Friday, September 28, 2012

Book Excerpt: City of Memories

A week after his fiancée left, Faruk’s car treaded a steady seventy on Nigeria’s northeast highway, easing up only when he paused to change gears. The sun bore down on the white Toyota so relentlessly that every few minutes he cursed his not having fixed the air conditioner. He sweated profusely, even with both windows wound down—the underarm and chest of his crème cotton shirt was streaked with brown patches. It was just about 11 a.m. and he already felt lost in the featureless vegetation, fleeing as he was.

He drove past towns no larger than some suburbs of his native city and often, mirage oasis shimmered at the far end of his vision. Long stretches of road were poorly maintained, so every now and then the highway broke up into vague stretches that threw up geysers of dust the minute the tyres touched them. On both sides of the road, dry savannah bore the intense heat without bursting into flames. Yet, there were nomads all along the way in all the heat, herding more cattle than he had ever seen. 

When he drove past herdsmen, Faruk responded to their calls by tooting his horn and raising a fist through the window. All he and the herdsmen had for company were numberless cattle egrets, who were more interested in the cattle anyway. The mostly white cows, equally uncommunicative, wandered about minding their own business—eating grass and occasionally letting drop large blobs of dung. The muscles of his neck strained and twitched as he battled his thoughts, which always returned to Rahila and the flurry of his departure from Jos City.

“See, Faruk, be na son ka kuma. We have to call it off. It cannot work anymore, please.”
“Ba ki so na? What the hell does that mean? Face the issue and say what it is.  Is it you don’t love me anymore or that you are leaving me—which is it, Rahila Pam?”
Sudden anger sparked in her eyes as she yanked her arm from his grip, shocking him with her force.
“It doesn’t matter. Let me go!”
“It does matter, and you know it. Both things are not the same!”
But he had known. Her family. A foreign influence. Like witchcraft.

Her words kept running loops in his mind, broken only by Miles Davis’ 1959 ‘Kind of Blue’ album playing from the speakers. But when the music no longer soothed him, he slipped into his awareness of the heat and thoughts of Rahila—and the love she threw back at him as if it were ash.

He glanced at the rear-view in time to remember that on that particular stretch of road he was alone and had been for quite a while—an hour since he’d passed a lorry laden with assorted farm produce and rustic farmers hanging on to the tailboards of the old Bedford, laughing and singing. They had saluted him noisily, making faces and raising their fists. He had tooted his horn. He smiled at the memory, caught himself looking at the mirror yet again, sighed, and resumed whistling to the modal jazz. Rahila made him think of his mother Ummi al-Qassim, and her madness. She made him think of many other things. Faruk smashed his fist half-heartedly into the steering wheel, tilting his head back like a ram to be slaughtered, his eyes leaving the road momentarily. Rahila—he hated her now, for leaving him, and for leaving him confused.

But his thoughts of her led him to thoughts of her mother, Eunice Pam, who even at that moment was seeking to have him killed. Eunice’s meddling had already seen to the return of his engagement ring and the end of his affair with her daughter. By the time he visited Hussena Bukar, his mother’s closest friend until she died, he was anger-filled enough to burst.

The highway started up a sudden rise so he downshifted his gears, his mind running over the events of the last days, along with the wheels of his car as the Toyota laboured up the steep incline.

The first thing she said on his entering the house was;
"My God, what is the problem? Your face is as long as the Ka’aba’s door!"
And he did look drawn, sullen eyes beneath finely arched brows, thin lips; a lithe young man, he had an ovoid face, pleasant to see. Smooth dark complexioned skin. But only the mole just below his left eye remained untroubled. Hussena Bukar had been at the far side of her porch filled with potted plants, mulching compost with gloved hands unto the roots of a rose bush. She led him to a sofa and shouted for the maid. An old woman, soon sixty; grey hair peeked in neat cornrows from under her Dubaijin headscarf. Her skin was as pale as his mother’s had been.
“Ga abinchi, it’s just a snack, eat up. . .”

Hussena Bukar always adopted the spirit of a young girl with him. Smiling like a coquette, she listened to him. But it seemed to Faruk that a film appeared over her eyes while he spoke of Rahila, as if his words reminded her of something else. He did not know he was shovelling dirt off an event buried for three decades. Déjà vu coursed through Hussena Bukar’s mind as Faruk sat on her porch, telling her about his danger fraught love for Rahila Pam. She had heard these words before—from his mother.

