By Mukhail Suleiman
Kefas looked me up and down, with that annoying gentle smile on his face. By the way, why was he looking me up and down? Now I knew I was getting paranoid over the narrow escape from the security men dagger I had hidden in the restroom.
“Let’s go,” he said.
In his office, he pulled me a chair before walking to sit on his. He coughed nervously, and asked what business brought me to his office.
I kept staring. I was lost and didn’t know where to begin. To think this was the same man I had the evil thoughts about just less than an hour ago. He smiled again. Why does he smile always?
“Ok, since you won’t say anything, may I ask if it was the discussion in the bus that brought you here?” This time I deliberately maintained my peace though I felt like cutting him off, and simply ask for the letter that brought me there.
“I will tell you an interesting story of a brother I know from Kano. He was a student in a university up north. He is Fulani. One day, someone preached to him, and there was a culmination in all he had heard in the past. He chose to become a Christian.”
What did I just hear from this infidel? It was as if my brain was on fire. I managed to maintain my composure and spoke up.
“Sir, actually, I came to…”
The door opened behind me.
“Mr. K, sorry to interrupt you o, but there will be a meeting today as agreed last week, I hope you have not forgotten o,” a lanky man in kaftan and trouser with a cap to match said as he strode in leisurely.
He exchanged pleasantries with Kefas in Hausa. Kefas’ spoken Hausa was so impeccable I could not believe my ears. I tried recalling the surname I saw on his card, but I went blank. As his colleague made to leave, he said to him in pure Fulfude not to forget the plan to take him to Shagalinku Restaurant for lunch. I was non-plussed. It was followed by a warm feeling. What is it about language that you felt a bond when a total stranger spoke it. But the man looked like someone from Edo or Delta.
“Yes, sir, you were about to say something when my friend came in,” he said.
“No, sir. Please continue,” I chickened out.
He went on to tell me a fascinating story that both angered, delighted, and surprised me at the same time.
The story goes thus: Ibrahim had committed the gravest sin of conversion for which his father decreed he was to die. His father was a strong imam who brooked no nonsense. He determined that since all persuasion failed, he was personally going to kill him.
Ibrahim no longer dreaded his father as he used to. A new spirit had come over him and he was no longer scared of his father’s spiritual prowess which he knew his father had used to destroy lives. He had personally seen his father scoop up sand and open his hand, and it had turned to salt. His father received all manner of visitors at odd hours and he knew most came not to consult him for good.
Because of what Kefas described as his newfound freedom and higher power, he had the temerity to even begin to preach to his father, mother, and other family members. They were livid. But, according to Kefas, he never ceased to give his parents and elder ones the respect they deserved. It was his complete turnaround that initially gave his change of faith away. They noticed he became more respectful, gentler, and abandoned his former wild ways.
One weekend, he came in from the univeracity, but unknown to him, that was the last weekend he was billed to spend on earth!
The Sunday he was to return to campus, he woke up early to go for a prayer meeting in a nearby church as was his new tradition. He would go for early meetings, return home, before preparing to leave for the Church service proper.
As he was leaving, he heard, as he walked past his father’s section of the house, loud and persistent cough. He dared not enter the man’s room as no one had such leeway. He, however, said a quiet prayer for him.
When he returned to prepare for the service, he saw his father reclining in his favourite chair in the sitting area. He paid obeisance to him and asked how he was feeling.
He thought his father’s response was a little warmer than usual. He proceeded to to his room where he rushed through his preparations because he was determined to arrive early enough to spend some quality time alone before the local church filled up. But, it was not to be.
As soon as he stepped out, he saw another chair pulled beside his father. Instinctively, he knew there was a father and son meeting for that day. Bye-bye to early church meeting. He knew he was required to honour his earthly father, so, he was not about to rock the boat since the old man had tolerated him and his faith so far.
When he made to walk past, his father stopped him and gently ordered him to sit. The man sounded a little too gentle, again.
His father proceeded to narrate a story and made a strange request of him. According to the father, the son of a friend of his had gravely offended his father who felt the only way to deal with him was to attack him. He subsequently made arrangements, and proceeded to fire an arrow at him from the coven. Unfortunately, the arrow missed its target and began a boomerang journey back to its sender. The hunter was now the hunted! Abruptly, his father stopped the story and went silent. The silence soon turned awkward.
Quietly, as if in a whisper, his father said: “Ibrahim?”
“I want you to forgive me,”
“Baba, what for?”
“You just forgive me; it is the only favour I ask of you. Leave the rest to me, I will handle It,” his father said.
