African library: Season of crimson blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

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https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c7/Season_of_Crimson_Blossoms_Cover.jpg, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim: Season of crimson blossoms (2016)

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This novel, both poignant and hard-headed, addresses multiple issues besetting the lives of a diverse though uniformly urban Muslim community in Plateau State, central Nigeria.
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This novel, both poignant and hard-headed, addresses multiple issues besetting the lives of a diverse though uniformly urban Muslim community in Plateau State, central Nigeria. The narrative centres on the figure of Binta, a 55-year-old widow, and that of Reza, a weed dealer and gang leader as well as a thuggish “enforcer” handsomely paid (when his services are required) by a shady senator and former minister, a hugely wealthy man who remains a ruthless political manipulator. Both Binta and Reza live in the midst of “sub-communities” – in Reza’s case a bunch of young toughs, members of his gang, and in Binta’s case a familial one consisting of a troubled teenage niece, an eight-year-old granddaughter and (later in the narrative) one of her daughters, a hot-tempered woman whose separation from her second husband has been anticipated, but dreaded. Unpredictably and scandalously (mainly in the case of Binta’s social associates, the women who attend madrasa faith instruction sessions with her), an intense sexual relationship develops between Binta – hitherto always considered an irreproachably “obedient” daughter, suitably compliant wife and respectable widow – and Reza, who is not only three decades younger than her, but a notorious delinquent who stays out of jail by bribing the local police chief and his staff by means of financial aid from the senator. The major achievement of this fine text is the delicacy, taste and verisimilitude with which the author – widely acclaimed for the complex and socially embedded narrative he has created here – depicts the sudden upsurge of an intense desire in both the middle-aged woman and the reckless young man.

Contextualising their “unlikely” relationship by slowly revealing their respective familial backgrounds, Ibrahim shows convincingly that Binta, who had a Fulani mother, reminds Reza (half-subconsciously) of the beautiful Fulani mother who left him in the care of his father when he was just a little boy – an abandonment he has never overcome – whereas Binta is irresistibly reminded of her (late) elder son who strongly resembled Reza. Socio-familial practices of an earlier time had unwritten, cast-iron rules of conduct that embodied, inter alia, severe disapproval of mothers expressing affection for their sons, not only in hugs or kisses, but even in using their names to address them. When her son behaved in a way her husband disliked, he would brutally “discipline” the boy, and Binta could do nothing to stop him – a neighbouring woman had to intervene. Her son, too, unable to find decent employment, resorted to selling marijuana, for which transgression (the moment she caught him smoking it) Binta herself excluded him from the family home. She never overcame her deep but thwarted love for this best-loved child of hers, and her sorrow and guilt intensified when he was killed while visiting a criminal associate of his, during a police raid on the friend’s home, dying in a hail of bullets. While the Binta-Reza relationship thus may sound very like a classic Oedipal attraction, Ibrahim vividly localises their affair in a modern but non-Western setting, depicting how it starts when Reza breaks into Binta’s home, and how their bodily proximity (when the young man grabs the woman to “contain” and control her in order to force her to hand over all her valuables and electronic devices to him) stimulates erotic thoughts in both of them. Binta has been celibate for many years, and the elderly man with two wives who tries to court her for his third spouse, holds little attraction or interest for her. In fact, she feels superior to him and he bores her, whereas Reza exudes a dark glamour that one of her niece’s teenage friends also notices and dreams about.

Binta and Reza both live (not very far from each other) in a suburb on the outskirts of Abuja. She lived previously in the larger city of Jos, where a flare-up of Christian-Muslim rivalry and hatred erupted in an awful, bloody killing spree. This was (given that Ibrahim’s novel concludes in 2011) most likely the notorious “religious riots” of 2008, which killed perhaps 1 000 victims and displaced around 50 000 people. In Jos, a magnet for non-indigenous workers, locals resented their incursion, and the tensions simmered on, re-erupting in 2008 and 2009. Jos is Ibrahim’s native city, and he dedicates his novel as follows: “For Beloved Jos,/ tainted eternally by the gore of our innocence/ and memories of the innocents slain” (np). Ethnic tensions intensified existing cleavages, and Binta’s brother and his young son were killed by Christians (many of whom were, in turn, murdered by Muslims) within view of Binta’s horrified niece, Fa’iza, who, as a consequence of her tragic losses, was brought to live with her aunt in Abuja, where she and Binta’s granddaughter walk to school every day. Reza grew up in a village with a poor father, who married two wives after Reza’s mother’s desertion – women who made no effort to disguise their hostility towards their stepson, whose father still yearned for his errant first wife, and several half-siblings. He did well at school, but when he was caught dealing weed within the school grounds to make pocket money, he assaulted the teacher who spotted him and was, of course, expelled immediately. This was a year before he would have completed his schooling, but he never went back, later leaving the rural family home, where he was made to feel unwelcome, for Abuja and its opportunities – a larger, urban setting.

