The Silence of the Choir by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr

An evocation of the universal immigrant crisis is a lesson to the world: we are all guilty of the crimes that motivate refugees and of the impulse to shelter and redeem them. Powerful and revelatory.

The Silence of the Choir by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, translated by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions
Paperback | $18
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This is a book that will challenge the American reader to admit that what is shown here is what we, as a nation, are doing in this minute. It deals with African immigrants to Sicily and Europe in general, but our attitudes toward the same issue are identical. While there are many who welcome refugees and asylum seekers from other less fortunate and often dangerous places, many among us fear and hate them and will do nearly anything to stem the tide or even reverse it, sending vulnerable people back into deadly situations and untenable economies. The author, who is a winner of multiple literary awards was born in Senegal, educated in France and has an international audience who recognize his genius.


Seventy-two men from various countries in Africa land on the shores of Sicily and are taken in by a local aid organization and housed while awaiting asylum interviews. The story is told in multiple voices, one of whom is a previous migrant who has established himself as an interpreter and advocate for the refugees. His story is a poignant telling of abuse, escape, suffering and ultimately of acceptance, if tenuous. It is emblematic of the stories of these men who have been cheated, tortured, exiled, beaten mentally and physically and betrayed by smugglers whose interest in them is purely financial. They have been lucky to arrive alive and whole although severely damaged in body and mind. The thrust of the story is a persistent and escalating misunderstanding of their motives and needs by both the Sicilian people and even of themselves. Ultimately, everyone is at fault to one degree or another. No one is innocent.


Replete with heart and empathy, the narrative clearly outlines the difficulties endured by both sides of this difference in status and justification for existence. It is painful to read the heartbreak, frustration and fear felt by both parties, for varying reasons but instructive and revelatory. It is an important work, socially, politically and spiritually. The evocation of human suffering and fear, of hatred and rejection paired with empathy and tolerance is poignant and powerful.