I know Abeeb Fuhad. I’m familiar with him as you are familiar with an old room. The thing about this sort of familiarity is that it occurs over a period of time, many, many years of close acquaintance such as bring new discoveries on some days as never before – you see things today that you’ve not before, and then see it tomorrow and realize it’s always been there. I love Abeeb Fuhad; he’s my best friend, arguably my only real friend, for he’s stuck with me no matter what. He’s stuck with me this long. But I don’t argue when people say things about him that aren’t so nice, basically because they are true, everything. Abeeb might not be a very nice person, but once you have his loyalty, you’ve got it forever. That’s why I stick with him too. That’s why I’ll stick with him to the end.
My name is Ridwan, and if I must pride myself, it’ll be as a writer. I’ve spent many years reading and reading – writers like George Orwell and Sefi Atta and now Harun Yahya – and writing. I write for a purpose; for my religion, and I belong to a committee in school called Ash-Shabaab Pen. Abeeb does too. Actually, he’s President of the committee and I’m Editor of the literary magazine we publish. And it is in those shoes I stand now, in this light drizzle. I’m waiting as ‘the Editor’, patiently, as is expected of an ‘akhiy’ (brother in Islam) like myself. I have no problem waiting like this; not only do I know that it is rewarding, I’m also well aware that the akhiy I’m supposed to be meeting is probably held up in the Sango traffic not very far away. Not anything he can help. I adjust my weight on my left limb and brush the grit off my trouser that had been splashed over by a passerby.
Today is Friday, and I’m yet to read the chapter of the Qur’an that is required of all Muslims on this auspicious day. I’m sure Abeeb has done that. Probably twelve times already. He spares no effort in observing rites like that; in serving his God. He’s faithful. He’s fanatic. And while sometimes I think it’s funny, other times, I’m annoyed by it. Most people are annoyed by it most times; it is exactly why a considerable number of our Jammah (congregation) have bad feelings towards him. The ones that don’t have a reverence for him that is borne of fear; they’re extremely careful around him. They pussyfoot. They think he’s some sort of god they ought to please. They make me laugh; even now their thought brings a smile to my face. Abeebullah. He carries himself with such confidence. Such prissiness.
My akhiy has arrived. Brother Isma’il; I recognize him from an earlier meeting in Abeokuta. He approaches with a pronounced limp, flanked at the left by an ukhtiy (sister in Islam), chicly clad as much for the occasion as for the day. He is slightly drenched, as is she. I smile as they approach, in pre-greeting. ‘Omo iya’1 says he as he takes my hand and pulls me into an embrace. Salam alaykum2. Salam alaykum. His beards leave a patch of wetness on the skin of my chin. I nod at his female companion. No iniquity can make me so much as touch her, basically because she’s female. Actually, it is by the grace of Allah that I can keep from touching females; that all brothers can.
‘Meet Sister Ganiyah,’ says Brother Isma’il as he adjusts his cap on his head. He’s a bit disheveled and his Ibadan accent is quite thick, but I know Abeeb will like him; the sort of knowledge that comes with experience. His trousers end way above his ankles, there’s a patch of blackness on his forehead and he said ‘Goh-ni-yyah’. He’s alright. Sister Ganiyah, however, is not. She wears a scarf, not a hijab3. Her gown is much too clingy and her face is heavily made up. Her faith is weak. ‘She’s my assistant.’
‘Salam alaykum.’ I smile nicely and she replies duly. She has a nice smile, but I’m not supposed to think about that. Abeeb wouldn’t even have noticed. He lowers his gaze; his faith is sahih4.
The two have come from the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, representatives of their committee Al-Mustakshif (literally The Pathfinder) to our own Yaba College of Technology. It’s their first time in Lagos, and we’re meant to be planning the co-production of a magazine. We talk casually about the mission as we make for the college. Sister Ganiyah proves to be quite intelligent, her views on most things being very noble, very respectable. And she’s a stunning writer. In the course of the journey, I make her show me some things she’s just written – poems, articles, short stories – and I am struck by a particular short story she wrote. It’s called Alfa Malik. Such ordinary title for a brilliant piece of fiction. And all the while, Brother Isma’il sits next to me, silently reading the Qur’an from his phone.
When we finally meet Abeeb in his office in the mosque’s secretariat, I’ve developed a curious fondness for Sister Ganiyah. No, no, not in the lustful, sinful way. It is in the way that you feel when you meet a person very similar to you. And I’ve learnt quite a lot about her too, ultimately because she can’t stop talking. But Abeeb doesn’t approve of her. The moment she enters his office, he has the look on his face of someone that’s just seen a troll. He doesn’t look at her. My heart beat fastens; he’s going to embarrass her.
Abeeb is tall, much taller than I, and the severe look that is a result of his full beards only makes his appearance intimidating. Brother Isma’il is duly intimidated. He pussyfoots. He’s weak. When Abeeb takes his hand, he holds it longer than usual and I know what he’s doing: he’s checking to see if his guest’s fingernails are well-trimmed. They are, and Abeeb smiles nicely at him. He approves of him; his faith is alright. But the silence he gives Sister Ganiyah is profound, disconcerting, as if she’s not there. And in the course of our conversation, I introduce Alfa Malik to him. Abeeb is a good writer too, better than I can hope to be.
‘I think it’s ingenious,’ say I with enthusiasm. ‘It’s about this really crazy akhiy. I loved it from the first word.’
‘You know I have a problem with trusting your judgment, Ridwan.’ He’s not interested, I know, but I push on. I believe I can trust him to like the story.
