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Through the peep-hole-like window of her cell, Hafsat watched the other prison inmates in a flurry of activity, cleaning up the prison yard, singing boisterously. She was steeling herself for the great moment when her body would cease to heave with life with her soul trapped in the void, hovering. Where do the souls of sinners go? Hell-bound or to Aljannahu, Paradise?
Suddenly, the heart-rending cry of the baby jolted her out of her reverie. Instinctively, she came away from the window to attend to the baby. What she saw next was enough to make her stop stock-still in her tracks. The nanny quickly loosened her left breast from the dirty brassiere and thrust it into the baby's mouth. Hafsat watched, entranced, as the baby nibbled hungrily at the nipple of this stranger with her toothless gum. Allahu Akbar! Allah is great, she muttered under her breath. Two months ago, the Supreme Sharia Court had ordered that a nanny be employed immediately after the birth of the baby to suckle it till the age of weaning, and five days later its mother was to die. Somehow, Hafsat could not help regretting that the baby had not been stillborn or born a boy instead of a woman with a gaping hole in-between her thighs. What had the future in store for her but the miserable life of an invisible woman, trudging her way through life, unseen and unheard, with bowed, veiled head? Her destiny would be decided by the powers that be in her world without her having a say. Most probably, before she attained the age of eleven, she would be sold like cattle in the market to a man twice her father's age without her consent. Allah ya'isah! No, she wished to Allah that the child had been born a boy, for the lot of her sex in her society was no better than those of the womenfolk of the Jahilliyah period.
Rather reluctantly her thoughts wandered to the father of her child. What cowardice! she hissed ominously. Who would have believed that Mahmoud would betray her the way he did shamelessly in the open court? Luckily for him, the law was pro-men. The law required the evidence of four adult men who saw him panting on top of her before he could be convicted. No, she couldn't bring herself to understand why Mahmoud behaved the way he did. Could he have broken down under the impending fear of death to deny her? That could possibly explain the reason for his cowardly action in the court, like an actor in a melodrama. And if that was so, it evoked her contempt for him rather than love. He was not simply man enough for her. In her mind's eye, she could visualize the scene very well as Mahmoud stood in the witness-box, trembling like a leaf in the harmattan breeze. Within a split second, she saw the naked fear of death lurking furtively in the corners of his eyes like the quick dart of a snake's forked tongue. Could she have loved this shivering midget enough to carry his child for him in her womb? How could we women be so foolish? she mused regrettably. But her lawyer had more than consoled her when he took Mahmoud under the fire of cross-examination. Garbed in his ancient robes, he could pass for a pirate in a ghost story, stalking his helpless victim with his dagger:
DEFENCE COUNSEL: [poised for the kill] How many wives did you say you have, Mr. Al-Qurazi?
MAHMOUD: Two wives.
DEFENCE COUNSEL: I see. And you said you didn't know the accused person, right?
MAHMOUD: That was not what I said. I said I knew her as a colleague when she was undergoing her teaching practice with our school and nothing more than that
DEFENCE COUNSEL: When you say 'our school', how do you mean?
MAHMOUD: I mean Kofar Gwari Secondary School, Kwali, where I am currently teaching.
DEFENCE COUNSEL: I see. And after her teaching practice with the school in question, the accused and you were still seeing each other?
MAHMOUD: Yes, as colleagues and nothing more than that. Besides, I am a married man.
DEFENCE COUNSEL: We are not disputing that you are a happily married man, Mr. Al-Qurazi. [After a pause] I put it to you that you are not only a pathological liar but a professional male prostitute!
PROSECUTION COUNSEL: [springs to his feet, rather theatrically] Objection, objection, my Lords! I object most vehemently to the browbeating and intimidatory language of my learned friend with a view to incensing the witness.
PRESIDING QADI: The objection is hereby sustained. The learned counsel for the defence is advised to desist forthwith from the use of invective aimed at provoking the witness.
DEFENCE COUNSEL: My unreserved apologies, your Lordships.
PRESIDING QADI: That is all right. Tread more carefully in the future. You may carry on with your cross-examination.
DEFENCE COUNSEL: Much obliged, my Lords. [To MAHMOUD] Yes, Mr. Al-Qurazi. Kindly cast your mind back to the twenty-sixth day of October last year, where were you at about nine a.m.?
MAHMOUD: I cannot remember now, but if that day fell on a weekday, then I guess I was in school.
DEFENCE COUNSEL: I see. Could you by any chance have been at the Kwali General Hospital at that time?
MAHMOUD: I told you I don't know.
DEFENCE COUNSEL: I put it to you, Mr. Al-Qurazi, that you are lying under oath and that on the day in question, you were at the Kwali General Hospital with the accused for her medical check-up, yes or no?
MAHMOUD: I cannot remember now.
DEFENCE COUNSEL: Did you not also pass yourself off as her husband, Mr. Al-Qurazi?
MAHMOUD: I told you I cannot remember that now.
DEFENCE COUNSEL: [barks suddenly] You cannot also remember that you told one of the nurses on duty that you were her husband?
DEFENCE COUNSEL: I see. [After a pause] Do you know the accused person's residence, Mr. Al-Qurazi?
MAHMOUD: Yes, I do.
DEFENCE COUNSEL: Be kind enough to tell the honourable court where.