Ibrahim was confused at this time. Not wanting to prolong the matter, and hoping that it was the end of the matter so he could proceed to his church service, he told him he had no grudge or anything against him; and if there was any offence, he forgave him from his heart.
He was taken aback by what followed.
His old man heaved a heavy sigh of relief and proceeded to bless him in a mixture of Arabic and Fulfude languages. The strong man of his clan went on to do something he had not done in decades. He rose and blessed Ibrahim as he quickly squatted. He raised him by the hand and hugged him. Ibrahim was shocked!
His father said the unthinkable. “You can now go and worship your God.”
On his way to church, he was confused by the sudden turn of events and warmth displayed by his father. Was it for real or a ploy to draw him closer to deal a fatal blow? Knowing his own former background and his father’s notoriety, he opted to watch his steps with the man.
Just as he made to step into church, it hit like a bullet! The story his father told him before the awkward silence was about both of them. What arrow was fired and missed its target? Was it the violent cough he heard early that morning? He stepped back out of the church auditorium, said a quiet prayer to God to heal his father adding, this time more meaningfully, that he forgave his father.
But that was only a chapter in the story.
His father had not withdrawn the fatwa against him, so he still remained game for anyone seeking to please his father or Allah!
Ibrahim however noticed a warmer disposition from his father toward him. On another occasion, the grand old man called him aside one day and shocked him with a comment.
“Ibrahim,” he started, “I have this firm belief that if there truly is a paradise, you are one of those who will make it there.” He stared at his father in amazement.
He prayed God to give him an opportunity to explain the truth of his name; the deeper meaning of the sacrifice the prophet he was named after almost made of his son as a foreshadow of what Allah did with his own son to make a sacrifice a once-and-for-all sacrifice for mankind, since there was no way men could save themselves by their actions; or any animal or other sacrifices.
“Ibrahim, is there something on your mind you want to say?” his father asked. He just stood staring. How could he read his mind so clearly?
“Speak up,” he prodded.
Ibrahim saw this as an opening and told the story of the Prophet Ibrahim before his birth; his birth and life as an idol worshipper; his and his wife barreness; his call by Allah; the birth of his first son by an Egyptian slave he acquired as he sojourned.
Ibrahim paused for his father’s reaction There was none. The old man just rested his jaw on the palm of his hand, staring at him intently.
“Continue, I am listening,” he said like a dutiful student.
Ibrahim could not believe what was going on.
He went further to tell his father how Ishmael was born by the Egyptian, and how Isaac came after from his wife, Sarah, after years of waiting. When he got to the story of the child to be used for sacrifice, he was silent on the name because he didn’t want an argument or a resounding slap on his face.
His father smiled and asked, “so which son was it?”
He smiled back and said, “baba, let us leave that for now.”
“But you know it is a contentious, but very important, part of the story, my son.”
“It was Isaac,” he reluctantly said, knowing his storytelling was bound to come to an end after his answer.
“Is that so? Why do you choose to believe the Jewish story and not the Arabic one?”
“Because it came first, and because it is in the Christian Bible which I believe whole-heartedly,” Ibrahim said matter-of-factly. He did not want to travel this road, because it had led to needless debates with others in the past and ended worthwhile discussions.
“Hmmmm. But you know that the Bible is a distorted version you people carry around.”
“Baba, you know all the people who say that have never shown an original to anyone to prove the distortions they have been trumpeting for generations.”
There was an unusual silence as his father buried his face in the cup he formed with his two palms. He stayed that way for nearly a minute before raising his head to ask a question. The same question Ibrahim had heard several times over.
“Are you saying what was received by the Prophet, Peace be upon him (PBUH) is not from an angel or contains lies?”
Coming from his father, Ibrahim simply said, “I don’t know, baba, I really can’t say he did not get it from an angel; but the writer of the Jewish Torah, Prophet Musa, got it from God directly.”
Ibrahim knew he had to tread softly now. He was approaching a dangerous terrain, but he managed to add, “baba, why are Muslims told to go to the people of the book if they had grey areas of understanding if the book the people of the book carried around was adulterated.”
His father replied: “Are you sure the Jews and the Christians are the people of the book? Even if they are, is it still the same book they had then that is in use today?”
Ibrahim did not argue further other than to ask if anyone had seen the original to know the present one was fake.
He continued his earlier story of how Prophet Ibrahim’s botched sacrifice was Allah’s way of preparing mankind’s mind for the ultimate sacrifice of his own son, born immaculately by a virgin.
