Senegalese author Mariama Ba, in her much acclaimed novel So Long a Letter, shines a light on the lives of Muslim women she got to know while growing up in Senegal.
In the book, Ba highlights the helplessness, sorrow and resignation of the protagonist, Ramatoulaye. After the death of her husband, Ramatoulaye writes to her best friend, reminiscing about the past and her present state as a widow in a conservative and patriarchal Muslim society.
And, in like mind, Nigerian writer Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, in his book Seasons of Crimson Blossoms, tells the story of Hajiya Binta Zubairu, a 55-year-old widow in conservative northern Nigeria, who falls in love with a man in his 20s. Binta could easily be an older Ramatoulaye, emboldened and making her own choices.
As Season of Crimson Blossoms opens Hajiya Binta Zubairu’s family is unhappy. She has lost her husband to a mob of religious zealots in Jos, and her first son Yaro was killed by the police. Binta now lives with her sister’s child Fa’iza, who is also haunted by a violent death she witnessed.
Binta’s story is set against the backdrop of the volatile north of Nigeria, where she leads the ordinary, quiet life of a faithful Muslim housewife, performing her ablutions, saying her Subhi prayers, reading the Koran, attending the madrasa and sewing. She often thinks about how she could have better loved her firstborn son, but tradition forbade her from showing affection.
Her life changes one afternoon when she returns from the madrasa to find a burglar, Hassan Reza Babale, in her house. He had come to steal her property but leaves instead with her heart.
She warms up to his touch, the first since her husband died a decade earlier. She is appalled by the awakening of her deeply buried sexual feelings, and is quick to blame Shaytan for sowing impious thoughts in her mind.
In the liberal spirit of the 21st century, Ibrahim lets Binta choose her lover without caring that he is younger than most of her children. As a girl, she was forced to marry a stranger thrust upon her by a dictatorial father. As a grown woman, Binta lets sexual attraction be the guiding light of her new relationship; a bond in which she gets as much as she gives, a liaison in which her body is no longer a source of shame but of pleasure to herself and to the man she chooses to give herself to.
Ibrahim writes: “He took her things and left, having sown in her the seed of her awakening that would eventually sprout into a corpse flower, the stench of which would resonate far beyond her imagining.”
Ibrahim masterfully baits his tale with suspense to whet our appetite for more. He exposes the harsh, judgmental, self-righteous reactions of Binta’s family and friends and the larger society, a people who refuse to forgive and forget.
Beneath the bubus, hijabs and perfect makeup, he writes about mothers and sisters who yearn for love and understanding even as they morph from victims to creators of their own destinies.
Ibrahim dedicates the book to his homeland, northern Nigeria, a region largely ignored by local writers.
He writes about Nigeria’s recent political history, affirming Chinua Achebe’s longstanding argument that a writer must engage in the politics of his day.
The author draws pictures with phrases like: “She dreamt in sepia. Like rust-tainted water running over the snapshots of her memory, submerging her dreams in a stream of reddish brown.”
Ibrahim’s characters are sensitive and their domestic lives plausible; the conversations are realistic.