Fancy a durbar being held on such a hot day, Faruk thought, as he parked his car in front of Maryam’s house. A small child with a rotund stomach caked in brown Bolewa dust sat on a stool outside the main gate, contentedly chewing a stick of sugarcane thrice his length. The Bazza house was built in the traditional Bolewa fashion, like Hajia Hauwa’s. It was a fortress, save for two doors—a main gate usually locked until each time Abdulkadir Bazza drove through, and a smaller door that led into a small waiting room that led into the zaure which was the general reception area. The main gate was open and he saw the single story building on the other side, where Abdulkadir Bazza lived together with Maryam, his latest wife, and their young children. The rooms of other relatives formed a square around the courtyard. Abdulkadir Bazza sat watching over his car being washed—he waved Faruk in.
“Greetings while you rest,” Faruk greeted.
The older man had a newspaper across his laps. “Young prince, how are you today? Please sit down,” Abdulkadir Bazza said, making space on the wooden bench.
“I am well, though the weather is punishing.”
“Yes, it gets that way sometimes. The heat will ease up soon though, watch and see.”
“It’s all alhamdlillah.”
Maryam’s father nodded. “You have come to take my daughter to the durbar?”
“Yes, with your gracious permission.”
“You have my permission,” Mallam Bazza said, suddenly getting excited and putting on his glasses. He excused himself and cursed at the boy washing the car, a child of about twelve, for having missed a spot. “Maybe he thought because I was talking to you I wasn’t paying attention? The young lazy thing! I hear you will be leaving us soon?”
“Yes, Mallam, I have to return to Jos where my home is and where my future awaits me.”
“I have been told. But we are happy that you have come at all. And I know you will not forget your first home, where your father and your mother were born.”
“I cannot forget Bolewa; its pulse is in my veins. I will surely return someday,” Faruk replied.
Silence fell on their conversation.
Abdulkadir Bazza looked Faruk over in his mind, putting all that had happened between them in perspective. The boy was wearing a crème coloured kaftan with a red keffiyeh blanket across his shoulders but he wasn’t wearing a cap. Abdulkadir Bazza knew all about his daughter’s love for Faruk, in fact, Maryam had confessed it to him and told him that Faruk did not want to love her. He had admired Faruk then for not taking advantage of his daughter’s infatuation. It was not in the place of a man to speak with the male friend of his favourite child, an only daughter whose heart was breaking already from such a friend’s imminent departure, but Abdulkadir Bazza hoped Faruk would take leave of his daughter in a kind, proper way.
“Allah rene,” Mallam Bazza said, in Fulfulde this time, before continuing in English, “Maryam is inside, you may go into the zaure and wait for her. I will be here.”
But by the time Faruk and Maryam came out of the house ten minutes later, there was just the boy waxing the car. Maryam was dressed in a crème gown and had a black veil over her head; her hands had just been done with new henna designs, the black dye standing out against her light skin. Faruk had always been fascinated by her hands and wrists—by the subtle grace about them, slim and nimble. He always teased her about the first time he had seen her drawing water from the well—her ploy to come to see him. Now, three months later, she looked like a girl who should be happy—yet a benign bitterness was eating at her heart.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked, “Are you unwell?”
“Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with me,” she said, hiding her eyes away, willing herself to not ruin their last moments together with tears. Faruk’s crème dashiki matched her outfit and she fiddled around absentmindedly with the three-cornered cap he had stuffed into the Toyota’s cubby hole. She looked outside the window as they left the houses of Wuza behind and passed the stretches of untenanted land between the quarters of Bolewa on their way to the GRA where the durbar was to be held. They drove past children and young people dressed in finery, mostly caftans of various colours and fez caps—all on their way to the GRA Polo Ground. Maryam was caught between conflicting moods—on the one hand trying to contain her sadness that Faruk would be leaving for his woman in Jos, that though they had shared so much he still belonged to another, and on the other her desire to savour her last moments with him. He had passed up the opportunity to ride in a procession in order to see the pageant from the public stands with her. Yet, while she was dressing up for him, when she heard his voice speaking to her father, little termites began gnawing at the bold face she had tried to put over her impossible love.
