Jabir was in the still Sabon Gari traffic when her call came in, to announce the separation. It was a hot afternoon even though the sun had sunk into the horizon and would have given way to the usual breeze that heralds the tranquil arrival of twilight. The market was bustling with activities: hawking, begging, buying, selling, bargaining, music, arrival and departing of vehicles, conductors calling for passengers. Jabir was digging his nails into his motorcycle’s handle in anger, hissing from time to time. His small eyes were reddish, giving his black face a frightening look. All he needed was the smell of his mother’s dinner to greet his nose, a cold bath, a light dinner, a brief chat with his princess, the whir of ceiling fan to lull him to sleep. He drummed on his thighs with a fist, urging the time to come. That was when the call came in. He ignored it.
I’ll never forget you, and you will always be by my side till the day I die, the phone continued ringing, vibrating in his trousers pocket. He reluctantly reached for it. Her name gliding on the screen brought a smile to his lips, loosening his jaw.
“Jabir… ” came the tearful voice, quivering, laden with emotion. His smile disappeared.His stomach stirred. He was suddenly afraid. Something must be amiss, he was sure. Her birdlike voice was always excited, making Jabir imagine sparkling jewels inside her throat. And she always started her calls with, ‘Jovial J’ in a manly voice she liked to imitate and they would laugh.
“Khadija, lafiya? What’s wrong?”
”Sun raba mu! They have separated us! Sun raba mu”
She began to sob. Jabir’s heart throbbed violently as the thing that gave way in his stomach rushed out of his mouth and left him, jaws dropped. The force that had separated them must be powerful, so powerful to have drawn tears from Khadija’s eyes. He had never seen her cry.
The phone he pressed to his ears, delivered her cries like burning coals into his heart.
His dry tongue couldn’t produce the word.
“Khadijah, what did you say?”
She couldn’t speak. The silence made the situation worse. Blaring horns and insults brought him back to life. He slowly slipped the phone into his pocket before starting the motorcycle. He wanted to shout with all his might and catch the attention of everyone, curse them for going about their activities while he was being separated from his love.
As Jabir rode, he had a flashback of the first time he saw her, his love. It was in traffic one afternoon like this. She was sitting in the back of keke-napep flashing a smile at him and he felt like a star had descended on him while he was in cataclysmal darkness. The smile revealed a well arranged set of rather big white teeth over black gums as her dimple balls moved. The golden rays of her teeth touched his heart. He was dazzled by her beauty. Her face, so smooth and new, reminded him of a just laid egg. He wondered why she was looking at him. He doubted if she knew him. He didn’t care, he smiled back at her. When the traffic eased, he followed the keke to where it dropped her. When he approached her, she said: “I couldn’t help staring at you, though you are not that captivating.” Jabir was taken aback. Other girls would have pretended to be shy or ‘draw their class.’ Yet he didn’t take it as honesty. She was trying to be different, fake honesty and boldness, he mused. A voice in his heart however insulted him and told him he was being ungrateful and accusing. She was the type of lady he wouldn’t dare approach. “But she just offered you a slice of her heart on a platter of gold, for goodness sake!” the voice shouted.
Jabir, with her, felt anew and transformed, a teenager ready to do anything for love. He felt an urge to change his daily routine, that his current life was too ordinary now that he had an angel as a girlfriend, who was bold enough to crush taboos, who was westernised without being unIslamic. (She told him this, later as an explanation of her bluntness).
He usually woke up at the first azan of subhi, read the Quran, saw to his siblings’ needs before they went to school, and then he would go to his carpentry workshop with his mother’s prayers following him. And after Magarib, he went to the tea stall where his age mates assembled, sipping tea. Then he went home, read some portion of the Quran before he went to bed. This pattern had seemed perfect to him but now he felt like changing something. What could he do about it, he asked himself. “I’m just being lovey-dovey,” he thought and smiled, a smile that broke into laughter. He often laughed to himself in his room, in the night when he thought of her. Her love was driving him crazy.
Theirs was a love that was mostly played out on the phone, long nightly chats on Whatsapp spiced with voice notes. Every morning, her message arrived on his phone, usually a short love poem or some good wishes for the day. He was happy that like him, she found it awkward the way lovers here in Kano made their rendezvous, with the man standing by the wall outside the girl’s house, chatting, in the night. But unlike him too, hers was a taste for a kind of love he saw in movies or books. She would text him something like, Can I treat you to lunch?