Part one of the novel is titled, “The second birth of Hajiya Binta Zubairu (1956–2011, and beyond)”. The words “second birth” – evidently referring to Binta’s sexual re-awakening – indicate (one may presume) that the narrative perspective is highly sympathetic towards this “scandalous” attraction, unlike the majority of those in her social circle. As most readers will know, the title “Hajiya” is always conferred on a woman who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca – Binta’s having been paid for by her younger, wealthy son, Munkaila, a currency dealer. This is how Ibrahim’s narrative begins:

Hajiya Binta Zubairu was finally born at fifty-five when a dark-lipped rogue with short, spiky hair, like a field of minuscule ant-hills, scaled her fence and landed, boots and all, in the puddle that was her heart. (9)

Though he came to rob her and she for her part is terrified, pleading with him when for a moment he evidently considers raping her, the above passage makes clear that their illicit attraction occurs first during this close encounter. The first indication that Reza’s attitude to the victim of his theft is “unusual” occurs when he returns to her home, at first surreptitiously, to restore the decoder of the television set and some of her gold jewellery, and to substitute another cell phone for the one that he has stolen from Binta. Reza explains this to Binta:

“You understand? I want to apologise for what happened.” He rubbed his hands. “I am sorry. I will bring back the phone … and the other jewellery too.” He turned and left. When she closed the door, she discovered that her face was wet with tears – testament to the confusing sentiments that besieged her heart. (36)

Fa’iza, Binta’s niece who lives with her, has her own fantasies, but these are merely romantic rather than sexual, and actually serve as a kind of private coping mechanism that helps her to evade, to some extent, the ghastly memories that haunt her. She, rather than her brother, was her father’s favourite child, and deeply loved him, more than she did her mother. Having been witness to the brutal slaughter of her father by the young man who had been her seemingly mild-mannered teacher when a Christian mob had broken into their flat, has left Fa’iza with “shadows in her head” (18), which have recently intensified, more than two years after those awful events. The sight of blood or sometimes merely the colour red in that unmistakable deep shade of it almost invariably triggers a type of panic attack in Fa’iza – conjuring up the ghastly memories of those moments with a horror that has (more recently) started to overwhelm her usually calmer demeanour. Fa’iza has two neighbouring friends (half-sisters in a polygamous family) of whom Binta disapproves, since she sees them as supporting Fa’iza’s yearnings by providing her with the rather trashy “romances” that she devours. These fairly innocent signs of budding sexual awareness seem dangerous to the aunt who is now the young girl’s foster parent, for she misunderstands the purpose they – along with images of a “heart-throb” film star, pasted all over her belongings – serve in Fa’iza’s life. Fa’iza hides a secret diary in which she (a gifted artist in the making) records her terrible nightmares almost invariably involving horrendous violence. In daylight hours, she sulks and pouts, like any normal teenager, at being assigned household tasks, or ticks off her tattletale little Ummi (Binta’s granddaughter).

The third time that Reza arrives at Binta’s home, he returns her cell phone to her, retrieved from the friend to whom he gave it. She is in her garden. In a slightly awkward exchange, Binta asks him his real name, which is Hassan Babale, and in two further telling gestures she tells him that she will remember his “real” name and offers him a drink. The moment is deftly and vividly evoked:

He nodded, mumbled something and made to leave again. She was fidgeting. Then she ran her fingers over her temple. “Would you like to … have some water or something. I mean, I’m all alone here … for now.” She was looking down at the damp bed of petunias Hadiza [Binta’s other adult daughter, who had been visiting her] had so lovingly planted to add colour to the yard that hosted little birds at sunrise. That was the precise moment, Binta would reflect later, that the petals of her life, like a bud that had endured half a century of nights, began to unfurl. (45, ellipses in the original)

Sex with Binta, as previously performed by her late husband, was (for him) businesslike, merely a perfunctory matter, or (as Binta phrases it in her own mind) “something to be dispensed with promptly, without silly ceremonies”, whereas “she had always wanted it to be different”. But on the one night when she daringly attempted to initiate a few caresses prior to the sex act, her husband was astounded and, worse, infuriated, stopping her in her tracks with the “half-barked, half-whispered” words, “What the hell are you doing?” which had “struck her like a blow” (52). Still, “she had not meant for it to happen, the heady events of that afternoon. … Shame had come much later, after they [she and Reza] were done and lay side by side trying to catch their breath” (55).