He added that the sacrifice of the life of Jesus Christ, by the shedding of his life-blood was the ultimate and final sacrifice acceptable to God.
There was an uneasy calm from his father who stared at him, and then into space for an unccomfortably long while.
“Ibrahim, this religion has confused your mind and you need help.”
“Baba, what I am talking about here is not a religion, it is a relationship – father and son relationship – between a person and Ruhu Allah (Spirit of God). It is not going to church every Sunday and other days, though that is valid. It is much more than that.
His father suddenly rose up, took a long, disconcerting look at him and repeated with finality: “Ibrahim, if there is truly a paradise, you will make it.”
“If that is true, baba, why don’t you want to do join me there,” he managed to squeeze in as his father spun around and left him there.
He left for campus after the holidays, and did not show up for weeks. It was when he visited again he knew his father had not lifted the fatwa on him. The honour-killing decree to save the family name was still running. He was still like a vicious, wanted dead-or-alive killer with a heavy bounty on his head.
He was very thirsty when he arrived home that fateful weekend. He asked for fura da nono from his mother. It took a while to arrive, but when it did, he prayed over it and relished every bit of it. He even contemplated asking for more.
A short while later, his sister picked up the calabash. He thanked her for it. She looked furtively twice before turning into the women’s quarters. Shortly after that, she came back again and cast those glances at him once more. He thought she wanted something and was shy to bring it up. From the corner of his eye, he thought he saw one or two persons from the corner leading women’s quarters peeping at him.
When he saw it again and was sure he actually saw a human head, he walked toward the direction. Just before the turn, he stopped to land a knock on whichever head showed up, since he was sure neither his mother nor the elderly women would indulge in that mischief.
That was when he heard the whispers. He was numb from what he was hearing. He froze at what he heard his own mother whispering.
He announced his presence with a loud ‘as salaam alaikum’. Stampede followed.
He waited for the stampede to end and he asked for a stool to sit. He asked his mother what was going on and made it clear he heard all they were discussing. His mother denied anything was being discussed. He repeated some of the things he heard her say. She bowed her head.
“What poison did you give to me, mama,” he asked his shamefaced mother. He could feel others behind doors and curtains listening.
His mother lifted her head and confessed to the plot of poisoning him so he would die for the family honour to be restored. He was aghast! His own mother! The only woman he could claim to love in the whole wide world.
He bowed his head, holding back tears as he prayed quietly and shook all over. His mother began sobbing as others who hid joined in. It soon became a loud crying session. When they heard baba approaching, they all comported themselves, except his mother with her racking sobs.
His father stood there for a while absorbing everything and waiting for an explanation. Ibrahim quickly ended his quiet but intense prayer asking God to grant him strength to forgive, and also to spare him from the poison.
“What is happening here!” Baba thundered, something he had never done for as long as Ibrahim knew him.
Everyone was startled. Ibrahim saved the day with a quiet request to his mother, asking for the parent calabash used to prepared the poisoned fura.
“Poisoned what?” his father asked.
He quietly told his now scared father not to worry. His mother, now looking far older than her age, began pleading with him as if his father was not standing there. He, again, asked for the parent calabash from which the fura was poured out to him. His mother beckoned for it and it was brought.
He collected from her, lifted it up to heaven and offered thanks to God. He stepped back from everyone and gulped every single drop and lump of it. His mother dived toward him to collect, but he had taken in everything. All those in hiding emerged from their spots as baba watched the drama in bewilderedment.
The chief conspirator, his mother, had suddenly lost her liver to kill him. She became inconsolable as Ibrahim told his father what happened before he showed up, at least the aspect of their peeping; the whispers he heard from them about how the poison they put in the milky and sweet non-alcoholic gruel was not having its desired effect.
Baba turned around and ran to his quarters as Ibrahim went after him. Mama and others followed. Others around soon joined as baba came out of his room with a concoction he wanted Ibrahim to drink. One look and smell of it, Ibrahim knew it was not going into his mouth. Baba pleaded. Mama and the women joined in, but Ibrahim was resolute. Baba asked the young men around to hold him down, but one lifting of a chair and everyone backed off.
There was such tension around that a double-edged sword could tear through. His mother was reduced to a pitiable sight as her husband glared at her. Everyone was on edge. He called his father aside while still holding the chair and watching the young men that included his siblings.
“Baba,” he began “don’t worry. I trust my God,” he said. His father pleaded with him to at least drink his own neutraliser, but he firmly resisted the old man. He felt pity for him.
