By Femi Osofisan
A week ago, on the 13th July, 2020, it was the 86th birthday of Nigeria’s only Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka. And the day before, in a gesture akin to a birthday surprise present, the Federal government, through its Minister of Communication and Culture, Mr Lai Mohammed, handed over the National Theatre and its extensive surroundings to a consortium of Bankers to develop and subsequently manage.
It was an impressive ceremony, meant to conclude the two decades at least of disputatious wrangling on how best to reactivate the moribund edifice and end its story of decay. Triumphant, the minister beamed with visible glee before the cameras; the bankers danced in ecstasy as they promised humongous financial profits and the creation of jobs. There was a lot of back-slapping and bombast on the coming of mouth-watering returns. And amidst it all, if someone remembered to mention the subject of culture, it must have been in inaudible whispers. That was when my mind went back to the Samarkand Tree.
Not many, I fear, would remember our Samarkand Tree. But for those who do, the ongoing celebration of Wole Soyinka’s birthday must evoke a tinge of nostalgic pain. For it was during a similar celebration, some fifteen years ago, that the Tree acquired its name.
At the time, I was at this same National Theatre in Lagos, running it as its General Manager and Chief Executive Officer. To mark the Nobel Laureate’s 70th birthday, I had organized, together with some of his friends and admirers, a week of cultural events. Soyinka himself had been reluctant at first to participate with us, owing to the prevailing political tensions in the country, personally preferring to make it a private and noiseless affair. But how could that be, for such a personality whose name is Noise itself? We were certainly not prepared to oblige him on this point and, in the end, he had graciously yielded to our appeal.
Well, on this particular day, the scheduled event was a public reading by Kongi himself from his works, and especially his latest collection of poems which had just been published that very month by the Crucible Publishers in Lagos. This reading event was a kind of gamble of course, given the generally indifferent attitude of most Nigerians to print literature. But, with a title like Samarkand And Other Markets I Have Known, the book, we hoped, would attract a sizeable audience. Not to mention the additional boon to participants of meeting the famous laureate in person, hearing him live, and engaging him in dialogue afterwards.
We were not wrong. It was a good evening, with a sultry weather, and many indeed showed up. Things took off splendidly, and Kongi himself seemed to be enjoying the session with his audience—when Mr Baseje stepped in! The almighty NEPA struck, and the entire building was plunged into darkness!
Now, such a crisis is not uncommon in fact in the country. All over, NEPA has always been our constant grief, and the ‘solution’ everyone prepares against it is to have a generator on stand-by.
But on this particular day, as you may well guess, not one of our generators happened to be functioning. There I was, the manager of the Theatre, at an event which I myself organized, with a national icon and world-renowned author in our midst, and quite mysteriously, none of my staff had remembered the usual precautions against NEPA’s habitual caprice!
I myself, dazed by the euphoria of the historic occasion, had let myself overlook the most serious problem that had continuously frustrated our efforts to restore the theatre and make it a profitable venture—this issue of electricity supply. Running on ailing ‘daku-daji’ generators, negotiating with corrupt NEPA staff (who, with the collusion of some of our own workers, always held us to ransom on crucial occasions), this had been one major running agony of my tenure at the place. So how could I, of all people, have been caught unaware?
I had to think fast. It was a paradoxical situation. For one, I was glad that Kongi and our important guests were witnessing at first-hand the dilemma about which we complained incessantly but fruitlessly; and on the other hand, as the official in charge of the place, I was filled with embarrassment at this seeming evidence of incompetence.
Nothing more crucial however at that moment than to shake myself awake, and ensure that the show did not end in fiasco. In the circumstances, only one solution offered itself—which was to move the event outside, onto the lawns of the theatre, out into the broad daylight. An outburst of derisive laughter greeted the announcement until, without fuss, Kongi himself consented to it! So, with everyone carrying their chair, we moved quickly out of the building and installed ourselves in a circle under one of the trees, and the session resumed.
Incredibly, serendipitously, it worked! Indeed, the informal arrangement seemed to add some extra spark, some unexpected tone of exhilaration and conviviality to the general mood, that Soyinka himself became more relaxed, more accessible and less inhibiting than I had ever witnessed.
And because of that lovely performance, the evening turned out to be a marvelous success, far richer than any of us had anticipated. The performance, I say, more than the fare he offered, because the poems of Samarkand are not an easy meal to swallow or digest. Although much less cryptic than his previous works, this collection is a hard offering because almost all the poems are songs of lamentation and indictment, reminding us of the atrocities that continue to retard our continent and blight our happiness.
Piece after piece—particularly the poem dedicated to his fellow writer, the late Chinua Achebe—sing bitterly of our collective rot, our continuously aborted aspirations, and the rise of corruption, bigotry and religious fanaticism, and myriad other venalities.
