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The book by Cheikh Hamidou Kane called “Ambiguous Adventure” tells the reader about the cultural dialogue that pushes the main hero to question the significance of cultural identity. It reveals how a person may consider abandoning their faith and roots when faced with a new environment. The first edition of the book published in 1972 is being analyzed. The purpose of this paper is to review the book by Cheikh Hamidou Kane critically and discuss how the author revealed an interaction between Western and African cultures through the main character.
The main hero in the book is a boy named Samba Diallo, who is preparing to become a spiritual leader. In particular, he has to learn everything his teacher Thierno knows to be able to replace him one day. The main character studies Koran intensively because his teacher is very demanding, which often leads Samba to exhaustion; however, he is unwilling to give up (Kane 71). In the region where the boy lives (Diallobe), people have to overcome poverty and other limitations, which are an inevitable consequence of French colonialism.
The French culture and its traditions are being imposed on the Senegalese population through schools. Many people, including Samba’s spiritual teacher, do not approve of that; however, the boy’s aunt, the Most Royal Lady of Diallobe, insists he goes to school. She says the foreign school “is the new form of war which those who have come here are waging, and we must send our elite there, expecting that all the country will follow them” (Kane 37).
She continues: “If there is a risk, they are best prepared to cope successfully with it, because they are most firmly attached to what they are” (Kane 37). She is confident that this experience will be beneficial for Samba and the people of Diallobe since the boy will be able to pass his knowledge to others along with teaching them the European ways. For that reason, Samba finishes his spiritual training and enters the school, and this is the point where the main conflict in the book starts to manifest itself.
Samba believes that his people will benefit from the cultural dialogue. When he is done with his studies at school, he decides to continue his academic path abroad. The knight (Samba’s father) is against this decision because he thinks that it might lead to his son forgetting about his roots. Nevertheless, Samba has the support of Father Lacroix because he is sure that the boy needs to find his way (Kane 80).
The tension becomes even more pronounced when Samba finds himself in Paris because there he starts to conceive that he is abandoning his faith. Along with studying philosophy, he also learns the aspects of atheism and that of European capitalism. He says: “I have become the two”, which means that now he is both – Diallobe’s heritor and a person accepting capitalist views (Kane 150). Samba’s father asks him to come back until it is too late, and Samba agrees to that because he is fearful he will abandon him faithfully (Kane 162). When he returns back home, he understands that he does not belong with his people anymore.
At home, Samba finds out that his spiritual teacher died, so he intends to visit his grave. The young man feels disillusioned and deceived to some extent. He wants to prey but cannot do that because of a haunting inner feeling of ambiguity. At that time, the fool is also at the leader’s grave; he interprets Samba’s reluctance to prey as betrayal and a gesture of disrespect, so he stabs the main hero (Kane 168). Samba dies and gets to an afterworld where there is no hypocrisy, and no one needs to choose between faith and ideals.
It is worthy of mentioning that the novel brings the intellectual dilemma faced by African Muslim people to the forefront. The historical context has put them in a position where they need to adopt secular cultural norms imposed on them by the French colonizers (Kane 69).
The book brings this discussion to a new level so that it shows the different sides of the dilemma through the character of Samba. In particular, through the Islamic tradition, the main character was able to acquire esoteric knowledge. However, when the new European educational system was introduced, and Samba was exposed to it, his valuable esoteric knowledge through which he identified himself with his people was suppressed and then removed.
First, Samba turns out to be successful in his studies due to his cognitive abilities and analytical skills. He does his best to comprehend western culture with its practice and traditions (Kane 79). Gradually, he not only understands but also assimilates with the foreign culture and assumes that he will be able to practice his native culture while accepting the domains of the foreign one. However, the main hero was taken away from the setting in which he could experience knowledge to a place where this knowledge was discussed in theoretical terms. The tragedy of this situation lies in the fact that real knowledge was replaced by rootless intellectualism.
It is important that despite the fact that many Africans adopted the Muslim faith, they remained Africans in their worldview, which was reflected in all aspects of their life and culture. As Shryock put it, Muslims are often “seen negatively, as threatening figures who want to dominate the West” (18). Islam did not destroy pre-existing cultures, nor did it eliminate the identity of the Africans and their esoteric experience.