MAHMOUD: Number 65, Shagari Estate, Kwali.
DEFENCE COUNSEL: And you were a frequent visitor to the said house?
MAHMOUD: Not all that often.
DEFENCE COUNSEL: And you knew the accused person to be unmarried?
DEFENCE COUNSEL: Did your wives also know about this?
MAHMOUD: I didn't see any need for that. Besides, there was ...
DEFENCE COUNSEL: And you expect this honourable court to believe you, Mr. Al-Qurazi, that there was nothing between you and the accused person?
DEFENCE COUNSEL: And you are ready to swear to that on the Holy Quran?
MAHMOUD: We were ... erm ... I mean ...
DEFENCE COUNSEL: [quickly] No further questions, my Lords.
Hafsat felt used like a piece of old rag; used and discarded after having outlived its usefulness. Were those orgiastic moans in the heyday of their affair faked? Had he not pleaded with her times without number to marry him? No, never again! she had always replied to him. One was enough.
Hafsat, will you marry me? pleaded Mahmoud for the umpteenth time, his head ensconced in-between her breasts. They had just descended from the paradisiacal Mount Everest of fierce love-making. The smell of sex hung thickly in the room like incense. There was a pause.
How many times do you want me to hurt your feelings with my no? she asked, pained to the marrow to see herself hurting the first man she had ever loved but whom she could not marry. How would he understand that certain relationships were better left at the level of mere friendship without forcing them into the more inhibiting union called marriage? How would he?
I'm sorry I forgot I had made a similar request before, honey, came his sulky reply, crestfallen.
It's all right. You don't have to apologize. We all make mistakes every now and then.
Mahmoud was a stubborn one, almost like a spoilt child. She wept inside herself at the pain she was causing herself. Any time he made such passionate appeal, it nearly always made her break her resolve. But no, she would rather be a sado-masochist than give in to petty emotions of love. Moved in spite of herself, she clasped her arms on his head, soothingly pressing it in-between the hollows of her balmy breasts. Wallahi, men can be such little children when in love. But deep down herself, she was troubled that she had to hurt Mahmoud again. The scene was always mournful any time he made such an indecent proposal to her. It could be likened to slicing an almost healed injury to make it bleed profusely. Her past was that injury. To Hafsat, her past was a storehouse of arms and ammunition, an impregnable armoury, wherein she could always retreat for more weapons for the present battle of life. No, never again! she vowed.
She had met Mahmoud ibn Al-Qurazi during her teaching practice days at Kofar Gwari Secondary School, Kwali. He was on the staff of the school with a National Certificate of Education. Until that fateful day when destiny brought them together, she had always given him a wide berth like all the other male teachers of the school. Her aloofness could be mistaken for arrant pride associated with the children of the rich who had the philosophy that even if they taught in the same school with the less privileged of their colleagues, they were not in the same class. No, all fingers are not equal, as the cliché goes, otherwise what would a trainee teacher be doing with an Audi car when some of the permanent teachers of the school could not afford motorcycles, let alone cars, after several years of teaching? She smiled to herself at such wrong assumption working in their minds. Didn't one world-famous musician croon that before you understand me, you have to know my history? Unfortunately, she was a stranger here and her past was a well-guarded armoury. Only her friend and fellow trainee teacher, Ramatu, knew her history, but she could trust her to keep sealed lips with her past.
On that fateful day, they had stayed behind in the school after the normal closing hours to mark the scripts of the students. Hafsat believed that school work and pleasure at home were strange bedfellows, and one must not be allowed to encroach on the other. There must be a wide demarcation between them if one is to enjoy one's leisure time fully. Consequently, she ensured all school work was done at school, especially during the hectic examination period where she had a mountain of scripts to mark. The duo had worked silently into the twilight hours of the day, when Ramatu paused and said:
I cannot even see what I'm doing, Hafsat. It's high time we went home before the night creeps up on us, unawares. Haba, as if the school is even paying us something to write home about!
Yes, Ram. I'm almost through, replied Hafsat. She yawned tiredly, lifting up her head from the scripts for the first time after several hours of uninterrupted concentration. She had always called her friend by her pet-name, Ram.
A peal of thunder cracked over their heads ominously, rocking the entire building like a child in a cradle.
Wai, za'a ayi ruwa, said Ramatu in Hausa, rather girlishly.
Hurriedly they arranged the scripts on the desks, and got up to leave. Save for the roaring thunder, there was an eerie silence in the school. The corridors were all deserted. Kofar Gwari Secondary School, like most post-primary schools in Kwali metropolis, was situated on the outskirts of the city. They thought they were the only teachers left in the school until they saw Mahmoud in one of the classes, buried in his marking.
Are you people going? he asked, for want of what to say.
Yes, and what about you? I guess you know that we are the only three teachers still left in the school? came Ramatu's reply.
I'm about going myself, said he.
