Knowing Books: My Grandfather and a Journey Through Libya

But the past does not exist independently of the present…The Past—or, more accurately, pastness—is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing The Past

It helps to consider the ancestors sometimes. To look into their gaze from below and enter their minds and from there contemplate their grief. What were their dying moments like and what was the last thought that lingered most in their minds before they crossed the threshold of death?

For my grandfather, it was probably the Sahara, with its arid hotness and the sand dunes that slowly bury weary bones in their loins and swallow pilgrims questing for life elsewhere. Grandpa’s greatest longing before passing was for a son that never returned home, even if his daughter, through whom I was direct kin, did stay back, she and her other siblings, nursing him in his last days.

Against grandpa’s greatest wishes, his eldest daughter never did get around to fulfilling her old man’s desires. She had other plans that later culminated in her decades-long business in the heart of the beauty industry on Lagos Island. If you needed some Brazilian hair weaves at a Balogun shop, she was probably your surest option. Mum is the most natural salesperson you would find, but grandpa wanted so badly to see his children, those who left and those who stayed, have some formal, educational training. From her, it became clear to grandpa he had to turn his attention to the next generation, mine.

He had a culture of incentivizing us whenever we visited, offering cash and books to take back home. His library of UK-styled Arithmetic and English readers was no longer fashionable but that could hardly stop him. It didn’t matter to him. A much-changed curriculum was not a match for his gift of books. Becoming at home with them and reading as many as we could find was all he wanted. He would constantly press the importance of knowing books.

Among the Yorùbá, a true philosophy of education appears to begin with becoming one with the world of letters. To know books, mọ ìwé, is to be at home with literacy as in a sensual experience that erupts as intimate knowledge. It is as if being able to read and truly becoming knowledgeable is to become one in mind and spirit with the books you read; to know books becomes that necessary intercourse with printed texts that congeals the most special kinship with them. The book itself—ìwé—is, as a Nigerian scholar later told me, a sign of belonging to a privileged class. Naturally then, in grandpa’s world, to know books was the surest way to becoming known and famous⁠—if you wanted that; to become a person of worth, you had to mọ ìwé.

Photo: Tomas Milik

The thing is, grandpa’s love for books derives from a cosmopolitan ethic that is traceable to his travels. Among other destinations, he had gone to Mecca and became what people in southwest Nigeria would call an Alhaji. Growing up and hearing this appellation, I had thought that was his name and I would fondly refer to him by that. But he was a man of faith who was devoted to the teachings of the Prophet.

Beyond that, he was a man who could read people, for his temperament was of a peaceful and tranquil disposition, the type that suffered long the ill-treatment of others. I sometimes thought his ethics and attitude to life were shaped by his Yorùbá upbringing in Lagos.

There was something beautiful about his gentleness and the constant ambience of grace he exuded. Well, most of the time, with the occasional times being when he would threaten to get the stick whenever I threw the kind of tantrums peculiar to my pre-teen age. His eyes were tender and soft. So were his words, although forcefully when necessary.

As I became more discerning of my environment, I came to appreciate the elasticities of a certain Yorùbá religious pragmatism in the man, so much that when I ran away from stick-wielding and mean tutors at my Quranic school to become a Christian, he never withheld his affections. The popular narrative about religious conversion and the hostility that sometimes attend that in places like Nigeria was something I heard about but hardly experienced from those closest to me.

But I could tell he was deeply hurt. Yet it was a battle he did not mind losing as long as being in school and having good grades were still in place. To him, and as I guessed later it was with most in his generation, a legacy of educated lineage was something to be proud of. To aspire to even if you have to lose some battles.

But he had other battles, beyond the domestic skirmishes of children who wanted to ká owó, rather than ká ìwé, children whose major preference was the lure of capital, rather than books. As someone who had real estate property in abundance, he fought hard to keep some of the houses he had built on lands hotly contested by other more powerful families and landowners in Lagos. Having few connections in the Lagos state hierarchies, unlike some of his competitors meant he lost many of these investments.

His greatest battle, that of every Nigerian parent of his era, was the forces that thwarted the legacy of education he sought for his children. There was one, in particular; let’s call him Hassan, who had so much promise but had his light deemed by an erratic mind that was constantly high on drugs. In a sphere where such things were hardly regulated, Hassan became undone by a gradual overdose of weed and cannabis.

But he too wanted a better life. So long before to japa entered the Nigerian cultural lexicon, long before images of floating bodies by the shores of Europe became a regular pastime of news networks and social media, he had been convinced a journey to the West through the Sahara would offer him a new lease of life.