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The currents of desire flow equally strongly, it seems, in both the older woman’s and the younger man’s bodies and minds, though for Binta the consequences are more complex and the relationship riskier
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The currents of desire flow equally strongly, it seems, in both the older woman’s and the younger man’s bodies and minds, though for Binta the consequences are more complex and the relationship riskier (which is probably the reason why she is the true main figure in the text, as the arresting cover image confirms). Still, what is with delicacy and aptness identified in the narrative voice as “the tender incandescence that [Binta] now knew came from sin” (105) remains irresistible. Reza later brings her a gift, a beautiful piece of cloth which (he emphasises) he has bought for her (ie, he did not steal it). Still, “after growing wings through indiscretion, Hajiya Binta, contrary to her expectation did not transform into an eagle, but an owl that thrived in the darkness in which she and Reza communed. Yet, during the day, she was caged by her fears, wrapped in the perceived miasma of her sin” (113), as the narrator sardonically observes. Some days later, Binta decides to interrupt this spell in which she is caught by means of the ordinariness of going to the market. Once there, “she realised how much she had missed the vibrancy and chattiness of the market”, enjoying the colours of the vegetables, the smells and savours of fresh fish and spices like ginger and tamarind (114). The fear of the affair being exposed haunts Binta. She requires Reza to telephone prior to showing up at her home, and ducks out at break time from the madrasa. He introduces her to porn videos when she confesses to having never seen any. They nauseate Binta, but excite Reza. On another occasion, Reza arrives “with lacklustre eyes and sat on the floor. He prepared a joint, licked the ends and lit it” (115) – but Binta, who has been trying to persuade him to open a bank account, since he stores his profits with her instead, is horrified and worried that the unmistakable smell of marijuana will be detected. Reza is filled with gloom and guilt and thinking of the crimes and cruelties he has committed. Binta persuades him to “perform his ablutions and say his Salat” (117) to calm his fears of eventual eternal punishment. His need of her intensifies and is no longer merely sexual (although their sexual desires have not waned on either side), as if he has found in her, in addition, a soothing, normalising, even quasi-maternal presence in his life. Binta’s unappreciated suitor (an ageing Mallam Haruna) still pays his courting calls to Binta, where he oddly mostly continues listening to the news broadcasts on the radio to which he listens obsessively. The narrator invariably shows a strange cat appearing as the mismatched couple sit on Binta’s veranda – she, perhaps, so maintaining a facade of respectability.

One night, as they sit there, she spots the outline of a woman coming to her home. “Eventually, the silhouette became her daughter, Hureira. … Binta looked at her daughter’s puffy eyes and turned her face away to the cat with its white-tipped tail and gleaming eyes chaperoning them from the fence” (119). Not only is the frequent failure of “correctly” expressed marital relationships here reconfirmed, but they are contrasted with Binta and Reza’s improper alliance, which is “wrong” but vital and meaningful to them both. Hureira is on what Binta (with a sinking heart) recognises as a “matrimonial strike” (121). Her daughter’s uninterrupted presence in her home – Binta’s two young wards are, of course, often away at school, or can be sent off to play or do errands – will seriously complicate her arrangements regarding Reza’s frequent visits to her here. Reza, in the meantime, has to deal with his occasionally mutinous gang members, usually devotedly loyal to his strong leadership as “the lord of this [place] San Siro” (37) – the abandoned building where the gang have their headquarters. This time, gang members are angry that they have not yet received payment for the job of breaking up the political rally held by a rival of the senator’s, and are jostling and rowdy, to Reza’s annoyance. Normally, Reza assigns the lowly task of dispensing banknotes, to one of his deputies, but this man, Gattuso, and the San Siro second-in-command, a huge man named Dogo, have both been arrested for creating a noisy disturbance in the neighbourhood when they got into a fight, high on weed and booze, and against Reza’s strict orders not to give the new commander at the nearby police station an excuse to raid San Siro. When two other gang members come to him, begging him to intercede for Gattuso and Dogo, Reza expresses his lingering fury at the offenders, saying that he has deliberately left them to stew in the police cells, resentful of having to go and negotiate with the police chief and pay him a bribe for their release. He does eventually go and see the officer, showing not an iota of kowtowing to this man, as he fully understands the danger of giving him a hold and hence a sense of power over him. Reza is in the stronger position, as the one with easy access to and unofficial employment by the wealthy senator, whereas the police officer is desperate to extract a protection fee from Reza to augment his low salary and impress the woman he is courting. Reza is, however, an old hand at this game and has dealt easily with earlier station commanders.