Ramatu cast a solicitous glance at her friend and the latter nodded in understanding. They waited briefly for him to finish and gave him a lift in Hafsat's car. This act of benevolence was to mark a watershed in Hafsat's life. For right from that day, the gulf between her and Mahmoud was bridged and they became so close that rumours had it that marriage was probably in the offing. Mahmoud was a taciturn being but when one got to know him very well, one would surely discover how amiable a fellow he was. Since then he became a frequent visitor to the two-bedroom flat Hafsat and Ramatu shared. A young lady in her late teens, Hafsat couldn't believe that such divine love still existed until Mahmoud came into her life. He was an embodiment of the real man in a world of so many phantoms. Their first consumption of their love was an unforgettable experience that she would carry to her grave. When sex ceased to be the union of two intermingled souls on an astral journey, communing in an esoteric dialogue, borne on the viewless wings of exotic passion, then it well deserved the selfish, gutter-language name of 'fuck'. The feel of his hands on her bare flesh, gently rattling the jigida around her waist, sent electric sparks through her quivering body, and she moaned, almost faint with emotions, with fulfilled, indescribable pleasure.
Ba-a-ba is stoking the smouldering hearth with firewood. Let your bird-nest warmth undo the cruelty of a cold cold world. Suddenly, the cold-ridden kraal bursts into the cheerful voices of little children, hungry for stories. Kaka, tell us a story. Once upon a time – time, time – there lived a man, in a land of famine, called Gizo, the Spider-man. Gizo was a very wise man who lived by his wits ... The innocence of children in a seemingly fairy-tale world! The picturesque rice-field viewed against the backdrop of the reddish sun is a breathtaking glimpse of paradise, of sweet death. Fluttering of wings in the air, and lo, a pair of robins, the colour of sunset, descend, reclaiming the lost paradise. O Ba-a-ba, you never warned me that death is sweeter than this jungle life. Its taste is honey upon my lips! Now, the two lovebirds are sucking the breath from each other's mouths ... The ground is slippery under my feet. O, hold me fast, for I slip, a stranger to these rites of passage. This life in death. Hold me firmly as we climax at the zenith of this tsunami. The rest is silence ... nothingness. The state the uninitiated call death. O Mother, I should be glad of another death.
Time seems to crawl with the legs of a chameleon any time one is expecting something. That was what happened to me when I emerged as the overall winner of the Inter-School Quranic Recitation Competition in my state and was chosen to represent her in the national competition. The D-day seemed to stretch unceasingly to eternity. I counted each day off my fingers as one would a chelbai, a prayer-bead, while praying. Everybody patted me on the back to congratulate me. I was suddenly the pride of my family and my state, Kasanga State. I watched my reflection in the mirror and could not help but nod my agreement when people said I was beautiful. At eleven, I was tall for a girl of my age, fair-complexioned and with the pointed nose of the Fulanis. In fact, owing to my extreme beauty, I could pass for an Arab or Indian girl.
Hurry up, Hafsat! Your uncle is waiting for you outside. How long will it take you to dress up?
That was Ba-a-ba, my paternal grandmother. Yes, everybody was waiting for me to make them proud again – my family, friends and even our new state. I couldn't afford to let them down. Help me, O Ya Allah and Your Prophet, rasullah, I prayed, hands spread towards heaven. I took the last look at my reflection in the mirror and was satisfied with what I saw. Draped in a flowing white gown, topped with an equally white head-veil, I was a picture of purity and innocence like an angel in a strange, strange world. Some of my co-contestants who had lost out to me in several Quranic Recitation competitions had always said enviously that the judges were prejudiced by my spellbinding beauty. I knew they were saying that out of pure jealousy. Apart from outward beauty, critics were agreed that I could recite the Holy Quran and the Hadiths of the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, very well. Unlike most of my co-contestants, I knew that the Holy Quran and the Hadiths of the Messenger of Allah were divine poetry which must be recited with a lilting voice. Anything short of that was to do violence to the Holy Scriptures, Allah forbid!
I felt a pang of guilt when I eventually came out and discovered that the entire family was waiting for me outside. Uncle Al-Mustapha – waiyo Allah na! – was already behind the steering wheel of his Mercedes Benz, with the engine running. Though he was older than my father, they were cousins on the maternal side. I heard that he was very rich and had gone on pilgrimage to the Holy Land several times. While other people called him Alhaji, a Mecca 'been-to', he was Uncle Al-Mustapha to us children. Tall and huge, Uncle Mustapha was a sharp contrast to my dwarfish, pale father. He had the carriage of a military man, even when he was not one, which belied his advanced age. On each cheek of his oval-shaped face, was a short, vertical tribal mark, the type that we normally call Eleven. He was attired in babbanriga of expensive woollen material, with a cap of the same fabric. In his left hand, dangled a half-smoked stick of cigarette.
Have you finally decided to come out, Hafstat? he asked, expelling a cloud of smoke from his lips like a chimney.
Ai, I replied laconically. I had always hated his smoking habit.
Can we go now?
Amidst a shower of wishes and benedictions from my two stepmothers, Ba-a-ba, my father and my siblings, the car zoomed off, leaving a gale of ochre-coloured dust behind.
There is nothing as good as taking honey before singing or reciting anything, be it a song or a poem. It keeps the voice from cracking. That was what I had taken on this day before leaving home. Now as I stood behind a battery of microphones, with a sea of human heads below the dais, my lilting voice rang out loud and clear like a nightingale. Melodiously I recited all the suras of the Holy Quran by rote, to the thunderous applause of the audience. Allah be praised, when the results were announced, I came top. The grand winner of the Inter-State Quranic Recitation Competition! I felt dazed by the euphoria of this success.