The bulk of Samarkand is a prolonged elegy from a wounded unswerving patriot about a Sisyphean life of struggle that seems perennially shackled to tragic defeat.
But Kongi is an activist poet; so we know that his goal cannot be to enervate. On the contrary: these agonizing lines, written mostly in exile during the Abacha years, are meant to shock us out of pusillanimous acceptance and somnolence to aggressive revolt. So what you ultimately get from his works is the sense of art, of literature, as freight and locus of humanity’s refusal of chains and frontiers. That is why his works so often contain strategically prophetic signals, but which, alas, we fail to recognize.
The most interesting poem of the night then, I believe, was the eponymous piece, “Samarkand and Other Markets I have Known,” dedicated to his fellow Egyptian laureate, Naguib Mahfouz.
You will wonder of course, if you are uneducated, what Samarkand, far away in Asia, could have of interest to us in Africa? But the answer is in a poem titled, “The Golden Journey to Samarkand”, written in 1884 by an English poet and playwright called James Elroy Flecker.
Samarkand, an ancient city which is now the capital of Uzbekistan, grew to be the most important city market along the famous Silk Route between the West and China. In time, it came to be celebrated by poets as the symbol of what we now know as “Orientalism”, that is, a certain exotic image of the Orient as a place of wonder and magic and glamour, an image that continues to grip the Western imagination, even to this day.
Flecker’s poem about some possessed travellers heading there—especially with its haunting refrain of, “We take the golden road to Samarkand”—is possibly now the most memorable work celebrating this fascination with the Orient. Read it, say the critics, and you cannot escape the irresistible pull to visit the city and experience the magic yourself.
Not surprisingly, Soyinka has been one of these tourists. Except that for him however, the attraction of Samarkand comes not just from this fabled orientalist flavour, but from a more expansive attribute which he associates with all ancient markets—whether in Abeokuta, Cairo, Paris, Rome, London, etc.—the grand idea that such places are a “kind haven for the wandering soul,” where each stall is “shrine and temple, (a) magic cave of memorabilia.”
As a habitual bargain hunter in these markets, ‘Samarkand’ for Kongi represents not just a place for selling and buying, but more importantly also, a whole cosmos of both physical and metaphysical presences, a vast heterogenous emporium for diversity, tolerance and accommodation, such as conceived for instance in the traditional Yoruba Weltanschaung. With their multifarious wares and mysterious warrens, they stand for a metaphoric Utopia, where all humanity is welcome to wander and ponder and (pro)create.
It is in expectation of this wondrous atmosphere of freedom and abandon that Kongi visits Samarkand—and suffers a rude shock. The market he meets is no longer the one celebrated in Flecker’s poem. It has been taken over—presumably by Russian apparatchik (although not so explicitly stated)—and “modernized” into a state-run tourist enterprise.
Instead of a thriving market therefore, bubbling with vivacious voices, what he finds now are impoverished robots, civil servants more or less, reduced to mechanically churning out the usual tawdry and soul-destroying ersatz for the tourist market. Exclaims the poet: “A market! And no human sounds?”
Samarkand, as a consequence of government intervention, has experienced not rejuvenation but sclerosis, the attrition of intuition and artistic creativity. (“Joy had fled the faces of the eternal women.// They lined the market outskirts, silently, // Winter twigs, dark shadows framed in rags…!”) The destruction of a once-flourishing enterprise is the outcome of the imposition of the protocols of state bureaucracy.
Still, it was a pleasant evening. As Kongi read, a tasty goat barbecue, aided by a generous flow of palm wine, serenaded the gathering. And so, quite inadvertently, began a new tradition at the National Theatre. Artistes now began to congregate at the venue, under that tree, for their events. Then, with the place getting so popular, it called for its own separate identity. Suggestions were requested, and the choice came with no surprise: one afternoon therefore, I gave instructions that the selected name be nailed prominently on one of the branches. Thus the “Samarkand Tree” was born, to commemorate one delightful outing of the people with one of their idols.
Alas! A few months after I left the theatre I sneaked back there—and I use the word ‘sneak’ advisedly here—and our Samarkand Tree was gone! The sign had been torn down or stolen the theatre itself had grown even more dilapidated; the government’s neglect was at its most conspicuous and scandalous display.
But today, a new minister has come, determined to end that sad era of neglect, and has assembled bankers to help him. It is a season when the nation needs to seriously worry about its culture, when intense programmes are urgently needed to promote an ethical rebirth, against the upsurge of violence, crude and callous materialism, brazen corruption and thieving everywhere. But the minister’s gaze seems to be focused on the dazzle of commercial profit. The building and its lands will he recuperated to begin to make money at last. But what about the culture’s primary goal of healing the sores in the nation’s soul?
It was a glittering ceremony that day in Lagos, reminding us among other things of the ease with which history repeats itself. But of course it is unfair to expect a minister with his busy schedule to have read a book like Soyinka’s Samarkand.