The community began to interpret Muslim dogma and ritualism in accordance with its own African conditions. Nevertheless, the sphere of influence of the Muslim religion was broad and became an element of civil society, which is clearly seen throughout the first part of the book. Diallobe reconciled Western individualism and solidarity of African and Muslim societies, which was an unparalleled circumstance.
When analyzing the representation of Muslims in the book, it is necessary to discuss the Most Royal Lady separately. She is coming from a hierarchic environment built on structural feudalism. This implies that the society in which she was living was rigid and characterized by pronounced inequality (Jacobs 33). It may be assumed that the author has developed his heroine intentionally to show the traditional Islamic environment in which people had to comply with specific roles. Curiously, Samba’s older cousin repeatedly takes benefit of her position in society to confront the patriarchal order intrinsic in her culture. She was the one to encourage other women to take on more active roles in the life of society. During a public gathering, she made sure they would be as many women present as there were men.
The Most Royal Lady was brought up in an environment in which traditional values were sacred. Nevertheless, she remained open-minded and empowered women to be more active and participate in the life of society. Such changes occur over time and, before they could happen, she ensured women could be, at least, physically present during important events together with men. Notably, she still stressed that “the woman should remain at home” (Kane 45). By saying this, she pushed the reader to think that she was empowering women against her will. Therefore, the notion of ambiguity is present in different storylines.
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One might argue that the author’s message is simplistic since the writer focuses on the topic of faith, and it is a leitmotif that can be observed on all levels of the narration. When analyzing the events, it may be concluded that Samba believed he was very close to cognizing the world of total communion, but the colonizers intervened and ruined the magic. This sounds like an excuse for not reaching the esoteric fulfillment. The moment of enlightenment happens at the end of the novel when the main hero dies – he is liberated from the agnostic culture that was preventing him from reaching his spiritual goals (Kane 174). Nonetheless, at close reading, the reader might notice that the core of the book is multi-layered.
The novel may be regarded as a meditation on the psychology of colonialism. The main hero is interrupted when he was about to reach a rational understanding of an irrational phenomenon. When he goes to study in Paris, he thinks he will be joining the world of total communion, but in fact, he is left with deep internal conflict and the feeling of disappointment (Kane 148). He loses not only his spiritual core but also his connection to his home and roots. When Samba comes back home, he realizes that he despises those who have colonized his mind because his worldview has been corrupted, and it cannot be reversed.
Thus, it can be concluded that the book by Cheikh Hamidou Kane has high historical and literary value due to a number of reasons. Its primary focus is on religion; however, the novel also raises other significant topics such as patriarchal order, inequality, colonization, and so on. The author reveals to the reader how African and Western cultures interact with each other and what are the effects of this dialogue.
The main hero is a boy trained to become a spiritual leader who is eager to reach certain heights. He goes to Europe to continue his education, and during that process, he loses contact with the Islamic faith. His cultural beliefs are undermined by his agnostic interpretation of the world. Importantly, the author provides an in-depth description of how the main hero gradually abandons his ideals and loses himself in the ambiguity surrounding him.
The author of this paper has attempted to detect and explicate the conflict between agnostic culture and faith observed in the novel. Moreover, it is possible to assume that this conflict is applicable to a much wider context and is relevant not only for the community discussed in the book but to any nationality or culture. Cheikh Hamidou Kane pushes his reader to understand how significant it is to be able to choose one’s individual beliefs and not to abandon those in an ambiguous environment.
Jacobs, Merle A. “Social Inclusion = Social Determinants of Health: Where is Race and Racism?” Race In-Equity: Intersectionality, Social Determinants of Health & Human Rights, edited by Awalou Ouedraogo and Merle A. Jacobs, APF Press, 2017, pp. 32-61.
Kane, Cheikh Hamidou. Ambiguous Adventure. Translated by Katherine Woods, Heinemann, 1972.
Shryock, Andrew. “Islam As an Object of Fear and Affection.” Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and Friend, edited by Andrew Shryock, Indiana University Press, 2010, pp. 1-25.