Reza waited outside while Gattuso and Dogo, bleary-eyed, collected their items and strolled out of the cell. They were heralded by the smell of frustration, tinted with the odour of clothes dampened by overnight piss. His anger towards them had been quelled when he realized that trouble was inevitable – all that ganja combined with muscly hotheads, there were bound to be some sparks and confrontations. (133)

What he leaves unsaid is that he himself was not present to maintain control over his men, but with Binta. And now he needs these men to do a favour for her. Reza has given the order, to be spread throughout the neighbourhood, that no one (ie none of the young ne’er-do-wells in the area) was to touch Binta’s belongings or enter her premises, yet her small new generator (an essential item in middle-class homes in a country of as many power cuts as Nigeria) which her wealthy son bought for her only recently, has been stolen. Reza has promised her to “take care of” this, for not only is he determined to protect Binta, but his orders have been defied – a challenge to his authority. Reza does so by using his grapevine to find the offender, who is desperate to find the money to fund his choice of an agent who has promised to fulfil his aspiration to become an international football star on the European circuit. Coolly and with great precision, Reza beats up the huge and strong young man, who has the generator in his room, Gattuso and other henchmen standing guard outside the pitiful room. He returns the generator, but two household members each notice a different detail: Fa’iza recognises the shoes on Reza’s feet which, a while earlier, she had been puzzled at, seeing them at their garden gate. For her part, Binta spots the blood on Reza’s knuckle that confirms that he has engaged in a fist fight to get back her generator, generating a compulsive sense of concern that will push her into behaving very indiscreetly.

Chapter 15 of the novel opens on a street scene where tired women are preparing early morning fried food for passing workers and hungry children. Two of her local customers are the half-sisters, Fa’iza’s friends, and as they hover around the women’s fire, Abida spots their friend’s guardian and aunt, Binta, hovering around the entrance to Reza’s headquarters at San Siro, anxiously peering over her shoulders. The others see her, too. Binta has been unable to stop herself from checking on Reza’s welfare, afraid that he’s been seriously hurt in the fight to retrieve her generator from the thief. Despite his reassurance that he sustained no serious harm, her concern has been intensified by the frustration of her daughter Hureira’s presence in her home. She leaves Reza, but remains “chased by her desire to hold him in her trembling arms” (145). But now the affair is becoming the object of public speculation. Meanwhile, Reza travels home to see his ailing father and is shocked to see his emaciated condition; he is furious with his stepmothers, who, lacking the funds to send for a proper doctor or take him to hospital, have been treating him with traditional medicines. Recalling how lovingly his father, returning from one of his cattle-buying expeditions among the Fulani, rushed him to hospital (when Reza, in his turn, was ill and neglected by the same women) and saved his life, Reza unquestioningly does the same for the old man. The supposedly hardened thug indeed has a distinct sense of loyalty and duty and feels deeply; in his own way, Reza is a principled person. In an implicit contrast with Reza’s unconventional ways of protecting Binta and looking after his parent, Binta’s rich son, Munkaila, arrives at her home. He has been told about the theft of the generator he bought for her, and has organised a labour force to put a razor-wire fence around her property, a job he will, of course, not only pay for, but oversee. Their contact plans now further frustrated, Reza and Binta have to meet elsewhere, increasing the danger of exposure of their relationship, since they will from now on meet in a hotel near the city’s most frequented square. Their long-delayed sex act is intense, but afterwards they talk. Binta asks Reza about his father, whom he sees as the only person who ever cared for him. Just before she leaves to go home, Binta, who is qualified as a teacher and believes very strongly in the value of education, pulls a receipt out of her handbag. She gives it to Reza: it is proof of the payment she has made to register him for the examination that will allow him to complete his high school education. Reza (or Hassan, as Binta always addresses him) “frowned at the paper, his expression transforming from amazement to delight, and then to one of profound thought” (155). He may be recognising that it is not only his father who cares about him.

In a later chapter, we see another kind of filial relationship than Reza’s with his ailing father. It is as he is visiting the senator that he witnesses an encounter between this rich man (similar to his own father in age, but living in almost unimaginable luxury, pulling strings and distributing favours that require returns) and his son. Though small in stature, the senator sits like a great spider in a vast web of corrupt power – receiving homage, giving orders and admitting multiple supplicants. One very favoured supplicant is the rich man’s son, Hamza, recently back from obtaining his undergraduate degree in London, and who wants to go on a week-long trip to Spain with his friends, supposedly to learn Spanish. He wants his father to fund the trip and to provide “pocket money” (161) because (he says) he is bored and needs this break before moving on to the next paid-for stage of his education – at UCLA. The favour is, of course, soon granted to the pouting, spoilt young man. Reza, for his part, has to listen respectfully to the old man’s self-satisfied, rambling monologue – on the one hand lauding the importance of education and claiming also that he is fighting to make it more affordable and accessible to young men like Reza, while the next moment denouncing the uselessness of degrees in comparison with the practicality of learning business skills on the job. Only at the end of the lengthy visit is Reza – and still only vaguely – given an explanation of why he has been made to come to the senator’s home, apart from to overawe him with his wealth and “popularity”. In veiled language, the old man tells Reza that he considers him a “strong man”, able to undertake “something very serious, something important” for the senator. What this is will eventually be communicated to him by the secretary, who smoothly serves the senator anything from tea to organised murder, always arranged to happen at a very safe distance from the old man himself. The order will come considerably later to Reza and his thugs that they are to kidnap the son of the man he considers his chief political rival.