She eventually found them a love nest, the library, where they met on the weekends. They would sit across each other in the always empty American Corner, books piled on the desk, and two bottles of drink. He liked her passion for a scholarly life. The first time she invited him to the library, and he met her reading a bulky novel, he thought she must be in university. But she hadn’t even finished at the public secondary, she told him. Her father would never sponsor her (after all, he hadn’t even done that for the boys). Her mother did, though on the condition that Khadija helped her to fry awara for sale in the afternoons, by the main road. Just recently, Khadijah woke up and told her mother she would no longer fry awara. She dropped out of school. There was little or nothing to learn anyway, she said. She was now into self-education.
“If somehow I get the money or the person I would marry would help out, then I would write my exams and try to get admission into the university,” Khadija said and gulped down her Fanta, silently turning the pages of her voluminous novel. Jabir had kept quiet, a little hurt that she hadn’t considered him the person she would marry. A picture of Khadijah and a pot bellied Alhaji as her husband formed in his head. He punched his thighs and gritted his teeth.
Later, he told her he would pay the registration fees of her WAEC & NECO. She thanked him.
As he looked at her, he thought she led their love life. She led their chats, she decided what they would do. Jabir felt like he was the woman, and she the man.
When he met her, Jabir had finished his diploma in Public Administration at the polytechnic. He had wished to get into the university, but despite his good grades, he couldn’t secure an admission. His father had died and the heavy burden of caring for the family of eight had been slung on his shoulders. He worked diligently in his carpentry workshop and his teaching job, (he had been employed to teach Civic Education in some afternoon classes).
Some minutes later, Jabir brought the motorcycle to a stop outside Khadija’s house, which was at the beginning of a narrow path with a large dirty gutter diverging at the center. He waited for a minute, looking at the small wooden door that led into the house before dialing her number to announce his arrival. He had barely ended the call when she emerged, wearing an orange-colored hijab that stopped at her ankle. She walked like a chicken that had a dead egg within her. Her face had the freshness of a wet skin being dried by the breeze. Perhaps she had splashed water to clean her dried tears, thought Jabir. She stood before him, holding the head of his motorcycle.
They were silent for a time, she, playing with his bike’s horn, biting her lower lips in what Jabir believed was an effort to fight back tears; he, with his hand stroking his beard, looking into nothingness. Behind them voices of children rose as they played football, raising dust.
“Khadijah,” he broke the silence, his voice croaked.
She raised her head and her large eyes fell into his. And they were silent again, looking into each other’s eyes. Khadija removed hers when some drops of tears slipped down her cheeks. And Jabir was far from being relieved; looking into her eyes made his heart ache the more.
“Na’am,” came the hoarse response.
“Tell me what happened.. What exactly happened?”
After a pause, a wipe of tears, a clearing of nose and throat, a hard swallowing, she told him: There was this man with a brand new Peageout 406 who had been chasing her, since he first saw her. She turned him down. She hadn’t known he knew her house, but just this morning he came and talked to her father. Her father accepted his marriage offer.
“We are now separated. Alhaji has bought Baba. The wedding is three weeks away.”
Separated. Separation. He had always seen himself with Khadija in the near and far future. He had been making preparations to marry her, compiling the trousseau and began building his plot of land. Now, here she was, telling him, theywere now separated. He tried to arrange the words scurrying about in his brain, refusing to collect into a meaningful sentence he could use to break the silence. He saw them.
He didn’t know how to act. He always didn’t know, in front of Khadijah. He wished he knew what she wanted him to say. He wondered if she might like him telling her that that was their fate and they should accept it. But he thought again that it might sound cowardly to her. He thought the best way was to give a solution which he had no clue of. He smacked his face, worsening his headache.
An almajiri in torn and dirty clothes crossed the gutter and leaned on the wooden door, clutching his bowl and began chanting his begging incantations in a loud voice.
Before Jabir could speak, Khadijah’s father emerged from nowhere, as usual in his dirty caftan. He had always thought of the man as a tarnished gold, a man whose handsomeness made him look too exalted for the life he was living, a life of abject poverty. Khadijah was a perfect copy of him, in beauty.
”Ke Khadijah!” He glared at his daughter who had her gaze down. ”Why do you have bone-made ears? Have you forgotten what I told you?”
Silence from Khadijah.
”But,” continued the father, ”I hope you have explained everything to him. ”
Khadijah neither nodded nor talked.
”Get lost!” He commanded.
Jabir watched her walk into the house, walk out of his life.
”And you,” the father turned to Jabir. ”I don’t want to see you outside my house again!”
Jabir wanted to blame the man. But he understood why the man could have done what he did, his poor condition. So he blamed Alhaji now. Later, he would blame everyone and everything.
