Around a year ago, I began researching a long piece about a small, surprising community of Jews in Nigeria. Surprising, that is, because the country is overwhelmingly Muslim and Christian, and Judaism has no conspicuous history or heritage in the country. Why did these newly fastidious Jews decide to become Jewish? And how did they even learn to practise a religion without rabbis and synagogues? The piece was published last month, laying out the fascinating answers to these questions—involving a strange colonial legacy, the Biafran civil war, the Internet, and a theory of antique Jewish origins.
In mid-summer, 2021, just as I was figuring out when I might visit Nigeria, the government arrested three Israeli filmmakers who had gone to the country to shoot a short film on the very same subject. The filmmakers were held for nearly three weeks before being deported. Naturally, my editor and I were both frazzled. This happens in journalism, of course, and the way forward is usually to conduct a lengthy security review of the kind the Guardian carried out. Months later, when I finally made it out to Nigeria, I kept my head down. A local journalist travelled with me around southern Nigeria, and he was very strict and sensible, not just with me but with the people we spent time with. The Nigerian authorities, he thought, had caught on to the Israelis’ visit through social media. “No photos on Instagram,” he warned us. “No posts on Twitter or Facebook.”
When I’m out reporting, my diaries usually fill up with notes about small things. Most of it is stuff I never end up using, but in the moment, they all seem like perfect throwaway details for the eventual piece: anecdotes, personality quirks, or observations that are just right. Detail of this kind, at least to me, makes a piece feel properly inhabited, by real people doing real things. Here are four such stray notes from my notebooks, all outtakes from the final piece:
In Akwa Ibom, I visited a yeshiva, a school that taught English and mathematics but also Hebrew and Jewish studies. Emmanuel Ukpong, the man who started the school, and who’d also built a synagogue nearby, took me through the classrooms proudly, introducing me to the teachers. In one classroom, on the board, I noticed a list of “Words starting with ‘co’”—and the very first word, ranking above simpler ones like “comrade” and “cotton,” was “covenant.” As in: “covenant,” the solemn bond between God and Abraham. This seriousness of Jewish purpose absolutely delighted me, for reasons I still cannot explain.
After I met Hagadol, the imperious old leader of a synagogue in Owerri, two friends and I were silently driving out of town. One of them, the Hebrew teacher Eben Cohen, had known Hagadol for years. “When he was a young man,” Cohen said, in his precise way “he was the kind of guy who, if you told him there’s no road there, he’d say: ‘Then that’s where I will go.’” Then Cohen said: “You saw that cane of his, leaning against the desk? That cane has a sword in it.”
A Nigerian Jewish TikTok of the parable of Abraham and Isaac—enlivened, here, by the fact that the young boy on the block is really named Isaac:
Again in Akwa Ibom, Emmanuel and I were driving around the region when he decided to take me to a lot where he raised animals for sale. Chickens mostly, he said, and he had learned how to kill these birds in a kosher way. But when we entered the compound, I saw, next to the chicken pens, a few pig sties. This puzzled me. Were Jews permitted by their faith to farm and sell pigs? Israel seemed to have just one Jewish-run pig farm, as of 2008. The Talmud seems to say that it is “not right to breed pigs in any place whatever.” Emmanuel, though, had no compunctions. This was a livelihood. It paid for his synagogue and his yeshiva. That was a higher cause.
The whole piece is here.
I spent the last four months of 2021 feverishly reading biography after biography, as part of jury service for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. My four fellow jurors and I must have put away, between us, close to 200 books in that time. The winner was announced earlier this week: Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South. It is a vivid and powerful book, interspersed with reproductions of the author Winfred Rembert’s leather-canvas paintings. Why leather? He was arrested during a civil rights march, and imprisoned without being charged; in prison, he learned how to work leather, and since shoe dye was the only medium of colour available to him, he painted with that.
The process by which a jury reaches consensus is strange and interesting, and inevitably, I think, jurors stumble upon other books that they hold as close to their hearts as the eventual winner. For me, that book was Justin Beal’s Sandfuture, a really remarkable meditation on architecture, climate, and society, all mediated through the life of Minoru Yamasaki, who designed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. What role does architecture play in culture? How, as human beings, do we relate to the spaces we enter? And what can we say about Yamasaki, this Seattle-born man who narrowly avoided being interned along with other Japanese-Americans during World War Two.
Not one but two of Yamasaki’s buildings were destroyed on live television: the WTC but also the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis. Pruitt-Igoe was meant to be a modern symbol of urban renewal, but it became so prone to vandalism and crime that it had to be razed. Yamasaki’s architecture was initially blamed, but as we’ve come to realise, a building functions only as well as the surrounding society will allow it to function. Sandfuture isn’t a biography through and through, but it’s a marvel of thinking and writing, blending so many genres and disciplines smoothly into one another, showing the composite nature of the real world. I urge you to read both Chasing Me to My Grave and Sandfuture, if you can find them.