She knew then that her search for Yaro in the eyes of a stranger had unshackled her long-suppressed desires and left the objectionable stench of fornication clinging to her.
I came across Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms in the form of a bookmark tucked in between Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. I remember thinking, what does this title even mean? I’m still not sure I understand this title (outside of this book’s context) but I will say this, it remains the most aptly titled book I have ever read.
This is essentially the story of a devout Muslim older woman, Hajiya Binta, (re)discovering her sexuality with a younger thug, Reza. Hajiya Binta and Reza meet in Hajiya’s house when Reza breaks in to rob her. He does manage to rob her but later returns the stolen goods because Hajiya reminds him of his mother. Even more interestingly, Hajiya refuses to report the robbery because Reza reminds him of his late first born son, Yaro. The first few chapters of this book left me a bit flushed and anxious because for a while, it seemed like Reza might be Binta’s son. Given the obvious sexual attraction…let’s just say I wasn’t prepared to read a book about incest.
Hajiya Binta was married off to her husband, Zubairu, a practical man who fancied their intimacy as an exercise in conjugal frugality. It was something to be dispensed with promptly, without silly ceremonies. Hajiya however wanted it to be different. Three years into the marriage, Hajiya believed, had surely earned her a license to be licentious with her own husband. So one night, instead of rolling on to her back and throwing her legs apart, she rolled into him and reached for his groin. Zubairu being Zubairu however, pinned her down and without further rituals lifted her wrapper.
This book excites me. One of the tenets of my feminism is women unlearning the shame associated with our sexuality: women enthusiastically initiating sex; women exploring their bodies, finding their erogenous zones; women openly talking about sex; women explicitly stating how they want to be pleasured. This is important if we’re to end rape culture. Because when sex is constantly framed as something that is done to women, rape is inevitably viewed as some version of sex. When women can unashamedly say yes to sex, then maybe society will understand that no doesn’t mean “convince me.”
So to have a book where the protagonist is an older woman having sex with a younger man is so incredibly refreshing. Because when it comes to sex, the power dynamics are usually in the older person’s favour. Hajiya being older than Reza already makes the sex about her and that is something we don’t see in real life. But even then, it is clear that Reza believes he has the power in their affair. He once told Hajiya, ‘I thought you despised me for taking advantage of you…’ Their affair is consensual and Reza is about twenty five years younger than Hajiya but he still believes that he took advantage of her.
That being said, there are themes discussed in the book in ways that I find problematic.
I found it telling that Reza is a thug. I guess it works if we’re to consider the story’s credibility, because the setting is in a very religious community. Hajiya couldn’t have an affair with a man that goes to the mosque every Friday. But we also do know that these men are hypocrites so the story would have worked either way. I think Hajiya has an affair with a morally bankrupt man because it speaks on society’s attitude towards sexually liberated women. We think of sexually liberated women as sinners. Hajiya in exploring her sexuality is sinning and it only appropriate that she does that with a fellow sinner.
Even Hajiya buys into this. She is overcome by guilt and shame. She can’t attend classes at the madrasa for fear people would know what had happened. When her daughter, Hadiza, visits her, she keeps her distance. She did not want Hadiza to catch a whiff of the objectionable smell of fornication she was certain she exuded. She also takes to showering more than once a day, wearing strong perfume and burning incense. He once told Reza, ‘I don’t want you making assumptions about me because of what happened. I am a decent, respectable woman, you know. I have never been with any man other than my husband…’
And then there is Mallam Haruna (courting Hajiya to be his third wife) who is annoyed that Hajiya won’t give him attention when she is sleeping with Reza. Mallam Haruna believes that Hajiya has lost her respectability and he is therefore entitled to sex with her. Mallam Haruna takes to coming to Hajiya’s compound almost every day to convince her to go on a date with her. Hajiya, not interested, never agrees and always finds ways to politely get rid of him. Once after such a visit, Mallam Haruna is stunned by her reaction, by her glaring eyes. When Hajiya asks him to leave and never come back to her house, he is insulted and feels it is a great injustice being done to him. He retorts, ‘how dare you? When my two eyes are witnesses to your depravity, when I have seen you leaving the hotel with that insufferable bastard Reza?’
Beyond Mallam Haruna’s entitlement, it is infuriating that Hajiya needs to be nice when rebuffing him given that he was infringing on her space, body and time. Again, this is something women have to constantly deal with. We have to be nice to men sexually harassing us because we don’t want it to escalate; we don’t want to end up dead. In Hajiya’s case, it does escalate. In spite, Mallam Haruna outs Hajiya and Reza and the confrontation leads to the death of her son, Munkaila.
I think this ending is a cautionary tale for women. It’s a threat: your sexual liberation comes at a cost; you will be punished for rejecting respectability. To make matters worse, Munkaila, despises her when he dies. Hajiya recalls how he had growled, ‘Mother’ with such contempt that she still felt the sting. Sexually liberated women get what’s coming to them. Case in point, they are less deserving of justice in case they are sexually assaulted. Yes, women are always blamed when they are sexually assaulted, but there’s more vitriol if the woman in question isn’t a virgin.
Throughout the book, women are defined by their usefulness to the men in their lives. The women that choose self-preservation are presented as worthless. There is Khadija, Hajiya’s daughter, who is portrayed as a difficult person because she keeps leaving her husband. We are made to believe that she is at fault even though her relationship with her husband is not elaborated. For all we know, she might have a good reason for leaving. There is also Reza’s mother who Reza believes is a whore. It does seem like we’re supposed to believe this too even though there is no evidence that she actually is. Her mistake was abandoning Reza. Which is why it’s a bit shocking when Reza is somehow kind and even intrigued by Leila, a girl he kidnaped.
Reza shows genuine interest in Leila so much so, he begins to see Hajiya in a lowly light. He is even abusive towards Hajiya. Once, he threatened to slap Hajiya then later threatened to kill himself if Hajiya doesn’t forgive him. He however cares about Leila. He wants to know about her life, her ambitions. He is concerned when she is in pain. Leila is presented as a full human being, outside of her usefulness to Reza. She is even allowed to be profound. She once told Reza, ‘even if you know the world would end tomorrow plant a tree.’
We could chalk this up to Leila’s age or Reza’s growth but Leila comes from a wealthy family and lives in London. So really, this is about Reza’s anti-blackness and misogynoir (hatred of black women.) It is telling that the only woman Reza sees as an autonomous human being is rich and westernized, i.e, as close to whiteness as it gets. Black men, even the misogynistic ones, always accord white women a level of respect they don’t accord black women. Black men see white women as full human beings deserving of respect and justice but don’t do the same for (poor) black women. Racism isn’t just white people hating us, it makes us hate ourselves too.
It is difficult to tell if Season of Crimson Blossoms is the author’s brilliant commentary on society or just a projection of his bias and misogyny as a man. Either way, it’s worth reading to find out.
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Feature image courtesy of African Writers Trust.