His mother sat on the doorstep of her room, the curtain fluttering behind her, a wrapper tied around her sagging breasts, sieving garintuwo that rose into air, some local music blaring from her radio. She sang along. The house was silent: all his siblings had gone to Islamiyya except the youngest who sat on a heap of sand brought to do some construction in the house, making castles and talking to himself. Jabir’s mother pushed him a small wooden chair, reduced the volume of her radio and stared at him with inquisitive, worried eyes.
”You look somehow. Is everything well? ” She asked.
Jabir swallowed bitter saliva before narrating all that had happened. She listened attentively, looking at him, holding her sieve, mouth turning into a shape of anger and amazement. She kept quiet after Jabir had finished, which was so unlike her; she always had words in her mouth. Her quietness piqued Jabir. Why wouldn’t she tell him it was all a dream, console him? He was angry for being angry.
At last, his mother said, ”Allah knows what is best. May He replace her with someone better.”
He remembered how his mother had helped him in deciding the kind of gifts to buy in making the trousseau as he walked to his room. Khadijah had been the reason the veil of shyness between him and his mother began to raise. He was the first son and so there was that shyness stipulated by tradition between them. She shouldn’t call him by his name, show him much concern or look into his eyes. But when he showed her the picture of Khadijah, she began to ask him about her, something she should not do. So, they were finally able to talk for a long time with minimal shyness and, of all things, his lover.
He fell face downward on his mattress, not removing his shoes. He felt dust filling him, making him struggle for breath.
Pictures began flashing. There was one of Khadijah sitting across from him, in the library, smiling that smile that gave him the sensation that a rose would spawn from her dimples. There was one of her singing him a verse from a popular Hausa love song, as they sat in Green Palace garden. Another of her, her face half covered by a veil like a shy bride, the first and only time she came to greet his mother. One of her palms decorated in intricate henna patterns, touching him on his broad shoulders, removing a succulent little fruit from a neem tree, the first and only time they had made body contact. There was one of their chats with Khadija. In that chat, they were competing, a competition that they would text only in emoji.
The pictures kept flashing, making his head turn round and round.
But a darker gloom was yet to erupt.
There was Khadijah standing, clutching a nylon bag, staring at her shadow, the crescent moon lacking the splendour to erase the sorrow on her face. It had been thirteen days since Jabir had last seen her. Tomorrow was the wedding day if he was not mistaken. It was about 3: 00pm. Jabir was shocked to hear his phone chirping with her number blinking at him, but more amazed by her cold voice that said, I am outside your house. Right now.
She stared at him for a while, before saying,
“I have an idea Jabir: let us run away and marry. Elope.”
Jabir sighed. He couldn’t run away. He had contemplated the idea deeply before. He was a wall on which his family leaned. He couldn’t bear running away from them, making them bare and vulnerable.
“Khadijah, I can’t run away.”
He avoided the disappointment in her eyes.
”Nobody… Nobody to look after my family.”
A sob gathered in his throat. Silence fell. There were only the crickets singing. The breeze whistled too.
”I will never forgive you,” came the firm words. They would hunt him for years, the last words from her.
He was shedding tears as he followed Khadijah who had walked away. They walked to the new house the Alhaji had bought for her father. Silence walked along with them. Then there was the pellucid call to prayers in the air. Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! When they turned the street to their house, her father was coming out of the house to go to the mosque. Seeing them, he abruptly stopped, too stunned to talk.
”You!” He pointed at Khadijah with a forefinger. Then pointed at Jabir, too. What kind of daughter are you? Is it because I have not broken your filthy legs?”
He pointed at Jabir.
”And you… I’ll not say anything. But you shall regret trying to lead my daughter astray, trying to kidnap her.”
Jabir wasn’t hearing; he was walking away. All he was hearing was:
I’ll never forgive you.
I’ll never forgive you.
Together with the crescent moon and his shadow, the words chased him home, vibrating in his broken heart.
Later that day, a rickety police Station Wagon was packed outside Jabir’s workshop, the shop numbered 6th in the block of shops on Kawo Road. He sat on a stool in the varenda whose top bore the inscription UNIQUE FURNITURES. He was looking into nothingness, his mind was blank. There was the smell of polished wood, which didn’t raise Jabir’s spirit as it used to. There was the chattering of his boys as they worked, one of them playing music on his China phone. There was the sound of a hammer hitting a nail, the sound of wood cutting. And there was a policeman, walking toward the workshop, wearing, aside the black sunglasses that thickened the frown on his face, a power mightier than the one he was supposed to have.