“It is my fault. I should have ordered that no harm befall you from any quarter,” he said resignedly. He dismissed everyone; called mama and Ibrahim aside; asked her how long it normally took for the poison to kick in. She said it was supposed to have an immediate effect. He asked if she had used it on anyone to be so sure of her facts. He didn’t wait for an answer and told her she would suffer terribly if anything happened to his son.
Ibrahim couldn’t believe such a discussion was going on; but he knew too well that his mother was finished in life, if anything happened to him. His father never made empty threats, and everyone in the town knew that.
He became the centre of attraction. Even when everyone left for mosque, his father stayed back. He prayed at home. Even Ibrahim, who had doubts about his father’s sudden love for him, was surprised. Nothing, except travels, kept him from the mosque. Many visited after the evening prayers but he said assured them nothing was amiss.
Long after Ibrahim fell asleep, he knew his father was awake, keeping a vigil. He imagined the torture his mother was going through that night. He awoke Saturday morning feeling on top of the world. God had again showed himself faithful.
His first port of call was his mother’s quarters where he was told she was sleeping. He went visiting until a little after noon when he returned to meet his father waiting. His father called for lunch and insisted from thence forth Ibrahim was to eat with him anytime he was home. After lunch, Ibrahim went to see his mother. He reassured he had forgiven her, said a short prayer with her, and advised her to throw away any poison in her quarters. She just simply nodded. He guessed she was still afraid of her husband and what he would do. Ibrahim spent quite some time with her, ensuring she was cheerful before he left.
Back to baba, he pleaded with him not to do anything untoward to mama since they all knew his not speaking up to everyone not to touch him led to the situation at hand. Ibrahim was later to learn that his warned everyone, within and outside his family, to steer clear of his infidel son since he planned to personally derive pleasure from dealing with him, in his own time.
After Kefas finished the story, I began to wonder if any of it was true. He asked if I had any questions. Of course, I did. I told him I had a few. Where did he learn Fulfude?
“I am from Adamawa, so can speak the variation there as well as the general one. I am actually Bachama by tribe,” he said.
That made sense, but I could have sworn he was from the South of Nigeria.
“Now my second question: Can I have my letter of appointment?”
“Letter of appointment? What is that?”
“I was advised to pick it from you and take to the headquarters for documentation.”
“You thought what, sir?”
“I thought you came on account of the business card I gave you.”
If he was not in possession of my letter, I would have laughed him to scorn. But I kept a straight face while enjoying the moment.
So he thought I came to be preached to. No wonder the well-crafted story. That moment I regretted not playing along to know the apostate and his father and slaughtering them myself.
“My last question, sir,” I said as he began leafing through a file.
I put all the sneer in my voice as I asked, “the story you told now, is it really true?”
“Every single bit of it. What do you say your name is again?”
“Mikhail Suleiman, sir. That story is true?” I accentuated the sarcasm.
“Believe it. His father, before he passed on recently, became a Christian from watching his son’s new lifestyle; the company he kept; as well as a visitation he, the father, said he had from a spirit being. The son is an evangelist now.”
He pulled a paper. “Now I know why your name sounded familiar. It is because of this letter that has been here for a week now.”
So, he was right, after all. I thought he lied about that earlier today. He brought out a second copy, asked for any form of valid identification. He stepped out for about a minute to make a copy of my Permanent Voter’s Card. I signed for the letter just as his friend popped a head in to remind him of their meeting.
“I really would like to meet your Fulani brother o.”
He raised his head to look at me, was silent for a while, stared at me for some uncomfortably few seconds. “I thought you did not believe the story, so why the interest?” He paused. “Well, he is not in the country now. If you keep in touch I can arrange a meeting when he visits home.”
I was no longer interested. I had got what brought me there and was not about to be friends with him any longer. When he asked for my number I told him I would send an sms from his number on the business card he gave me. He shrugged his shoulders like he did not believe me. I thanked him and rose to leave. He asked for a salute as a senior officer.
Was he pretending he did not know I came in through the back door and so had no training? I saluted in military fashion. I spun around as I had seen done on TV, and heaved a sigh of relief as I stepped out to the corridor. I bounded down the stairs as I contemplated whether to go for my short dagger.
I decided otherwise when I saw the prisons officer with the rifle at the reception area. I bid them farewell and began whistling as I walked to the bus-stop to take a cab to the odd job place I was soon to leave.
As I walked back, I ruminated over the story I had just heard. I felt in my pocket for the storyteller’s card. I sent the sms: “this is my number, sir.” I signed off with my name. I may just need him someday. I couldn’t wait to read my letter as I settled in the taxi.