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A crucial encounter between Binta and Reza occurs beyond midway in the narrative, in the setting of a hotel room (170–4). It is (unobtrusively) subtly contrived and sensitively evoked as the mood in the room shifts and sometimes jumps unexpectedly and registers how the couple’s relationship has developed, indeed deepened.
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A crucial encounter between Binta and Reza occurs beyond midway in the narrative, in the setting of a hotel room (170–4). It is (unobtrusively) subtly contrived and sensitively evoked as the mood in the room shifts and sometimes jumps unexpectedly and registers how the couple’s relationship has developed, indeed deepened. It opens as Binta enters the room, with Reza immediately noticing that she seems downhearted or offended. He asks her: “Are you all right, Hajiya?” but Binta remains unresponsive, merely informing him matter-of-factly that she has brought the cash he needs from his stash in her home, and that he could more easily have withdrawn the amount from an ATM, had he followed her advice to open a bank account. The thawing of her mood first shows when she asks Reza how he found his unwell father. Reza tells Binta that his father’s condition is improved, but that he will need more money for further medical tests to be done on him – and adds (in English), “Thank you.” Binta responds more playfully, saying that it is, after all, his money, but again Reza courteously expresses his thanks to her for storing his funds, teasingly adding that she is the place where he deposits both his money and “other things”. At this point, the room is suffused with a mood of real ease accompanied with mischievous, erotic laughter:

They lay on the bed, looking up at the ceiling fan turning, slicing the air like an indolent scythe. He would never understand the sexual attraction he felt for her. Sometimes his intimacy with Binta bothered him, not least because occasionally he ended up thinking about his mother when he thought of Binta, or the other way round. It made him uncomfortable at times. It was making him uncomfortable now until Binta sighed. He raised himself on his elbow to look at her. (171)

Reza asks her outright what is wrong to cause her to seem “distant”, so Binta tells him that thoughts of her late husband have somehow “kept looping in [her] mind” since the morning. Notably, Reza shows no jealousy or irritation, merely quietly asking Binta: “What have you been thinking about him?” and whether she was in love with her husband, but it was evidently not that kind of relationship, though she spent more years of her life with this man than with anyone else (she got married before 17). Even though in other passages the husband appears to have been a bad-tempered bully, Binta “wiped a tear from her eye and held her face in her hand”. Reza stares silently out of the window, then turns to gaze at Binta before pulling a chair from across the room and sitting to face her, saying only: “May Allah have mercy on his soul.” Binta looks up smilingly, courteously thanking him – “Ameen. Thank you.” Without any awkwardness, Reza asks her when her husband died, for she has never previously mentioned him. The reader, too, hears for the first time that the husband was yet another victim of the 2008 “religious” riots in Jos, killed by his own employees – young men who chopped his body into pieces, then burned them. “Reza put his hands to his face,” telling Binta she need not go on, but Binta says, “‘It’s ok. I haven’t talked about it since it happened.’ … When she broke down and wept, Reza crossed over and put his arm around Binta,” sighing. The narrator adds: “Reza had never had a woman weep in his arms. He had no idea what was expected of him so he just held her and allowed her to cry.” When Binta returns after washing her face in the bathroom, she attempts to smile. Reza, “[knowing] he was supposed to say something comforting, … could not find the right words. So he said what came to his mind. ‘You want to watch some TV?’” at which Binta “smiled again, sat down next to him and leaned her head on his shoulder [saying,] ‘I am so sorry,’” and they watch a Nollywood movie “they couldn’t make head or tail of”. This is a delicately evoked scene in its poignancy and tenderness and the tact manifested both in what it says and what it need not spell out; every little detail contributes its nuance to the overall, shifting mood evoked.

