Where there’s lust, there’s shame

by Sabine Scholl

Endlich! (Ausgabe I/2020)

The main character of the book is the clever, educated widow Binta, who lives alone with her niece and granddaughter in a house without men. Her husband, her first son and her nephew all died violent deaths. The women are subject to strict rules: veiling, behaviour, life styles, everything is controlled by men. Their task is to bear as many children as possible. There are even rules for sexual intercourse. The woman must not show any desire. The man has to be quick. But Binta, despite her painful history, has retained her stubbornness. Although she’s a believer, she doesn't want to resist the advances of the crook Reza, who first entered her house as a burglar.

Her new lover is motherless, he grew up in his father's second family and suffers from this fact to this day. Binta herself feels guilty for the death of her son, who she chased out of the house because of his drug consumption. These losses play a role in the love affair and induce incestuous impulses. And where there is lust, a sense of shame, bad conscience and the awareness of sin are not far away.

The stench of cockroaches precedes all misfortune, it is said

The author describes a protagonist who is hypersensitive to smell. The stench of cockroaches precedes all misfortune, it is said, and the "unmistakable plague of sin" exudes her body after Binta lets herself be seduced. She fears God's punishment and wants to dissuade her lover from his criminal career. The affair becomes more complicated when Binta's daughter moves in with her because of marital problems and tries to bring an old lover into the picture. In this way, the gripping plot heads towards its end - and towards another death.

Women's bodies are the ones that bear the brunt. In north-western Nigeria, it is nothing unusual that girls are forced to marry at the age of 13 and then become pregnant, in fact that happens in three quarters of all marriages. Since their bodies are too young for pregnancy and births, which are not attended by professionals, the girls are often injured, and, in the absence of medical assistance, continue to plague them throughout their lives. Female genital mutilation is also widespread in Nigeria to guarantee virginity and prevent female promiscuity. Ibrahim's novel must be read against this background to understand how many taboos are challenged with his story of an elderly widow who first discovers and then enjoys her sexuality with her much younger lover.

But the "Season of Crimson Blossoms" also addresses the violence and conflict which shaped Nigeria in recent decades, as well as the traumas which ensued and the people who were left behind. Binta’s niece, who witnessed the murder of her brother, has visions which makes her family think she has been claimed by the devil. In the end it is the Muslim priest who refrains from such methods.

you shudder and marvel, for example, at the fact that a gold tooth enormously increases the attractiveness of women

Despite all the problems, Ibrahim sketches his characters with a light hand, poetically, lovingly and even with humour. Compared to other Nigerian-born authors, such as Helon Habila or Teju Cole, who became famous via the USA, where they studied and published, Ibrahim works in Nigeria. His story remains untouched by the tastes and interests of European and American publishers. Northern Nigerian literature is usually written in the Hausa language, which is not widely spoken in the south. Ibrahim deliberately chose English to bridge the gap between the south and the north, which is considered to be the backwoods. This can make reading the novel like traveling to an unknown country. You observe and reflect, make connections, stumble upon new expressions and situations, you shudder and marvel, for example, at the fact that a gold tooth enormously increases the attractiveness of women.

Local readers, of course, recognise local details immediately. Since the author also works as a journalist, his descriptions turn out to be accurate and dense, such as the constant power cuts that affect everyone; the corrupt politicians who, with the help of gangsters, influence the outcome of elections; the contempt for homosexuals and prostitutes; of the crooks' world, in which criminals drug themselves and cling to superstition. In one impressive scene Ibrahim describes the hustle and bustle in the gangster district, where Binta's lover rules the roost. In the evening a snake charmer appears, beating the drum and singing. His audience dances, the musician tells of adventures with easy women from Eko, the donkey riders from Ezamgbo, the marabouts of Agadez, his escapades with the fishermen of Busa and his time in the illegal mines of Kebbi.

In the evening a snake charmer appears, beating the drum and singing. His audience dances, the musician tells of adventures

At this point at the latest, many European readers realise that they have no idea of African geography. We can only just about pinpoint Agadez on the map. And so it is with many details in the novel, which is written for a local audience. Its publication comes thanks to Bibi Bakare Yusuf, who founded the Nigerian publishing house Cassava Republic to create an independent literary scene. She was the one who first published Ibrahim's debut and the now famous Teju Cole. The author Lola Shoneyin, whose novel "The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives" was published in 2010, is also committed to young literature in Nigeria. She is convinced that the success of local authors should not depend on the West. In this sense, Ibrahim's novel, which does not present a picture of "Africa" as shaped by Western taste, marks the onset of a new movement.

Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim was published by Cassava Republic Press in the United Kingdom in 2016.

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Where there’s lust, there’s shame

by Sabine Scholl

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s story of love in Nigeria tackles taboos head-on