“When are you leaving?” she asked.
“The day after tomorrow.”
Of course, Faruk thought. If only there was no Rahila Pam? But it was not a realistic thought, because he would not have even come to the Northeast for discovery or any other reason had Rahila not been his lover. Not even for the sake of Maryam could he imagine what would be if there was no Rahila.
Faruk knew what was going on—but he wasn’t sure if it wasn’t what he hoped. In his mind, Maryam Bazza was in love with him and she thought she could never love anyone else. Hers, he felt, was puppy love—but even there, he was unsure, for he knew it was not always a brother’s love he felt for Maryam Bazza. Once again, if only there was no Rahila Pam? Faruk sighed and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel lightly. In a few months, the University would give Maryam Bazza a glimpse of life and a lesson in lifestyles—she would grow past him, she had to. Yet, sometimes his vanity wondered—would their affair not be like his mother’s, and her lover the young Waziri—a long drawn out, tragic tale? He remembered one night, the night he saw her after returning from the Palace, she had said.
“Faruk, I would give my life for you if you asked. You know that?”
But he had changed the subject smoothly—he did not want such a responsibility. That night he had seen how hurt she was. He felt as if he had left a puppy out in the rain and when she caught on to his changing the subject, he felt damned, as if that self same puppy had on opening the door, come in frisky, licking his shins in an indicting forgiveness. It was that night that he most wanted to take Maryam Bazza home and make love to her—that night he wanted to curse Rahila to insignificance. But he had not; he had instead changed the subject. No, unlike his mother, there was something resilient in Maryam—he doubted there was anything else for her, except the increasing of experience.
“Are you happy?” he asked, slowing down to a sedate speed so he could envelope her hand in his right palm, squeezing it. She felt a fluffy lightness in her being. Damn you, Faruk, and your questions, she thought. Am I happy? He always asked the right questions—the sort that made everything clear, the sort she hated, for she had grown addicted to the delirious high of desire. If only I didn’t love him, she thought, and he did not love someone else.
“I’m happy that we have loved each other these last three months. I am a woman and that is why I am upset you are leaving, but I am not sad. Yes, Faruk, I am happy.”
“That’s the most important thing in the world. When we are happy, we are always good, but when we are good, we are not always happy.”
“Wilde,” she said. He loved Oscar Wilde and always quoted him.
“Yes. To be happy is the most important thing in the whole world, and even if I have to compensate the happiness I feel in my heart for your love, even if I were to pay the price of the most agonizing torture for it, I will always treasure it in my heart. I have been happy with you, Maryam.”
Maryam nodded, holding her tears back. He had been very happy with her, but he had not, could not say, that he had loved her—because he knew that to say so and leave her would make her mad. Oh Allah! What has this boy has done to me? But there in the car, at that moment so close to tears, with thoughts of sad nuances flitting about her mind, she regained her joy—in defiance against the months of pain she knew already would come.
“All right?” he asked, winking, ignorant of her thoughts.
“Alright,” she responded, to their private joke.
Faruk smiled and stepped on the accelerator.
Just before he took a turn unto the GRA road, he caught a black jeep in his rear-view mirror. A sudden thrill of foreboding ran through him—he had noticed that car twice now. Was it trailing him? He did not want to alarm Maryam but his mind became unsettled. The SUV took a different turn and Faruk heaved a little sigh. Maybe he was imagining things? Yet, he remained uncomfortable.
It was approaching ten a.m. by the time they got into the courtyard of Sidi’s house and a light breeze had begun to blow. The car would be safe there. The sun, typical of Bolewa, had repented of its earlier anger. He parked the car beneath a tree in the yard and opened the door for Maryam to get down, playing the last performance of a knight-courtier in her honour. Together, they mingled with the crowd and headed for the Polo Field, swimming in the excited human swarm of their native land.
