“The careful mixing of history and fiction is intriguing and not something many are able to pull off without bias, but Richard Ali does a moderately good job of it.”
In Richard Ali’s debut novel, City of Memories, love is given a prominent place as the cause of almost all the events that occur throughout the book, with focus on the relationships between Faruk and Rahila, Ummi Al Qassim and Ahmad and Usman, Rahila and her mother, Eunice. He spins the ultimate tale of forbidden love in a typical northern setting. He tells the story of Rahila and Faruk, and of the love they shared. He is a Muslim, she is a Christian, he is Fulani, she is indigenous to the North Central, her mother and his father are arch enemies.
In the throes of love, defiance and rebellion, Rahila and Faruk think themselves invincible, until a series of events leads to their breakup, with Eunice calling for Faruk’s head. In a bid to protect him, his father, Ibrahim Dibarama sends Faruk to Bolewa, North Eastern Nigeria, to learn more about his mother, a quest that has been a point of contention between them. In Bolewa, he learns of his mother’s elusive past, Ummi Al Qassim, and the tragedy that befell her, turning her into the unstable bedridden woman he grew up to know.
In Bolewa, he finds love and solace and peace he has never had but more than anything else, he finds answers. Armed with knowledge and new found peace, we see Faruk return to Jos, to Rahila and to the broken pieces of his city ravaged in the name of religion and ethnicity. There, he finds the pain that has been brought by the same love he holds, the love that had broken Ummi Al Qassim, and nearly sent him and everything held dear to destruction as it did his mother.
Ummi Al Qassims’ tale is told in beautifully crafted flashbacks from people who had known her, her lovers, and her written entries. Though a certain amount of vagueness is deliberately kept to enshroud the mystery of Ummi Al Qassim, I couldn’t help but be disappointed about the unraveled mystery, feeling as if the story is kept vague for no good reason. The stealth and all the reluctance from everyone over any mention of Ummi, gave me a sort of thrill, an anticipation that eventually fell flat. Though beautifully captured, the past of Ummi Al Qassim falls woefully short of expectations.
Born of noble blood, we first glimpse Ummi in the throes of insanity, which is the only way her son has ever known her. Her tale is a classic tale of monarchs and feuds between families; of stunning poetry and love so deep it transcends the understanding of most people. Ummi’s story is shown as a mirror of her son Faruk; we see the depth with which she loved her young prince, Usman Waziri just as Faruk loved his Rahila, and despite the long standing feud between their families, their love holds strong, until their eventual separation, which sends her into the arms of the Arab poet Ahmad Anwar. This love of theirs will be the reason for countless deaths and destruction, and the loss of Ummi Al Qassim, for hers was a tragic life, and her love took all from her, leaving her a shell of her former self. This fate is one that Faruk learns might become his, leading him to make different choices he might not have made.
Richard Ali built a captivating story drawing from classical tales the likes of “A tale of Two Cities” and maybe a hint of “The Great Gatsby”. The story flows exquisitely even if slightly tedious in certain parts as a result of long discussions of events that leave you winded and waiting for the plot to take off. The careful mixing of history and fiction is intriguing and not something many arr able to pull off without bias, but Richard Ali does a moderately good job of it.
Lyrical in some places and blunt in others, Richard portrays the idea of Africa, of Northern Nigeria via the usage of indigenous terms and depicting the North in an idealistic, medieval sort of way.
City of memories is a wonderful read. It emphasizes love as a phenomenon that makes the reader crave the feeling, building it into something truly magnificent, the kind of book you might not fall in love with, but will surely love its characters.
Book: City of Memories
Author: Richard Ali
Publisher: Parresia Publishers (2012)
The reviewer, Habiba Malumfashi has her bio in the members’ profile section.