The news of my success had preceded me before I got home. The entire family was outside again to receive me, a worthy ambassador of the family. Somehow, I felt my joy was incomplete as my two step-mothers could never take the place of my mother. History had it that my mother, Aisha – may she be agreed upon – died during my childbirth. Apart from my father, who had always tried to shower me with more love than the other children in a rather compensatory manner, his other wives treated me like a co-wife. They seized the slightest opportunity to remind me that it was my ill-luck that killed my mother. I was an evil child, they said, born to take its mother's life. However, on this night of conquest, they shelved their hostility and endless scolding to embrace me as if all was well.
When the excitement had shimmered down, my father called me into the inner room of his zaure. The perfunctory light from the bush lamp threw two grotesque shadows on the walls. As he stooped to increase the wick of the lamp, I noticed his dropping shoulders. Poor father, age was fast taking its toll on him. He now looked twice his age as if he was wearied of life.
Tonight you have proved yourself once again to be a worthy daughter of mine, said he with a great effort as if he was giving his last benediction on his death-bed.
Thank you, baba. There was a long pause as my father cleared his throat, not sure of how to begin the weighty matter in his mind.
You have a great future, my daughter, he continued. But you must not forget the fact that we're poor and thus cannot afford to give you the kind of education that you need ...
What about the scholarship that our state offered me? I quietly interrupted.
Yes, the scholarship. But I thought that was only for your secondary school education?
And what happens after that? he asked pessimistically. Don't you want to go to the university too? If Allah wills that the first child of mine to go to the university will be a girl, who am I to say no?
Come to think of it, I had never imagined that my father loved me so much like this. All along I had always thought it was because of my disadvantaged birth. Truly, I was discovering another side to my father. I waited with bated breath to hear more.
Who am I to contradict the will of Allah? No, my good daughter Hafsat. I cannot allow a talent like you to be wasted, scholarship or no scholarship. It was in that frame of mind that I couldn't refuse your Uncle's request ...
Uncle Al-Mustapha? I couldn't wait for him to finish. I was simply astounded.
Yes, your Uncle Al-Mustapha. He came and pleaded with me to allow you to go and live with him. I must confess, it was a honour that coming from your rich uncle. He was impressed by your performance at the national competition.
I was highly excited. Uncle Al-Mustapha? No, I couldn't believe this luck. My father didn't have to ask me before I would jump at such opportunity. It would also be a good riddance to leave the hostile world of my father's house. But there was a catch somewhere. I suddenly paused in my excitement to allow reason to sieve the nature of the offer, with my excitement gradually giving way to despair. Why didn't my Uncle Al-Mustapha ask me directly before going to my father? Did he think I would refuse to go and live in his house? My father was still talking ...
You will continue with your education in his house. His three wives will not be a problem to you. They will all treat you like one of their daughters. Hm? That'll not be a problem, reiterated my father. A pause. So what do you say?
I fixed my gaze unflinchingly on my father's face for a while, and slowly nodded my assent. I believed in my father to know what was good for me. At least, no matter how bad it would be at Uncle Al-Mustapha's house, it would not be like my father's house, this battlefield where I was always on the receiving end, the butt of the insults and endless innuendos to my birth.
That's my daughter! I knew you would not fail me, said my father jubilantly.
I was amused at the boyish expression of happiness on my father's face, suddenly making him look younger than his age. Did he think in the first place that I would refuse? No. The bitter truth which he didn't know was that I couldn't wait to get out of this torture-chamber of a house. Yes, it was a good riddance.
True to my father's prediction, the three wives of Uncle Al-Mustapha treated me like one of their daughters. But somehow, I noticed something rather forceful about this kindness as if it was borne out of great pity for me rather than kindness. I was surprised and self-conscious. Was I to be pitied? Put slightly differently, what was pitiable about me? Could they have heard of the hostility in my father's house and how my mother had died during my childbirth? Well, that remained to be seen. The first nine days went uneventful. On the tenth night, however, there came a furtive knock on the door of the room where I slept alone. Uncle Al-Mustapha had seen to it that I had a bedroom to myself in his palatial house. I got up sleepily, walked mechanically up to the door and opened it. Why, it was Uncle Al-Mustapha in his flowing gown, and he had probably come to bid me good night as usual.
I hope I didn't wake you up? he asked, concerned.
No, I lied out of politeness. Please, come in.
He came in and seated himself comfortably on the bed. I could smell the after-shave smell of his lotion. Sleep was heavy on my eyes but I fought it to remain standing. There was a pregnant pause.
Won't you come and sit down? It was more of a command than a request.
I obliged and went and sat close to him on the bed. Maybe he had come to discuss my schooling with me. He had assured my father that I would continue with my education while in his house. This was now my second week in his house and the issue of my education had never been mentioned but I kept my fingers crossed, waiting for him to make good his promise.
How do you find life here in my house, Hafsat? he asked paternally, drawing closer to me on the bed.
Fine, Uncle. Allahamdulillahi. Silence, eloquent silence ensued. He cleared his throat nervously and began:
Hafsat, he called with a husky voice.
Na'am, I replied.
I guess you must be wondering why I am here tonight? he asked after a pause. I averted his gaze. Haba Hafsat, why this shyness? I mean what is wrong with you? Come on, feel at home. Look at me ...