Billy was supposed to arrange this. He was a friend of Hassan’s who lived in the same neighbourhood in the Surulere area. He had assured grandpa a journey through Libya was the surest path. Acting as some kind of travel agent with familiarity from his own travels abroad, he had promised to help Hassan as long as grandpa was ready to splash out the money.

Being the man he was, Grandpa did and so began Billy’s endless request for money. He needed to so badly help his friend surmount every hurdle he would claim. To help Hassan, who had become sober and focused on a clean start, achieve his dreams was the goal, Billy claimed.

And so Hassan left Lagos, but Billy never left grandpa’s purse. The endless demand for money was like an unwanted note in a beautiful sequence of a Jazz routine. As Grandpa obliged every time, Hassan was always said to want more. The thought of a son who was stranded in some far, unknown country was unbearable. The more Billy asked for money, the more grandpa gave him, yet only Billy could talk directly with Hassan since they had both travelled out of the country.

When the whispers began, grandpa knew something sinister had taken place, but he could not be sure. Hassan had gone for a long while, and although Billy had stopped requesting money, nobody knew where my uncle really was.

Billy, back in Lagos one rare summer, assured the family all was fine with Hassan where he was, but this country was a riddle only Billy could solve. He assured grandpa and everyone connected to him that Hassan merely needed more time to settle where he had found a new home. That, as a matter of fact, he might actually need more money! A desperately longing father was growing suspicious.

But grandpa never heard from Hassan again. Certainly not before his wife, my grandma who sold pap and fufu at a popular crossroad passed away, not knowing the fate of her son. Billy had made promises Hassan would call as soon as he settled down in Europe. But the phone never rang. In 2014, grandpa joined his wife in the ranks of the ancestors, never knowing what had become of his investments in a son’s quest for meaningfulness far away from home.

Before his final exit, he had called me one day after my arrival in Saskatoon for doctoral training. It was one of those regular Prairie days. The weather was raining ice outside and the temperature was a familiar narrative of frigidness. Winter came early that year and poring was the first snow that would later melt in May. I was about to head to a store on 8th street to get my winter tires when my phone rang. It was grandpa.
He wanted to know if I had seen Hassan. If I had found a way to connect with him since I left Nigeria. Had I spoken with him? It was as if he needed to confirm Hassan’s years of silence were not rumours of an eternal absence in the body. I had crossed to the West and could easily get in touch with my uncle, he reasoned.

“Have you spoken with him?” The voice on the other end of my Samsung A8 gave me shivers. It was the most distraught voice I ever heard. The quivering voice of a father whose son never returned. His fears and regrets, translated by radio waves across the Atlantic.

I told him I would get on the internet and see if I could find some leads online, any traces of a son for a father who wanted closure. As an elder, he did not have to remind me that ‘‘Ọmọ-o mí kú’’ yá ju ‘‘Ọmọo mí nù’’ lọ. To lose a child to death was more tolerable than simply losing a child. The wisdom of the elders: ọmọ mìí kú is deemed a better loss because it brings closure to the mourning process; whereas, in ọmọ mìí nù, the mourning is an endless season of frigid snow without heat. Nothing ends and melancholy forever threatens. But aren’t both losses a path to troubled sighs, a reminder that hope is always haunted by loss? The hope that what you have lost will take a concrete shape before you someday condemns you to a tragic longing that makes closure elusive. But how do you close something that refuses to be closed?

My grandfather did not wait for me to return his call. He too, like his wife before him, bid the earth a final goodbye, leaving behind a grief he could not fully express; a mourning I can only take up in the wake of an inscrutable loss.

Never knowing the fate of his son, whether swallowed by Sahara’s sands or buried under Sicily’s depths, he died with scars of hope unfulfilled, drowning in a sea of sorrow, with his heart frozen by a trauma that became food for the next generation. They remain with mom today even when she doesn’t talk about Hassan. There is something haunting about her silence, like a horror story on the pages of a tragic book.

As I close this meditation and think of Hassan’s past life that is really not past, I have come to know a book that I can only describe as activating an upsetting experience of reading, not for its poetic and beautiful language, but for the tragedies it unfurls: Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake in which she explores the precarity of Black lives, and mortality in the many afterlives of slavery as evocative of “the past that is not past” and which “reappears, always, to rupture the present.” Like the undying question Hassan’s passage through Libya left in its wake: are you still alive?

Leave a Reply Cancel reply