But this mood changes when Binta asks Reza whether he has followed up on the school-leaving examination registration for which she paid. She is openly disappointed, thwarted and somewhat humiliated that he has not, whereas Reza is defensive and irritated – no doubt thinking back to the senator’s sneers about education and the mysterious “big job” that he will soon have to undertake for his boss. They part on this note of mutual frustration. In addition, Mallam Haruna, Binta’s elderly admirer, spotted her earlier, entering the hotel, veiled. He now (hours later) sees her leaving, having waited in the shop of a friend of his on the square, opposite the hotel entrance. Moments later, he sees Reza (of all people, as he would think) exiting, and evidently puts the one and the other together – appalled at the implications. The strands of the narrative are beginning to converge upon an inevitable outcome. One recalls the image of the ceiling fan in the hotel room where the lovers had their assignation, “slicing the air like an indolent scythe” (171). In contrast with the hopefully titled first part of the novel, the second one is titled, “The miseducation of Hassan ‘Reza’ Babale (1986–2011 and beyond … perhaps)” (ellipsis in the original; 177). Accordingly, there is more of a focus on Reza in this section, first shown “luxuriat[ing] in the air made thick and indolent by the aroma of weed” (179) as he returns to San Siro, his personal domain and creation. The next time Binta attempts to raise the education issue, attempting to wean him away from weed and crime, he is slightly more explicit; he has a “very important” job to do for his boss first, Reza tells her. In the next scene depicting him, Reza is in the midst of this “job” (in the criminal sense): he and three of his henchmen – Gattuso, Dogo and Joe – are in a semi-deserted city suburb of upscale but half-built homes, where they are holding a kidnapped woman, the victim of the (botched) operation that they have undertaken for the senator. They were meant to take her male companion, the son of the boss’s rival, which was intended to give the senator blackmailing leverage as well as a huge amount in ransom, but Joe (drunk and incompetent) fumbled when holding on to the young man, and he managed to flee. Now, Reza, fuming, has to explain the botched job to the senator’s sneering secretary, whom he detests. Reza was unable to bring himself to shoot the running man in the back. But then they get a call from the secretary to hang on to the “girl”; she’s the rival politician’s niece, it turns out.

In Binta’s sphere, her niece Fa’iza’s psychological disturbance and erratic conduct grow more and more worrying. Hureira, still lingering at Binta’s home and sharing the bedroom with Binta’s two wards (her own little daughter Ummi and Fa’iza), has noticed the older girl’s “strange” acts – often obsessively drawing in her diary, and being an almost nightly victim of terrible dreams. Hureira, foolishly (as she is roundly told by Binta) expresses her conviction that poor Fa’iza is possessed by “djinns” (these are mischievous spirits). When they all go off for the day to visit Binta’s wealthy currency dealer son, Munkaila, he unsympathetically asks (concerning Fa’iza’s oddities): “What’s wrong with that girl?” (208). Most of the family show more concern for the welfare of the kidnapped “girl” whose image is being shown on television, but Sadiya – who is Munkaila’s sophisticated wife and Binta’s daughter-in-law – shows greater sensitivity to the source of the teenage girl’s problems, gently suggesting that Fa’iza might find it helpful to talk to someone about the murder of her father and brother. However (after a moment when it seemed the girl might open up to this kind relative by marriage, discreetly wiping tears from her eyes), Sadiya “felt a shield crawling over Fa’iza” and “the moment slipping away from her” (210). Speaking soothingly, Sadiya tries again, telling her husband’s young cousin that her uncle is a psychologist who could help, but not pressing Fa’iza beyond suggesting that the girl might think about it as an option which Sadiya could set up for her.

In the meantime, the kidnapped woman is becoming “troublesome” in the view of her captors, screaming loudly and banging on the locked door of the room where she is kept. Although there is little danger she will be heard by inquisitive neighbours, the sounds grate on the nerves of Reza and his gang members, so that they see fit to go and “subdue” her. They also extract from her the name of “her uncle the tycoon” (212), which she supplies, crying after being slapped by Reza. When he tells her that they will be sending her food, she asks him to wait. Evidently taking him for less of a roughneck than his henchmen, she informs him that she is having her “monthlies” and needs pads. Reza later on sends Gattuso up with the food and a pack of pads. He returns to tell Reza that she has asked for him. Reluctantly, he goes. She says she just wanted to thank him, but that she also needs washing water – though her real purpose is probably to ask him a burning question: “Why are you doing this?” (214). Having rifled through her purse, Reza knows her name is Leila. She has been educated in the UK and speaks English more naturally. She floors Reza when she says she knows from looking in his eyes that he has killed, but wants to know what her own position is. This prompts one of Reza’s most powerful memories, the first time he killed a man with his knife – the weapon he prefers. It was the bullying gang leader whom Reza had replaced – a huge, older man who would often demand unpayable amounts from his younger, weaker gang members to feed his own drug habit. One day, Reza snapped and stabbed him to death and was hailed as a hero and liberator by other gang members. He established their headquarters at San Siro and the system of bribing the police, and he reduced their drug dealing to marijuana only. Coming out of a near trance of memory, Reza tells Leila: “There’s nothing beautiful about killing people” (216).