Before I knew what he had already thrown his right arm on my shoulders, blabbering and trembling at the same time. I was stupefied. Why was Uncle Al-Mustapha trembling? What was he trying to do to me? No! I shouted. I could feel his spider-hands traversing my whole body, caressing my budding breasts. No! I would not allow him to do this to me. No, I would not allow him to remove my nightgown. Allaah ya ki yaye! I screamed and screamed at the top of my voice, calling on my dead mother to come to my rescue, all to no avail. He was like a man possessed by a thousand demons this night and I a helpless victim in the grip of a bear, being mauled and mauled. He had to apply Vaseline several times to his penis before he could gain admittance into me ... O mother! Waiyo Allah na, na mutu! I screamed at this hot rod searing into my entrails. Mother! But no, my ravisher was unmoved by my sepulchral screams as he drew blood after every thrust, eyes shut tight in ecstasy. Suddenly, he screamed with a contorted face and convulsed on top of me and I blacked out.
Three months later, I had learned to resign myself to the fate of being Al-Mustapha's fourth wife. Nobody ever mentioned my going to school again in the house. Day in, day out, I watched his seed swell up in me. I was going to be a mother. When the ninth month eventually arrived, I was rushed to the General Hospital and there began another battle for my life. By Allah, this was worse than when Al-Mustapha forcefully deflowered me. I laboured for days on end because my pelvis was said to be too narrow for the baby to pass through. Alas, when the baby was finally forced out of me, it was stillborn and I became a patient for several months in the hospital.
The mortuary-like stench of the ward where Hafsat was relocated after her stillbirth was like a refugee camp solely for women. All the inmates here were women who had developed medical and obstetric complications as a result of prolonged labour; the baby's head had torn through the orifice of the child mother, creating an opening between the bladder and the vagina, or sometimes between the vagina and the rectum, such that the patient's clothes were always soiled with uncontrollable drops of urine. Some of the patients who were lucky enough to be operated upon had their private parts stitched together; they could not still pass normal urine nor experience a normal menstrual cycle. The big ward was clustered with ragged child mothers suffering from all manner of after-birth illnesses. This was Hafsat's worst moment in life. What pained her most was the neglect she suffered from her husband, Al-Mustapha, and her relations, as if she was struck with a mysterious and contagious plague which only her evil nature was capable of inviting upon her. Because of the severe pain in her uterus, she could only walk with the aid of a crutch, the edges of her wrapper gingerly hitched up with her left hand so as to prevent the urine from soiling it. The doctors were all agreed that her case was quite pathetic and complex and required the serious attention of experts who would have to perform another operation on her, with a view to repairing the damaged uterus. This would require a lot of money and none seemed forthcoming from her rich husband who was yet to forgive her for what he called her selfishness. Why would she fall sick after killing his child? She never failed to remind him by her acts that he was older than her father. What coldness! Making love to her was like sleeping with a corpse. A mechanical act that always left him more frustrated than before. Yes, she had extended her hatred for him to his innocent child in her womb, the heartless murderess! There were no two ways about it. The witch!
On the seventh month, Hafsat was discharged from the hospital to pave way for new cases that were springing up by the hour. She could go home and continue with her medication, said the doctors, until the money was made available for the major operation. Unfortunately, the only hospital which performed the operation free of charge was the renowned Jesa Missionary Hospital run by some British missionaries. Al-Mustapha's alibi was that if he allowed his wife to go there, he might lose her to the Christian faith, for many were the Muslim child mothers who went there for medical treatment only to come back properly healed and professing Christianity. No, he would not stand and watch Islamdom being depopulated by the kafris. No, he vowed not to allow that to happen to him. He'd rather Hafsat died as a Muslim and went to Paradise than be converted to Christianity, the religion of the arna.
Hafsat suddenly awoke at the commotion from without. What was the matter? Could the house be on fire? Or had there been an ethno-religious riot in town? Form her room-turned-hospital, she could hear loud cries from outside, mostly from women. Involuntarily, she reached for her crutch and with a great effort, limped to her feet and made bravely for the door. Something was definitely amiss in the Al-Mustpha household to warrant this pandemonium. She pushed the door gently open and found herself hastening awkwardly through the narrow corridor that led to the large courtyard. She was anaesthetized to the sharp pain she was feeling. The closer she got to the courtyard, the louder the bedlam. When she made the balcony, she saw the most senior wife of Al-Mustapha's rolling on the downstairs floor, almost naked, crying at the top of her voice. The other women and the children were engaged in different forms of mourning.
What is the matter? asked Hafsat breathlessly, to one of the children on the balcony with her.
They say Baba is dead, replied one of the little children. The older ones were too involved in their bereavement to answer her question.
Inna lillahi wa inna illaihi rajuna! she muttered solemnly under her breath. Al-Mustapha? No, how did it happen? The little child said it was in an accident. Baba was involved in a head-on collision with a trailer carrying heavy lead and was mangled beyond recognition. Al-Mustapha was Baba, Father, to his children.
Dazedly the crutch in her right hand dropped to the floor with a clatter as Hafsat tried to work herself into an emotional hysteria, tearing and pulling at her hair. She had to stage a make-believe mourning for her dead husband lest his three older wives and their children brand her a witch. To make the tears course down freely, she cast her mind back to the most tear-wrenching incident in her past. She cried and cried as she had never cried before. She wept tears of exhilaration. Free at last! Allah in His infinite mercy had seen into her inner cry and released her from this farce of a marriage, this bondage where she had to compete for a man's love against three women of her mother's age. Allah had fought for her against a callous man who felt no qualm of conscience in raping the innocence of a child.