‘You should read it, I tell you. You’ll like it.’
‘We should get back to business now. What d…’
‘No. You should read it. It’s short. Less than three hundred words. Can’t take you more than five minutes.’ I don’t know why I’m this insistent. Perhaps it’ll help to say that only I can force Abeeb to do some things he’s resolved not to.
He sighs. Brother Isma’il encourages him to read it, his smile respectful. Sister Ganiyah is smiling shyly, obviously embarrassed. I feel sorry for her. Abeeb agrees to read Alfa Malik. He reads out loud; he always reads out loud:
If something could be said about the young man seated across the room from Alfa Malik, it was that he wasn’t what the latter had expected. Didn’t even come close. He was too quiet to be what Malik’s sister had described, too reserved. Bound to the chair though he may now be, he was certainly not the sort of man who, in a different condition, would make a fuss about anything.
Malik’s ‘boys’ had confirmed it: the young man had been sitting alone in the heart of the school bar, as if dead to the world – talking to and being talked to by no one – quietly lubricating himself with whatever found home in his tumbler. And he hadn’t fought back when they seized him. He had simply surrendered tacitly, like a hound to its owner.
‘Are you sure this is him?’ asked Alfa Malik.
His interlocutor was the leader of the ‘boys’, a young man with an appearance strikingly different from Alfa Malik’s, whose garb was a white silk jalabia5, perfected with the turban.
‘Alfa, I no fit dey yarn you lie na.’
‘Auzubillah!’ Alfa Malik rapidly pulled at the beads of the tesubah6 that dangled from his hand.
‘Who would believe it? Lahillah!7’
The young man’s face was a wall devoid of paint, and even when Alfa Malik started to pummel him (chanting ‘you raped my sister’ all the way) he just sat there, numb to the pain. With each blow, Malik got fiercer and fiercer, climaxing, until he was too weak to continue. At that point he asked for a gun, and it was eagerly placed in his hands. Before he squeezed the trigger, which was stiffer than he’d imagined, he said ‘Bismillah8’, and when he was sure his victim was dead, he said ‘Alhamdulillah’9.
He takes a minute or so to glance through the story again before he looks up from the phone and settles his gaze on Sister Ganiyah, perhaps the first time in two hours.
‘Why did you write this?’ asks Abeeb.
‘Why do think?’
Abeeb ignores her, like I suspected he would. He looks at me and says:
‘Very well written. But I have a problem with the story.’
‘Why?’ I ask.
‘I think it preaches Islamophobia.’
I sigh. I should have known.
‘Dangers of a single story. Alfa Malik is Muslim; he’s violent. So is Boko Haram. And the Taliban. Therefore, all Muslims are violent. That’s what I see it as preaching. I might be wrong, which is why I asked why you wrote it.’
I look at Sister Ganiyah. She’s gotten defensive.
‘That was the farthest thing from my mind when I wrote it.’
‘I see.’ There’s a supercilious look on Abeeb’s face. I regret bringing up Alfa Malik.
‘I wrote it to portray the fact that some people are simply like that. I mean, I know quite a lot of people, Christians and Muslims alike, that are very similar to Alfa Malik. And they just simply are. For no reason.’
‘Good. Briliant, even. But I believe the story would have been more complete if, for example, you’d introduce another Muslim character, possibly an ukhtiy, that witnesses the murder and reports Alfa Malik to the police. Naam?10’
‘I write how I feel,’ says Sister Ganiya coldly.
‘Then you don’t write for your deen11,’ replies Abeeb just as coldly. I never should have brought up Alfa Malik. I know Abeeb is right. Everything he said is the truth. But I understand Sister Ganiyah, and I wish Abeeb wouldn’t make a fuss of it. ‘What do you do for your deen. Your faith is weak, sister. Very weak. And I pray Allah helps you make it stronger.’
‘And what makes you assume you…’ starts Sister Ganiyah, but I shut her up with a look, mouthing an apology to her.
‘I’m sorry, can we adjourn this meeting. I feel slightly indisposed. Insha Allah11 we’ll continue after Jummat12. If that’s okay with you, that is.’ says Abeeb, and I rush to say it is. It’s okay by them, I’m sure. I’ll bring them back after Jummat. I lead them out and hand them over to an akhiy in the mosque. He’ll help them settle down. Then I return to the secretariat.
Abeeb is reading the Qur’an when I return. He completes a verse and looks up from it. His smile is indulgent. Good thing I’m back, he says. He’s missed me. I know he has, but I don’t smile back. I’ve not come back for pleasantries. I tell him I don’t like how he spoke to Sister Ganiyah. He says he told her the truth. I say I don’t like how he treated the akhiy that led the prayer this morning; he says the brother did not know how to lead salah13. What about the Imam14 of the mosque in my area? Oh, please, Ridwan. Don’t go there. He’s illiterate, and he’s brought that to his worship. And the young man that came to you as a beggar last week? But he was a fake; we all know what the Prophet said about beggars. I sigh.
‘Nobody likes you, Abeeb. Not genuinely.’
‘I’m not dying for affection, my friend.’
‘You have to change, or I’ll stop being your friend.’
‘You can’t do that.’
‘Wallahi15, I can. And I will. I swear I will.’
‘Then change. Please, Abeeb, change.’
He doesn’t reply. I sigh again and leave his office.
- Peace be unto you; Arabic greeting
- Female covering
- Male attire in form of a gown
- Prayer beads
- An expression of shock
- I begin in God’s name
- Thanks be to God
- By God’s Grace
- Friday prayer
- God bears me witness