Reza (without showing her) is impressed with the young woman’s spirited conduct under her trying and dangerous circumstances, and with her beauty. At his next liaison with Binta, he seems to notice the signs of ageing on her body for the first time, and his love-making is less enthusiastic than before, even though he has brought her a valuable gold necklace that he has bought for her. Binta, too, probes his memories in their post-coital conversation, asking about his first love, a lovely girl who was married off to a wealthy suitor by her parents. Binta, knowing that “she was reaching deep into him, into the dark chambers where he hid his most private memories”, asks Reza another question, in answer to which he tells her that the ending of this love was not why he left home. It was, in fact, when, one low morning, he overheard his unkind stepmothers saying vicious things about “that woman” (2019) – the mother whom he himself cannot even bear naming, so indelibly hurt he is by recalling her determined abandonment of him – and uttering various ugly remarks about him, too. In that moment, the anger he had been feeling for ages came to a boiling point, and he walked out of his father’s home, heading for the city. When Reza next takes out fat wads of money from his bag (an “advance” from his boss) that he also wants Binta to keep for him, his restored triumphant mood is soon shattered by her questioning him, suspicious about the source of such clearly ill-gotten gains. Furious about her daring to interrogate him (on top of the uneasiness regarding the kidnapping that has already been plaguing him), Reza for the first time erupts in dangerous fury against Binta. He is on the verge of striking her when he is stopped in his tracks by the “haunting image: him standing over her, arms poised, frozen, one motion away from striking, eyes angry and daring, facial muscles quavering; her looking up to him in consternation, terrified even”. Caressing the cheek that Reza had so nearly struck, Binta “felt the ripple of sheer menace that had just rocked the nest they had built together and cushioned with desire and other sentiments they refused to name” (221).

At her home, the puzzled concern about Fa’iza’s disturbed behaviour persists. Hureira eventually goes to see Ustaz Nura, the religious instructor at Binta’s madrasa, incoherently appealing for his help in dealing with what she describes “hysterical[ly]” as her young cousin’s “descent into insanity”. He asks to be taken to her, finding the “troubled girl … huddled against the wall, still in her school uniform, but with her hijab thrown aside, lying on the mattress like a great tent flattened by a storm. When she saw Ustaz Nura standing at the door, she reached for her headscarf and put it on. She hid her face between her knees and wiped her tears” (236). Gently, Ustaz Nura enquires: “Why are you crying, Fa’iza? What upsets you?” In answer, she sobs out a half sentence: “I am forgetting –” but she refuses to explain any further. Hureira, hovering in the doorway, points him to a piece of paper Fa’iza was drawing on earlier, now lying crumpled on the floor. Asking the girl’s permission to unfold it, he sees “a rough sketch of a face”, but it is unrecognisable. Ustaz Nura asks Fa’iza who it is, and at last the anguishing truth comes out as she replies, again overtaken by tears:

“I have forgotten what Jamilu’s face looked like. How can I forget what he looked like? He was my brother and they killed him. They killed him, right in front of me.” … And the man, precipitously invited to confront otherworldly rascals, suddenly found before him a devastated girl, possessed only by trauma and an immense sense of loss. (237)

Reza and Binta’s relationship remains troubled – mainly, but not only, because of the “business”, the nature of which Binta is more or less ignorant about, not knowing that it involves the high-profile case of the kidnapped woman and Reza’s unspoken horror that he may in the end be required to kill her. He has obliquely conveyed to Leila that, although capable of killing, there are kinds of murder he cannot bear to think about, telling her about an experience he had some time earlier. He was on a bus where another male passenger had a “suspicious” bag with him which, it turned out, contained the corpse of a little two-year-old girl with braided hair – the man’s niece; she was suffocated in order to supply parts to conduct evil rituals “to get rich”; he explains to Leila why he had never wanted to kill anyone as badly as he wanted to knife this villain (229). Reza was probably attempting to exculpate himself to Leila (as possibly his own future helpless, female victim), indicating that even if he might be forced to kill her, it would be against his will, however big a sum of money he was paid. In the present, Reza sits down after Binta has explained to him that she wants him to return to school and to stop smoking weed “to get [his] life on track”. Reza insists he is fine and protests irritatedly: “Why do you keep pushing and pushing making demands like this? I am who I am, you understand? This is who I want to be” (245). Binta persists gently, saying she has not given up on him. However, back in her usual social sphere, the scandal (as it is widely regarded) of their relationship has begun erupting in ugly ways. It manifests first during a visit to a friend who has just had a baby, when a particularly nasty woman humiliates her by referring to “these shameless sugar mommies running after young boys, taking them to hotels and doing iskanci with them” (249). Even her boring suitor, Mallam Haruna, now believes Binta will consent to a bit of hanky-panky in a hotel room with him! Some days later, when she is at the madrasa for religious instruction, a group of women hound her with mocking sneers as a woman foully reeking of the dreadful sin of fornication. Initially, Binta tries to endure the humiliating persecution, but she soon gives up:

She had no idea how long she sat like that: head bowed, tears imprisoned in her eyes and a whistling silence in her mind. When she stood up, she became conscious of the abrupt silence around her. She picked up her bag and walked out with as much dignity as she could muster, her pace measured, her shoulders held straight, defiant even. But inside, she could feel the weight of her heart. And it felt so much heavier than she ever remembered. (268)

Soon afterwards, Binta receives a visit from Ustaz Nura. She anticipates his words with real dread, but he has come firstly to speak to her about Fa’iza. He makes the point that trauma manifests entirely differently from “demonic possession”, and that what her niece needs is “prayers and support” and “someone she can talk to” (276). He also informs Binta how Fa’iza’s greatest anguish is her inability to recall her brother’s face. But then her visitor, as tactfully as he can, broaches another matter that he needs to discuss with her, and, when she blusteringly denounces this as stemming from mere “filthy rumours”, Ustaz Nura softly insists that the rumours “are not without cause”. Experienced as he is in spiritual counselling, he lets Binta weep, observing: “I hope these tears are cleansing your heart. Whatever you have done, or not done, you will find Allah most forgiving and most merciful” (278). In a sign of how deeply his words have affected her, Binta goes in search of her treasured photo albums, first finding a photo of her eldest son (the one who was shot). Holding it to her chest, she sobs with “long-suppressed remorse”. Then she finds the picture she came to look for, and goes to find Fa’iza. The girl is making an abstract painting in the colours of her dreams, crimson and sepia, but the mood in her room has changed since Fa’iza spoke to Ustaz Nura. Sitting down next to her niece on the mattress, Binta puts her arm around Fa’iza, apologising for not having understood what she was going through, and handing her the photograph she has found – of Fa’iza sitting on a couch with her parents and brother. As Fa’iza at last re-absorbs the sight of her brother’s features, she, too, weeps with the image pressed to her bosom, but these are healing tears that hold some joy along with the awful reminiscence of how she lost her brother and father, soon followed by her mother’s death. Ustaz Nura’s humane sensitivity has helped both girl and aunt.

But Binta cannot suppress her desire for Reza and, with Hureira having returned to her husband at last, sends off her two wards to visit her son and his family, so that her lover can visit her at home. “It mattered to her that at the twilight of her sexual life, her desires had finally been released,” and she tells herself that she is “inching closer to [achieving] redemption” for both of them – that she will succeed in “saving” Reza. Yet, she also knows the inevitable is coming; she will have to end their affair and start a new life “far away” (284). But Binta conveys no such inclination when Reza does phone her soon afterwards. While they were making love and also quarrelling, both troubled for different reasons, then making up to soothe each other and show caring concern, Mallam Haruna showed up at Binta’s son Munkaila’s home and, with his wife and the children all upstairs, divulged (in the hopes of Munkaila’s support for his own campaign) that Binta was shockingly having an affair with a young gangster, Reza. So, a near-apoplectic Munkaila, apparently as bad-tempered as his late father, turns up at Binta’s gate just as Reza is leaving her – with her standing, dishevelled from sex, in her doorway, immediately confirming Haruna’s revelation. Munkaila attacks Reza, who, years younger and fitter, easily defends himself – but as Reza fells the plump, older man with a blow, this proves fatal and he dies, giving his hysterical mother, who is holding him in her arms, a final reproachful look. “Again Binta Zubairu found herself ensnared in a lingering daymare” (295). She cannot redeem Reza, though she knows Munkaila’s “incendiary rage” (298) was a more likely cause of his death than Reza’s blow.

Reza goes into hiding in a remote shack in the bleak countryside. The violent death of a wealthy man at the apparent hands of a known gangster has brought out the entire police force, hunting. Gattuso brings Reza the sad news that the cops have already killed their associate, Joe, reproaching Reza for having been so concerned with Binta that he forgot his responsibility towards his gang. He will seek the senator’s help to get the police off their backs, Reza says (the kidnap victim, Leila, has long since been left, alive, at a hospital). The senator has already summoned the greedy young police chief, setting a trap for Reza. Even the police officer knows about the supposedly “special relationship” the senator has with Reza, but this ruthless man coolly informs him that it is especially Reza who “must never be allowed to talk” (302) – so, soon hereafter, Fa’iza’s friend (who had the crush on Reza) is watching television when a dead body is shown on-screen, identified as a notorious criminal’s (308). Binta seems to be spared this sight. The novel ends with her symbolically mending a dress, using the cloth Reza brought her, surrounded by caring family, and aware of the fragility of dreams. Narrative closure is ruthlessly sudden, but this was in many ways inevitable from the start. The tragic tale has also been a story of the liberation of deep feelings – perhaps more valuable than their terrible cost.

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