Jabir approached him, his heart skipping beats.
”Good afternoon, Sir”
The policeman ignored him. He removed his glasses and glared at the workers who had all turned their attention to him. Work had stopped, likewise the chatter and the music.
”Are you Jabir?”
The policeman brought out handcuffs and an ID card.
“You are under arrest.” He said showing him the ID.
“Arrest?” asked Jabir with disbelief. “For what?”
“You will know at the station. Now, just bring your hands, Mr Man.”
Jabir thrust his hands forward, sick to the bones.
That was the first time he had his hand in cuffs. In all his twenty six years, he had never had a case with the police. In fact, he could count on one hand, the times he had been to a police station. He had been there once, to bribe them, and get a friend of his out. There was a time his motorcycle had been seized because he carried a friend. That time, carrying another person on the pillions was prohibited. He had had to bribe them to redeem his motorcycle. That was all. But now here he was, being led away by a policeman, handcuffed, like a common criminal.
He turned over his shoulder and shouted to one of his boys, trying to collect his voice. ”Sammani, lock the shop and take the key to our mother.”
“Okay, Oga,” the boy said in a condolatory voice.
As soon as they entered the car, the policeman inside took all the money in his pocket, his phone, his watch, his ring. He saw the glowing joy in their faces. His phone was expensive and he had five thousand naira in his pocket.
He wasn’t guilty of anything, he was sure, but he doubted his innocence. He wasn’t sure of himself. He tried to find out what he had done. He tried to look back and survey his immediate past, to see things he might have done wrong, but what transpired between them when Khadijah visited him blocked everything. He could only hear her voice. I’ll never forgive you.
Then her father’s voice... Leading her astray, trying to kidnap her... I shall tell Alhaji.
Now he knew. He wouldn’t be left alone to nurse his heartbreak with the addition of this false allegation. Anger and fear forced tears out of him.
But it was when the car turned towards Hospital Road that his heart became a scurrying rat. They were heading to Bompai Police Station. Bompai that was a hell on earth. He had heard stories about it, about how airless the cells were, how the prisoners were given neither food nor water, how the policemen molested the prisoners without end, and how more than five corpses were removed everyday. About its SARS –– its Special Anti Robbery Squad, angels of death.
So he was now being driven to his death? He asked himself.
He began to pray for Allah’s forgiveness. At least, he still had time to do so.
“Astagafirullah,” he started. “Astagfirullah. Astagfirullah,” he went on, sweating and shaking.
Bompai sat like a dictator’s palace. Its high walls had peeling paint, and had policemen surrounding it with long guns. As the car was being parked by a bush of harmattan-withered ixora flowers, Jabir held his breath. He still held it as they passed the counters, long and dark corridors, to what turned out to be the DPO’s office. As they went on he continued chanting his prayers.
The DPO was like an actor directed to play the role of a tyrant, and was now overacting it. His face was like a calabash with patterned tribal marks that gave it the look of a tiger. His head was thrown back, his eyes closed, sleepy. He was swirling in his seat, with ease of a man that was obviously power drunk. The Nigerian flag behind him swayed unaffected.
“So this is the little brat competing with Alhaji?”
He pointed at Jabir with a pen and burst out laughing.
”And even trying to kidnap his fiancée! Chai”
The way he looked at Jabir, it seemed he wanted a reply, a move. So Jabir said, “Wallahi, wallahi, I didn’t attempt to kidnap her…”
“Shut up!” the DPO shouted, banging on the table. His face was in a frown.
“You’ll know that the step of an elephant outranks that of a camel.”
”Corpra!” the DPO yelled as though the corporal wasn’t inches away from him.
“You remember the plan, ko?” This time his voice was lowered.
“Okay. Go on. With immediate effect.”
He said immediate effect with an emphasis that suggested he was used to saying the phrase and that he didn’t only steal the phrase but how to say it. Jabir knew who introduced the phrase into Nigeria’s lexicon. A former military ruler. But he couldn’t remember him in his present state.
Jabir tried to guess what the plan was – To beat him up; to lock him up, or to kill him – as they walked through those dark corridors with cells at each side. They arrived at the SARS department. He had heard that was where armed robbers were locked. He wasn’t an armed robber, was he? They stopped in front of a cell. After unlocking the door, the policeman pushed Jabir roughly inside, saying “Cursed kidnapper!”