The enclosed field filled up by the minute, and the noise corresponded with the crowd present, but they were not yet so late that they could not find their way. The Emir’s security officer, Hassan Hussein, had made arrangements for Faruk to stay on the balcony of his aunt’s house, which gave a vantage to the Polo field. They were just in time, barely getting through the balcony’s sliding glass door when the air was rent with a hullabaloo. They both rushed to the railings to catch the action, and they caught a fine view of the people’s ecstasy on hearing the thrill of the trumpets; it was just as if a snake had run through blades of grass, a delicate ripple of motion and emotion. It was beautiful to see, but, like blades of grass, none of the people could watch because all were drawn into the action. Even Faruk and Maryam on the balcony were drawn into the Emir’s course.
At the far end of the field, where the main gate was located, was gathered the greater mass of townspeople. A few minutes later, the first of the Emir’s forerunners arrived on a white horse, rearing wildly up and down, stopping and gallivanting, brandishing a sword rhythmically—Faruk thought the rider was shouting something. From where he stood, he was sure the rider was none other than Hassan Hussein. Faruk’s mind reverted to the black SUV that had made him uneasy—he wondered if he shouldn’t let Hassan Hussein know about that, just in case?
Already the trumpets could be heard and soon the trumpet blowers followed the wild rider, blowing with all their lungs; he imagined their cheeks swelling like hot air balloons with the effort. The musical message beneath their notes was in a language that seized all who heard it—seeming to still both breath and heartbeat, holding all the eyes looking at the yan’kirarai in their light coloured babanriga. Just when the crowd sighed, it was struck by the next spectacle. This time, it was a procession of the sons of the emir’s brothers and close relatives mounted on the finest horses Faruk had ever seen.
Maryam had fallen silent since the first notes of the yan’ kirarai but she pressed her body into him as she stood beside him so she could feel his heartbeat, absorbing it in her softness. Faruk, caught in the flow of the moment, felt her intention and as always, understood. He wondered if he should not make love to her—the house was more or less deserted and no doubt Hassan Hussein had left instructions with this possibility in mind . . . But then the weather was growing steadily colder and Faruk had draped his red keffiyeh across his head, so he pretended she merely needed the warmth of his body so he let her lean into him— holding her across the stomach with his right arm softly, protectively. Just like a brother.
Below them the crowd waited for the Emir’s arrival.
The Bolewa nobility wore gleaming white turbans with two tufted ‘ears’ pointing upwards on both sides of its crown—only they were allowed to wear their turbans in such a manner. All their horses were splendid, prized Arab bloodlines—most definitely from New York. Faruk well understood the rage of Ummi al-Qassim’s uncle when her lovers burnt down his stable: How easy it was to take the decision to banish the two rivals, unknowingly plunging Bolewa into schism and bloodshed. Each mount was dressed in finery, the princes rode serenely by, accepting with calm impassivity the acclaim of their people. Faruk realized that even if he were to spend the rest of his life in Bolewa, he would still be learning new idiosyncrasies, new paradoxes in the common and the ordinary. Where else in northern Nigeria would one find a durbar where non-Muslims were equal on the field with the Muslims? Only here, it seemed, at the far end of Hausaland, at the intersection of Borno and Adamawa—Bolewa had thrived beyond the division of faction. This little emirate had managed to complement the past and the present seamlessly, within what had become a country intent on fragmenting itself.
The frenzy of the crowd reached a crescendo when the Emir arrived at the grounds mounted on a sturdy camel, preceded by twelve riders on black horses, firing very loud guns into the air: Kpoom, kpoom, kpoom! At the centre of the tumult was his uncle, the Emir of Bolewa, clad in a silver-grey robe, hemmed with gold embroidery, worn over a white kaftan. He had a dazzling white turban on his head. Ramalan al-Qassim wore dark sunglasses to protect his eyes from the sun and the dust, and his right arm was raised in salute to his people, his guests. Every step of the camel, unhurried in its dignity, made its rider seem like a centre of calm amidst the tumult of the crowd. Faruk raised his arm to the Emir, who could not possibly see him, in solidarity and gratitude—for having given him the history of his mother. The Emir had given him a part of the big picture of his past.