Before the sun set on that gloomy day, the remains of Al-Mustapha were brought to his palatial house, bathed and wrapped in a simple shroud, and finally conveyed to the graveyard in accordance with the Islamic rites of passage. All the four wives of the deceased including Hafsat had to observe the obligatory iddah period of four months and four days in his house. The Chief Imam of the Central Mosque was invited to share the deceased's estate, in strict adherence to the Islamic law of inheritance, after removing his debts and bequests to other people. With her sizable share of Al-Mustapha's estate, Hafsat took off to live her own life as an independent woman, immune to the whims and caprices of men and her sexist society. For the very first time in her life, she took her life in her palm to make something of it, to think for herself, first as a human being before being a woman. She got herself properly treated at the Jesa Missionary Hospital without being converted; in fact, her temperament now was beyond religion and love. And she went back to school to continue with her education up to the level of National Certificate of Education from the famous Advanced Teachers College, Daura.
No, never again, she vowed. One was enough. Mahmoud was always moved by her narration of her life with Al-Mustapha, then how she flouted her father's advice to re-marry and went back to school, and her life at the Advanced Teachers College, Daura, before she met him at the Kofar Gwari Secondary School. They could enjoy their relationship, but marriage was simply out of the question. Besides, was he not already married to two other women? Or did he want to glorify his male ego by adding her to his harem of women living in perpetual, veil-covering darkness in the name of purdah? No, Allah forbid! Unfortunately, she had reckoned without the new law.
When Hafsat resumed work on the following Monday, she was surprised to meet the entire academic staff of her new school, Sheikh Hamza Memorial Academy, Kwali, huddled together in the staff-room like defenceless chicks in a rainstorm. She had recently joined this private school after her graduation from the Advanced Teachers College with a view to staying for some time until a greener pasture came her way. The atmosphere in the school today was very tense as if a state of emergency or from-dawn-to-dusk curfew had been declared, or there was a coup by the military. The raging subject of the day was Sharia, the Islamic legal system, declared by the incumbent Governor of the state in a dawn statewide radio broadcast. Vexed questions were thrown into the air like the bullets of an AK 47. What was the constitutionality of his action? How would the federal government react to this action by this upstart of a Governor, capable of engulfing the entire nation in an unpredictable crisis or even a full-scale civil war? Was his action not tantamount to seceding from the federation?
Sharia is part and parcel of Islam, pontificated Ustaz Bello, with his heavy Hausa accent, the goateed Islamic Religious Knowledge teacher of the school. It was obvious from his heavy beard like the prophets of old that he was already Sharia-compliant even before the Governor thought of enforcing it. He continued: You cannot possibly take a knife and sever one from the other because they are intricately linked together like Siamese twins, anyway, before science devised a means of separating them. No true Muslim can live without Sharia. In fact, the Muslims of this country have been living the lives of half-Muslims in the unholy name of this evil contraption in our constitution called 'secular state!' Nigeria is not a secular state. Yes, it's high time we Muslims in this country asserted our inalienable right to practise the religion of Allah, to live and die by Sharia, the law of Allah, subhana wa-tallah, he fumed like a fanatic during a Jihad.
Mallam, I'm afraid to say that you are side-stepping the main issue here, chipped in Hafsat. The crux of the matter here is: is it constitutional to practise Sharia fully, such as amputating the arm of a poor man caught stealing a miserable cow in this country? I mean, what do our constitution and the Penal Code say? Have they not outlawed amputation? Is it not against our criminal justice system? In a word, what is the constitutionality of Sharia? asked Hafsat.
The question of whether Sharia is constitutional or not does not arise here, replied the learned Ustaz. You're a Muslim and I am a Muslim. In short, all of us here are Muslims and all true Muslims want Sharia. Simple and short. The question of whether it is constitutional or not should not in any way bother any of us here. Let the kafris contest that at the Supreme Court. Instead of that, we should all be thanking Allah for giving us a man like Alhaji Ahmadu Isa, the Zakin Maza, may Allah in His infinite mercy prolong his life, he submitted most passionately. But Hafsat was not done yet.
Come to think of it, one would expect a religious leader to introduce Sharia and not an Executive Governor, a political leader voted into power by the electorate, stabbed Hafsat rather fatally. This is political Sharia and it must fizzle out!
By Allah, you're a rebel, Hafsat. An enemy of Islam. My advice to you is to watch how you talk in this new dispensation because things will not be the same as they used to be, prophesied Ustaz Bello, in a crestfallen voice.
Hafsat cursed under her breath at the long traffic hold-up along Tafawa Balewa Junction. If the heavy traffic was not cleared in the next few minutes, she would definitely throw up, what with this feeling of nausea welling up in her throat. It was a month since the Executive Governor had introduced the Sharia legal system to the new state. The people of the state had long resigned their fate to the new law. The non-Muslims selling alcoholic drinks were banned, so was the running of brothels. Any woman caught hawking her body would be arrested and prosecuted accordingly. Many had fled from the state who felt they could not live with the new law.
