Mujahid’s collection contains five short stories centering on female experiences. In each story we have a woman battling forces around her, pushing her into a marriage without her consent, or aguishly attending to the demands of her duties. The collection aptly captures the dominant issues of a typical northern home: marriage and procreation on one hand, and loveless and arranged marriage on the other. This is not only happening in the lower class strata but also in the elite circle where the rich parents decide the fate of their children; the only difference is that the children of the elite have a way of neutralizing the marriage and living it under false pretense, funcuckolding and all.
It’s difficult to know, but the woman’s consent that Islam gives to the women seems to be only in theory in our society. What happened in the past was that some women went into loveless marriage on the pronouncements of their parents. While in the present, especially in elite and middle class circle, some women go into marriage as chattels, as commodity in exchange for the debt that their parents owe, or as some bond for some kind of material gain or business link. Stories abound like this and I believe this is what gives integrity to Mujahid’s stories.
Told in second person point of view, the first story “Questions to the Mirror” is about a nameless voice forced into an arranged marriage. She is in anguish and pain. She stands before the mirror and shoots out questions to herself regarding the possible options that she lacks.
If her society considers that marriage is not only about physical growth, as it is not only about biology as our people are wont to see, she would have been spared the pain. Marriage involves chemistry, bonding, emotional attachment and readiness. The woman and the man need to be psychologically ready for a happy and successful marriage, but it seems all the people in the stories don’t consider the feeling and opinion of the girl child.
Why I seem to expend considerable energy railing against arranged marriage is because some people want to corner me except that I stand arms akimbo and fight them, though I am yet to see my end, lol. Nonetheless, it is not entirely bad if the spouse is one that blink in your radar and one you will still marry if you were to meet in Mars.
“First Love” features an unnamed character whose parents are preparing to get her into an arranged marriage. She has a lover who she plans to elope with but who instead impregnates her and runs away to the city, leaving her in ruin and rubbles of her life.
Each woman in the collection has some burden to carry, from the family being disturbed by the news of their son in Boko Haram conscription in “Leaving Borno” to a woman who is forced into violence from antagonism and tension in intermarriage between two different ethnic groups in “Dear Husband”, especially in a polygamous home.“Wingless Bird” is about forced marriage and the faith in bad luck that a woman can bring to a man. A woman is married to a man; there is no love between them. She is married to him as an article in return of material gain for her parents and the school fees of her siblings. Bad luck hits him as per his business and the man blames the woman for his mishap.
All in all, City of Smoke captures matrimonial experiences of the female figures and their struggle in patriarchal society that thinks the first female need is marriage. The book follows in the footsteps of Zainab Alkali’s Cobwebs and Other Stories, that some matrimonial homes are some state of bondage, that women are mostly pressured into marriage, that they are infantilized and must serve as sex objects to their men. Back to back they are faced with choicelessness. In Alkali’s work, however, the women are depicted to have education as their liberation power.
One deceitful thing about this book is that the title doesn’t rhyme with the stories. I thought I would be encountering stories about burning and raging inferno and terror of Boko Haram but it is predominantly about the matrimonial battles. I don’t know why the collection is titled City of Smoke instead of some name that goes way better, maybe Wingless Bird if I may suggest.
Abubakar Suleiman Muhd writes from Kano Nigeria. He’s a graduate of English and Literary Studies from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.