Loud traditional harquebuses went off all like fire crackers. The crowd was in sheer ecstasy.
“I’m feeling very cold.” Maryam said.
Faruk nodded and took his keffiyeh off his head and wrapped it around Maryam’s shoulder. But he was shocked to see her face had grown pale.
“You are unwell? You are turning pale. What’s wrong?” he asked.
Maryam wasn’t feeling well, but she didn’t want to say so. She did not want to miss the durbar but she had suddenly begun to feel faintly. Instead of saying so, Maryam shook her head to Faruk’s concerns, but she pulled his keffiyeh tighter around her.
“I’m okay. It’s just the cold, that’s all.”
Faruk looked confused.
“Stop looking at me as if I’m a ghost,” she said, “I’m fine.”
“Okay. Let me check the house if there’s maybe a sweater you could wear.”
Maryam did not want Faruk to leave her, but she felt him do so—she leaned on the railings.
“Could you check for some water?” she said.
Maryam did not see the assassin appear on the roof of the disused building about a hundred yards to her left. Her eyes were on the crowd, the guns going off to the screams of delight. The Emir had just got off his camel, and, amidst the blare of trumpets, was making his way to the dais with his courtiers around him.
The agreed signal from his partner, who was dressed in a kaftan at a place in the crowd that offered a good vantage of the balcony on which their target stood, beeped. The quiet assassin put the cell phone into his pocket and lifted the already assembled Dragunov rifle unto a pedestal comprising two cement bricks. He looked through the sight, picked his target and pressed the trigger—breathing out slowly. He felt the recoil of the rifle and saw Faruk fall within a second—he smiled and immediately started disassembling the rifle. It was all over in less than thirty seconds.
The crowd over whom the sniper shots had flown had not even heard a thing.
Someone mounted a small podium built beside the covered stands. He would then call out the name of the noble houses represented at the durbar, he was calling out in Hausa and it was difficult to hear him above the din of trumpets and drums. But since the order for riding out had already been decided upon, it did not affect the participant horsemen.
“Gidan Waziri Bolewa!”
A brief hush fell on the crowd, and those nearest to the centre of the field moved a couple of paces back. Within seconds, a posse of men on splendid glistening horses cantered out of the ranks of cavalry. At a command, they suddenly broke into a gallop, swiftly covering the fifty yard distance at high speed before abruptly drawing rein just in front of the dais—acclaiming the Emir as their feudal lord and kinsman. It was a dusty homage. The men then dispersed in time for another noble house to ride up. The family of the late Usman was still prominent in Bolewa, judging by the number of men it had equipped: there were no fewer than twenty-five.
“Gidan Beri beri Keffi!”
“Gidan Sulubawa Katsina!”
“Gidan Sambo Garbossa!”
“Gidan Sulubawa Zazzau!”
“Gidan Sarkin Sudan!”
Each time, a company of men would charge down at full speed and abruptly draw rein where the Emir sat on an oriental carpet, surrounded by courtiers. The Emir, prayer beads draped around his fingers, acknowledged each party with a wave of his hand.
Faruk’s heart skipped a few beats when he found Maryam crumpled on the floor of the balcony.
“WAYOOOO ALLAH!” he screamed, the glass of water fell to the floor together with the sweater he had found as he ran to her, the tears falling from his eyes. The water mixed with the shattered glass and started to spread around all alone. Like tears of regret. Like blood.
Zaure – Hausa term for a reception room to which non-family members can sit and palaver.
Alhamdlillah – Arabic for “Praise be to God”.
Rene – Fulfulde for “Be praised”; Allah be praised.
Dashiki – Sleeveless gown.
Yan’kirarai – “The people who call”, as in, traditional trumpeters (kakaki) who herald royalty.
Babanriga – Wide flowing gown for men.
Keffiyeh – A headdress/blanket used originally by Arab and Berber males.
Gidan – House, in the sense of dynasty, as in the House of Windsor; the names that follow are royal or princely houses in northern Nigeria.
Photo: Gareth Davies