Thoughts like a swirl around a whirlpool spun through Hussena Bukar’s mind.
She shook her head, placing her still supple thin-fingered palms behind her neck. Her thoughts flit to the face of General Hassan Abba, her friend. Hassan Abba had helped her make the most of it—when the twin eclipses of the love mad Arab and the fanatic Usman Waziri had come to destroy her friend. Bolewa! Now, the bloody Bolewa past demanded sacrifice. It wanted Faruk!
Hussena Bukar realized she could not just tell Faruk what had happened at Bolewa. She thought:
‘He needs to travel; he must discover what happened himself.’

Faruk looked up at her. She smiled—then took in a deep breath.
"Faruk, my love, this is indeed very complicated.”
“Yes, yaya.”
“And there is so much you do not know of what has happened before. Just as there is plenty I don’t know of what is happening now with this Rahila and her mother,” she said, slowly ticking off her fingers, shaking her head. ”Faruk, everything that happens has a background. In knowing the background of what is going on, lies clarity and strength.”
"I don’t understand."
"I know, my love, I know you don’t. But what is happening to you now has happened before. I’m thinking what I can do, so that the result won’t be the same as last time. I think we will pull this thing apart and then try to put all the pieces together again, hopefully better,” she said, turning out her palms to heaven. “But you can’t remain here. It will start with you leaving . . . then you will come back knowing. That is how to understand the past, my son. Come, my love, I have some of your mother’s things, her diaries, I think it’s time you had them."
Hussena Bukar led him into the familiar house past the living room to her quarters, a small room with large windows and a gold and green Oriental rug. He fiddled around with a paperweight, uncertain why she wished to give him his mother’s diaries just after telling her about his troubles. What did that have to do with foreknowledge, what was all her talk about the ‘past’? How did it all tie up?
The elderly woman straightened up and placed herself beside him on the ottoman, putting a large brown wooden box in his hands.

Two days later, Faruk went to the Employment Directorate and was informed of a placement for a teacher in the Northeast, if he was interested—a six-month stint while the substantive teacher was on sabbatical.
Fine. Where?
Federal Government College, Bolewa.

He remembered what Hussena Bukar always said, that something coming was on its way all ways. Or, had she manipulated it all? It did not matter, for Faruk trusted Hussena as much as he did his father. He was whistling when he left the Directorate. Yet, within hours of that, his assault on Rahila’s brother had given Eunice Pam the bloody excuse she needed to come after him openly—the protection of her daughters’ love was already stripped off him. Faruk become, in one week, merely the expendable son of a formidable opponent.

The day before his journey, Faruk sat in his father’s office for awhile before the secretary came in with a Thermos flask and coffee things.
“The Colonel will be here shortly, Faruk. Meantime, why not have some coffee?”
Faruk, embarrassed he had forgotten her name, smiled.
“Did my father go far?”
“No. He is in the business district; he called to say you were to wait. Do you want it black?”
“Yes, black. Thank you. I’ll add the sugar.”
His father, Ibrahim Dibarama, arrived just as he finished the cup of coffee, smiled at him and went around the large desk; “Make me a cup,” the older man said, “I see you’ve already imbibed.”
It had been four weeks since they last saw each other and an hour passed before Faruk brought himself to state why he had come, and for that hour his father restrained himself. Each knew the great love they bore the other yet each felt the need for an unexplainable caution. Ibrahim Dibarama’s caution came mostly from pride, of having raised a strong and independent son alone.
“Father, I shall be leaving Jos tomorrow.”
The older man did not reply.
“I shall be going to Bolewa,” Faruk stated. At the mention of that word, his father’s eyes came alive with a malevolent thunder. Just as quickly, Faruk saw the rage suppressed with a simple, superhuman will. The older man looked his son straight in the eye.
“You refuse to tell me about my mother. I intend to find out for myself.”
“Viper-of-a-son!” Ibrahim spat out, “is there anything I’ve not done for you? I have told you all there is to know about your mother, Allah rest her soul, what more do you want for God’s sake?” His voice rose with each question. The secretary, in her office fifteen meters away, felt the tension as one feels the heat of fighting lions even from the confines of a touring vehicle. Faruk, for his part, felt like a young lion caught between the passions of his mounting anger and his respect for his father. He stared back at his father for less than half a minute, opening his mouth to say the first thing that came to his mind. But prudence overcame all and he sipped from his coffee which was now so cold it tasted salty. He steeled himself.
“Father. Is it wrong for a son to want to know all about his mother, to visit the land of his parent’s youth?”
At these words, his father drew back, knowing there was nothing he could do to stop Faruk from this journey. Ibrahim Dibarama knew that not even a fight would sway this boy, his true son—it upset him to be on the receiving end of an obstinacy he himself had instilled. Ibrahim Dibarama’s eyes still held anger, but his mind was far from where they were—his mind on his last days at Bolewa; guns going off everywhere, the shattering windscreen of his car, his wife’s scream, the corpses and the billowing smoke. Bolewa. City of memories, a town of death; a town that had unhinged his life and taken his wife from him slowly, as a virus eats a memory chip. Bolewa. How could he protect Faruk from the legacy of Bolewa?
“You are not going to Bolewa!”
“I am, father. I ask only for your blessings.”
Ibrahim shook his head sadly. He had feared this argument for a decade now and the reasons he had feared it were still the same. His eyes settled briefly on his only child. Faruk sat still in his chair, unsure if his father would try to force him to change his decision again, wondering by what means—if he would. Faruk knew he would not be forced, no matter what.
Just then the grey intercom on the table beeped and was hastily picked up.
“Yes. . ? Who? Okay,” at this the older man nodded an apology to his son before saying, “Okay, put him on. . ,” proceeding to converse with the person on the other end of the line. Faruk poured himself another cup of coffee and finished it to find his father still speaking. Another glance passed between them.