A car hooted behind her, jolting her to the present. Hafsat lifted her face from the steering wheel and saw that the traffic was gradually thinning away. The clock on the dashboard indicated a quarter to nine. One whole hour! She gently released the clutch and the car surged forward. A few metres away, she could see the twinkling lights of the torches of mobile policemen at the checkpoint. Ever since the sectarian crisis precipitated by the introduction of Sharia in the state where Muslims and Christians killed one another with glee, checkpoints now dotted every major street of Kasanga State like in a police state. She pulled up by the kerb to enable the officers on duty to conduct their search, quickly fiddling with the head-veil. Three officers approached her car with their guns cocked at the ready only to discover that it was a woman and they waved her along, drawing their nail-studded wood from the road. In spite of the intervention of the federal government to quell the mayhem unleashed on the state by deploying the army and mobile police, there were still pockets of silent, guerilla-like killings in the night in areas where Muslims or Christians were in the majority.
The feeling of nausea became more acute as Hafsat arrived home and made to unlock the door to the sitting room of her two-bedroom bungalow. She flung her handbag onto one of the settees, rushed to the bathroom and threw up all that she had eaten for the day into the sink. Save for the throbbing pain in her head, she felt a little relief come upon her. She flushed the vomit down the drain and made for the bedroom. Maybe a little sleep would rejuvenate the lost energy. Mahmoud, she whispered the name softly to herself, smiling with the contentment of one that hadn't a care in the whole world. Mahmoud. The name that conjured up beautiful, beautiful things in her life. A magical name, Mahmoud. An open sesame in a troubled world. She was still thinking of Mahmoud when she drifted off to dream-filled sleep.
Hafsat suddenly awoke at a loud banging on the entrance door. She was surprised to find herself engulfed in a thick darkness. Where was she? The banging at the door was repeated, this time with greater intensity as if whoever was knocking was bent on breaking the door open. Who could that be at this unholy hour of the night? Another loud banging on the door.
Wait a minute. I'm coming, shouted Hafsat as she quickly hopped off the bed, felt her way to the sitting room, still in her outdoor clothes. A click and the sitting room was flooded with lights. She headed for the door, but caution made her hesitate before opening it. There was no security in the state any longer, not since the outbreak of sectarian crisis in the state, and she was alone. Ramatu was now on her own, teaching in a different town in the state.
Who is that? She had to be sure before she ushered armed robbers into her house. Of late, armed robbers had taken advantage of the crisis to strike their victims with impunity.
Open the door first and see who is that, came a gravelly voice. It was obvious that he was not alone.
What do you want here?
It would be in your own interest to open the door for us first, came the authoritative voice again.
There was a pause as Hafsat braced herself and unlocked the door. Suddenly, there was a rush of cold air as she was roughly pushed aside by the leader of the group and they stormed into the house like a swarm of locusts. They were about ten men in number, looking rather grotesque in their uniforms, like boy scouts. Hafsat breathed a sigh of relief in spite of herself when she discovered that they were the Hisbah men, the local security operatives empowered to enforce the new law, to arrest all those who ran foul of the law.
What do you want here?
She could as well be talking to deaf-mutes, for as soon as the men entered the room, they proceeded to take the whole house to pieces, obviously looking for something, maybe an incriminating document or object. When they were through, they filed back to the sitting room, with disappointment clearly written on their faces. The leader walked up to her and said in Hausa:
I'm afraid you have to come with us to the station.
Whatever on earth for?
You are under arrest. We do not intend to be rough with you, Miss Zubairu, unless you give us reason to be.
This must be an obscene joke, officer. I mean, can't I be told what my offence is?
She had committed the offence of adultery, they said, and must be made to face the full wrath of the law.
The trial of Hafsat attracted widespread interest from the international community because of the controversial nature of the case. The State House of Kasanga State could not keep up with the deluge of petitions to release Hafsat from world Presidents, Prime Ministers, Heads of State, the Secretary-General of the UN, international Human Rights organizations, world Women's Rights organizations and several other local NGOs. But it seemed the more the international community mounted pressure for the release of Hafsat, the more hardened and adamant the Kasangese State government became in her insistence to prove a point to a secular world. Justice must prevail irrespective of whose life was at stake. The law must take its full natural course, unperverted, and must be blind to any sacred cow. The courtroom was usually packed to overflowing on any day the trial came up for hearing. Foreign journalists from the BBC, VOA, CNN, and a host of other international stations were always around with their giant satellites conspicuously mounted outside the premises of the court. The Attorney-General of the state called few witnesses including Mahmoud to prove his case beyond reasonable doubt. What was more, Hafsat's seven-month-old pregnancy was all the damning evidence the prosecution needed to nail her. In the end, the trial court delivered its judgment much to the chagrin of a bewildered world.
PRESIDING QADI: We find you, Miss Hafsat Zubairu, guilty on all counts and hereby convict you accordingly. [Pause, to HAFSAT in the dock] Prisoner at the bar, you have been given a fair trial and found guilty as charged. Have you anything to say for yourself as to why this honourable court should not sentence you according to law?
HAFSAT: [defiantly] What would you have me say, pray, my Lords? Go down on my knees and deny upon my soul the life kicking inside of me? No, my Lords, I dare your sentence. For it's not death that I fear but the kind of society that your inhuman law creates ... the ... the ...
