producer Myles Tierney, who was killed on the job in Sierra Leone in 1999,) recalls bitterly watching a small boy clinging to his dead mother’s body in an unnamed African conflict. When Michael tries to pick up the boy, the boy begins scream, and an aid worker comes over to yell at Michael:

Now everyone’s yelling and the kid’s crying and I’m so fucking angry I’m stiff, you know, I’m out of control….You know why? Because London’s telling me to pack up and get out: none of the networks are picking up our shit anymore. It’s Africa. No one cares. No one gives a shit. I tell Angela: ‘Wait a minute: there’s no peace agreement, there’s practically constant gunfire.’ And you know what she says? She says: ‘We’re short of people for the German elections.’

But what if you could help one person, just like the boy in that hackneyed inspirational story about throwing starfish into the sea? Anna’s chance comes in the form of her housemaid, Mercy, an intimidating woman from the slums, a mother and former prostitute, who gives some stability to Anna’s chaotic, gin-drenched life. When Anna discovers that Mercy has AIDS, she fights to get her life-saving antiretroviral treatments, which she would otherwise not be able to afford.

But even being a life-saver is not so simple. After yelling at Mercy one afternoon, Anna meditates on the fact that she literally has life-or-death power over Mercy — able to deliver the treatments or withhold them — and that even this well-intentioned power can corrupt.

Anna sees the stark outlines of her power as a “rich” foreigner when she is bullying a local doctor into okaying Mercy’s antiretroviral course before it’s too late. The overburdened doctor, working long hours at night to process test results for other HIV and AIDS patients, shouts at her:

Tell me: Is she the only one? In this country we are losing seven hundred people a day to this disease! Seven hundred people a day! Now because this woman is your friend, because she is the friend of an mzungu [white person] I must hurry! And the others? Standing in line quietly? Must I carry them to their graves?

Anna finds some moral clarity only when Mercy herself, arising from her deathbed by the grace of antiretrovirals, begins to fight the injustice around her. She starts a movement, leading hundreds of thousands of Kenyans to demand affordable AIDS treatment. Mercy represents what every outsider feels is the only true solution to some of Africa’s worst problems: having Africans themselves stand up and demand something better.

What is disappointing for the reader, however, is that we are left wondering about Anna’s own inner demons and inner divinity. She becomes subsumed in Mercy’s noble struggle, but is that enough? What happens when Mercy is gone?

Ultimately we want to know from Anna how to live on this planet, where slums rub up against cocktail parties, where the death of a boy’s mother is not headline news, where broken souls hurt one another in spite of their love.

Although the book ends movingly with a quotation from Corinthians, it is perhaps best summarized by words spoken by Anna’s friend Kez, a fellow journalist, coke addict, and devout Muslim: “Allah is great. You’re not. End of story.”

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