While he answered the phone, Ibrahim Dibarama’s thoughts were on the situation before him. What was he to do? All over the country, unexplainable fanaticisms were breaking out and he and his friends realized that the existence of the Nigerian State was at stake. But, what were they to do about it? And now, his own son wished to leave him and go to Bolewa, that den of fanatics, he thought, that fortress of loss. Viper-of-a-son! Ah, but he could not say he had not expected this day. It was at this point the disturbing thought of his son’s liaison with Eunice Pam’s daughter first crossed his mind. He ended the call and dropped the handset carefully into its cradle.
“You want to go to Bolewa?”
“Yes father.”
“Are you telling me everything?”
“Yes I am,” Faruk lied without losing his composure.
“Fine then, Faruk, you are a man. You have my blessing.”
Surprised but glad at his fathers words, Faruk wanted to tell his father he loved him.
But he did not.

The music stopped but Faruk did not play it again nor place another CD in the tray. He drove on, his thoughts still far away in Jos.
“It cannot work, Faruk. It’s all broken down. I cannot marry you, I’m sorry.”
Rahila, her head bowed in tears, tried to remove the ring then. Faruk, angry, held her hand.
“Why are you doing this?” he demanded.
But she did not answer.
“Here’s your ring.”
Rahila turned away and looked out the window. He grabbed her by the forearm and turned her slowly so she could face him. He wanted to play a game they used to play but his voice had grown husky.
“What are you?” he whispered.
She looked up at him. “I am the mountains; you are?”
“Breeze,” he said.
“We cannot be.”
“I am the sun,” he tried, desperately.
“But, you are not.”
“You are rain.”
“I am not. Not anymore,” she said sadly.
The waters between them broke at that moment.
She tried, against the wall of his silence: “Faruk, I am sorry, I hate to be, but I am, now. You are from the Northeast; I’m from Central Nigeria, we are separated by a whole complication of history and things. I thought it was possible, but I cannot, we cannot, be indifferent to our distinct selves. I am my mother’s child; you are your father’s son. Neither of us can undo that.”
He stayed silent awhile longer—then he bent forward and pressed his lips on her cheek, feeling her shudder. His eyes were closed. Rahila’s eyes were closed as well.
“You are breaking my heart,” he said.
Then he turned away, leaving her alone amid the contradictory swirl of her emotions.
Thirty minutes later on the Northeast Highway, Faruk came to a junction. Straight ahead was Maiduguri, 200 km away. He took the road that led to Nguirama and then on to Maidunama and Bolewa. He still had 300 kilometres before he could present himself to the native land from which he had been for so long sequestered, unsure as he was if he was a pilgrim to his mother’s story or a fugitive from the avenging mother of his lover.

Richard Ali, was born in the early 80’s and has lived in Jos most of his life. He holds an LL.B from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and a BL degree from the Nigerian Law School and was duly called to the Nigerian Bar.

Ali has experience in both print and digital publishing, having been Editor of Sardauna Magazine, Kaduna [2004-2007] and being presently Editor-in-Chief of the Sentinel Nigeria Magazine []. He is at present a member of the PEN Nigeria Translations Committee.

His poetry has been published internationally in reputable journals such as the African Writing Journal and the Prosopisia Journal. 


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