DEFENCE COUNSEL: [springs to his feet to save the situation] With the greatest humility, your Lordships, I am aware that there is nothing I'm going to say here that will make your Lordships change the verdict of this honourable court. Allah forbid that your Lordships would approbate and reprobate at the same time. Be that as it may, the utmost I can do at this stage, as it were, is to appeal most passionately to the fatherly hearts of our Lordships to please and please spare the life of this convict. I say let her live, my Lords! For here is a young, promising woman with an innocent life kicking in her womb. For the sake of the child in her womb, I implore your Lordships to spare her life. For what foster mother can ever take the place of the biological mother of a child's life? I say none! [Pause] She is also a first offender in the eyes of the law. I repeat, this is the first time she has ever breached the law of this land. In the light of this, I implore your Lordships to temper justic
e with mercy by commuting her sentence to one of life imprisonment. I admit her offences were heinous by our law, but must your Lordships as fathers aggrieved by the impertinence of a recalcitrant child, throw it away with the bath water? I say an emphatic NO! Justice is not justice if it is not tempered with divine mercy. Even William Shakespeare, the great English playwright, said:
The quality of mercy is not strain'ed, -
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest, -
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest ...
Need I say more? No, your Lordships. [Pause] I trust that your Lordships would be moved by the milk of human kindness to save the life of this poor girl. Thank you, my Lords. [Sits down. There is a graveyard silence in the court]
PRESIDING QADI: [after a brief consultation with his two other colleagues, punctuated with several nods of heads, scribbles and gives them to sign. He reads] We have heard the passionate plea of allocutus made by the learned counsel on behalf of the convict. However, we are afraid that this honourable court would be seen to shirk in its responsibilities to the society if it awarded a sentence not commensurate with the gravity of the offences by which the convict was found guilty, and as prescribed by the law of Allah, the Most High. In the light of the foregoing, this is the sentence of this honourable court. [Chorus of 'As the court pleases' from the bar. A pregnant silence] The sentence of this honourable court on you, Miss Hafsat Zubairu, is that you shall be taken to the prison custody until ye be delivered of the child in your womb, and five days later you shall be buried right up to your neck and stoned to death, and may the Almighty Allah have mercy on your sinful soul. Amen.
The sentence of Hafsat by the Sharia High Court was greeted with an international outcry. Foreign delegations trooped the Kasangese State House to plead for amnesty on her behalf. The Western media took up the fight in vilifying what they called the 'Draconian law' that belonged to the Dark Ages where life was cruel, brutish and short, where might was right. The ever-vibrant Kasangese press was combat-ready for any showdown with their Western, anti-Sharia counterparts. What moral justification had the West to condemn the judgment of the Sharia High Court of Kasanga State? Had it acquitted itself of legalizing gay marriages and abortions? How many innocent human lives were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq just to glorify the whims of a mad war President? No, these misbegotten nihilists could see the tiniest specks in their neighbours' eyes, but remained pitch-blind to the logs in their own eyes. It was a grand Western conspiracy to stamp out Islam from the surface of the earth and they would never succeed In-sha-Allah. The kafris!
An appeal was quickly lodged before the Supreme Sharia Court to set aside the judgment and sentence of the lower court. But the world never bargained for the rude shock it received when the apex court not only affirmed the decision of the lower court wholesale but made a consequential order for a nanny to be employed after the birth of the child. Five days later, its mother was to die.
Hafsat's days in the condemned cell of Kwali Maximum Security Prison were quite memorable. She had suddenly been catapulted to stardom overnight by the controversies generated by her trial, the trial of suffering womanhood as some Western press called it. There were threats by the US, the European Union and other superpowers to impose blanket sanctions on the country if the federal government allowed the poor woman to be killed in what they called a judicial murder, for a law that clearly offended the rule of retroactive justice. This angle was propounded by pro-human rights organizations all over the world, which roundly condemned the law and its retroactive application as being inhuman. The kernel of their argument was that Hafsat was six months pregnant before the law came into existence and thus could not be convicted for an offence that was committed when there was no law carrying capital punishment. This again irked the ever-militant Kasangese press which dismissed such argument as merely frivolous and academic and having no place in Islamic law. While these controversies raged on outside the confines of the condemned cell, Hafsat received VIP treatment from both the prison wardens and envoys from Western powers. She ate the best food a prison inmate could ever eat in the country, and had some of the best doctors in the world flown from abroad to attend to her medical needs with a view to ensuring a hitch-free delivery. However, the reality of her precarious situation began to dawn on her when she was delivered of the child and no amnesty was forthcoming from the Kasangese State government. With death staring unblinkingly on her face, Hafsat was overcome by the intense feeling of gloom. Five days later, the mother was to die, the court had ruled. She had five days to die if nothing was done. Five supersonic days.
With a few hours to her execution, Hafsat could not help but smile to herself, amused at the hypocrisy of the whole system. Who would cast the first stone? Who was that sinless man or woman out there who would cast the first stone at her? Was it the men who always drank themselves to stupor at the mammy markets of the Army barracks where the long arms of Sharia could not reach them? Or their sanctimonious women who always veiled themselves in the daytime like angels, but before the night spread her black muslin upon the sullen earth, and would be seen going about visiting men in the unholy name of 'going to Angwan'?
When eventually the women wardens came for her, Hafsat was ready for them. She cast her last defiant look upon a weary world and mumbled a silent prayer: Ma Salam!
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