The smell of dirty bodies, of urine and faeces and sweat wafted into his nose, making him abruptly hold his breath. He stood taking in the room and its inhabitants. The cell was filled with twice its capacity. The cracked walls supported soldier ants. At the top of the wall were two brick windows shaped like figure 8, it let in faint rays of the departing sun. The prisoners were all pressed to one another, heels touching buttocks and knees caressing chins. At the far end, a strong figure was lying on a pile of clothes, he was being fanned with a plank by one prisoner. Jabir had heard of cell chiefs. This must be the chief.
Jabir was standing when the chief walked to him.
He had a huge body with the small reddish eyes of an armed robber.
”Welcome to our cell.” His voice was as huge as his body.
Jabir was uneasy; the heat and smell was unbearable.
“I don’t need to tell you I’m the chief.”
And he continued, “Everyone removes his clothes for me to lie on. And everyone takes turns fanning me. Now remove your own clothes.”
Jabir didn’t move, he was thinking of Khadijah and of his mother. A slap, hard and sharp, landed on his face. He opened his eyes to meet those of the chief, angry and blazing. He stripped, slowly, the slap ringing in his ears.
His legs began to ache, so he squatted. His heart jumped to his throat. He soon vomited on his body. The sight made him vomit more. Someone close to him comforted him, “sannu.” He nodded in pain, feeling dizzy.
It was that same man that later said to him,
“You don’t have the face of an armed robber. What did you do that made them bring you to this cell of armed robbers?”
“Armed robbers?” Jabir asked, calmly. He was not surprised. There was nothing the Alhaji and the police couldn’t do. And by now, he was less afraid. It was just a matter of bribery, you know. By tomorrow, he was sure his mother would have sorted things out.
Two days later, two silent days, without things sorted out, he lost hope. Now his major prayer was just to survive.
Jabir was a survivor. He survived spending the nights in utter darkness, curling on his side as his fellow inmates, to make room for one another, with bed bugs and mosquitoes biting their pale flesh and sucking the little blood that remained in their bodies. He survived, fighting, punching, scratching to get a palmful of garri brought in everyday for them. He survived, by remaining in a single posture, close to the bucket they defecated in, breathing in the same little air with the armed robbers. He survived days without a drop of water lubricating his body. He survived the unforeseeable days, blurred by haze. He survived all these with his eyes closed, a habit he had taken to, to relieve his mind of the disgusting realities in the cell. He survived for six days.
Then he took ill. The vicious mosquitoes gave him malaria. The smell made him vomit constantly. The garri made his stomach run. The airlessness nearly suffocated him. He had grown an uneven stubble. He looked taller, paler, thinner.
He was in that state exactly six days after he was arrested, six days that seemed like six years, when his mother finally visited. It was early in the morning, the rays still young. The cell fell silent and everyone’s gaze turned to the policeman with his shirt untucked and his cap in his trousers pocket, unlocking the door.
“Who’s Jabir among you?”
Jabir raised a hand, his heart drumming wildly. The policeman beckoned to him. He stood up, dizzy. Walking itself was labor. His legs had frozen from being at the same posture for days. Each step stirred up the monsters in his head so that they danced madly. He was taken into a little dusty room, and shown an iron seat. He was told to sit. He fell onto the seat, breathing the fresh air. A little while later, the policeman returned with Jabir’s mother. She wore a long hijab, a melancholic look, and eyes reddened because of lack of sleep.
“Dannan! Dannan! ” she wailed. The obvious tension had not made his name slip out of her. She called him Dannan. This child. “Is this what they have turned you to? Nashiga uku! They have killed me.”
Her hands were over her head, she went on cursing, exclaiming, until the policeman said, “Hajiya, your time is going, fah”
She blew her nose and said,”Allah is all seeing.”
She pushed a nylon bag to Jabir who leaned on the wall.
“Eat. Eat!” She said bringing out the food flask and the smell of curried jollof rice filled the place.
As Jabir ate, his mother told him of how she heard of the news of his arrest, how she flung her radio away, and started wailing. How she came to the police station and begged and begged on her knees and how she was ignored for four days. Until finally, one policeman told her that if she wanted to bail Jabir, she should pay two hundred thousand. “Two hundred thousand!” She exclaimed. They said she should be grateful, that they were at risk giving him a bail while DPO had not ordered so.
“I sold my plot of land. I paid just now. They will smuggle you out in the night.”
Jabir stopped eating; his appetite had just disappeared. He was finally out of this hell. He stood up. Turned to face the east, direction of the Kaaba. Fell down on his knees. Prostrated. To the Almighty. His forehead got dust coated. He had survived Bompai Police, the hardest and the most unforgettable experience of his life.
*Cover image by the photographer Nengi Nelson