BECOMING LATEEF

No, I have not converted to Islam.

In the mouth of a kickass muezzin, the call to prayer is mesmeric, I admit, meandering mellifluously towards, over you, about you, calling you, urging you, beckoning, flirting with that innate human susceptibility to poetry. It is for me like watching the sea shuck and jive and crash at a beach. Mesmeric.

Mesmeric. If all of Islam consisted of just that call to prayer, perhaps I would be, as they say, a devout Muslim, slave to the music.

But no, I have not converted to Islam. Islam may still retain a certain endearing nexus to ritual that much of Christianity seems to have lost, but no. There might be a Muslim girl catching my fancy and I may only have recently watched Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. But no.

Did you know Malcolm X’s “most treasured honour” is his christening in 1964 as Omowale by members of the Nigerian Muslim Students Association at the University of Ibadan?

Well, if you didn’t, it’s on Wikipedia.

Rumour has it I was named after Lateef Jakande, Lagos’ original sweetheart guv, whose middle name is my first name. Maybe I tried to confirm the fact (or non-fact) from my father once, but his response escapes me now. But that I remember it this way must mean I didn’t dream it up. So let’s just stick with the story: I was named for Lagos’ original sweetheart guv.

Story stuck with, my journey to becoming Lateef wasn’t straightforward.

For starters, my first name is Kayode. Lateef hardly ever creeped up growing up, not even from my father, who is a Muslim, a “Muslim.” When it did creep up, it did as part of LKF, an affectionate composite my dad fashioned from my initials.

My father used to cherish those times. Or at least, he appeared to. When he came back from work, I would run up to him and jump into his arms. The memory of his sweaty, manly, post-work smell is still lodged somewhere in the olfactory recesses of my brain. I used to love that smell. It used to reassure me. He would call me LKF and address me as “sir”, and I would luxuriate in his embrace and affectionate deference.

I learnt diplomacy quite early in life, learnt the not-rat not-bird virtues of batness.

There were occasions my father would ask me what I was – a Christian or a Muslim. Usually it would be in the presence of his friends. And of course I would be Muslim, even if he never did try to take me to a mosque or try to make me say prayers once daily, never mind five times daily. On Sunday, my mother and I would attend church, where the electricity of Pastor Sanni, tufts of hair growing from the wild tribal marks etched into his face, held me captive.

If there was one obligation my father required of his wife and children, it was that we did have to travel back home for Ileya, where his mother’s fawning (over me) was always simultaneously embarrassing and endearing. After all, was I not the wealthy man’s scion who sees no need for inheritances? Did I not vanquish a meal of beans and send the white man’s tea slinking after it?

We were back in Ikere. This time, just my father and myself. The occasion escapes me. Travelling with my father helped to ignite my passion for trivia. You had to know the names of every successive town between Lagos and Ikere. Sleep was out of the question. How could you know every successive town between Lagos and Ikere if you were nodding off?

This time, we had a brief stopover at Akure, at Arowolo Bookshop, to buy books in preparation for the new year at school. Therefore in Ikere, I had the books – the Alawiyes and the Understanding Mathematics of this world – I needed to navigate Primary Four. Or Three. One of the two.

And then I hit upon a bright idea. Or the bright idea hit upon me. One, or the other. In my books, I had always been Faniyi Kayode. My middle name had never figured when I was required to put down my name. Perhaps I had been ashamed of the name. I knew precious few Muslims growing up. This time however, something prompted me to own my middle name. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say I wanted to impress my father. I do think I wanted to impress my father. The rat extended its wings.

 

He frowned. Something was up. “You’re not Lathief,” he said.

Puzzlement. But I am Lathief, I thought. I am Lathief. That’s what the L in LKF has always stood for, yes? Lathief. Abdul-Lathief. Abdul-Lathief.

It somehow managed to evade my mind that “La” was gendered French for “the” and that “thief” was an English noun, a person who steals another person’s property, especially by stealth and without using force or the threat of violence. Abdul the Thief. Man.

“L-a-t-e-e-f,” spelled the man. It was his time for: Puzzlement. I was the best student in my class and I couldn’t even spell my own fucking name. Imagine that. And to make matters worse, I couldn’t only not spell my name, I also somehow managed, Ifa be confounded, to insult myself while at it! What kind of best student are you? his Puzzlement seemed to inquire from me. The Puzzlement segued smoothly into Engrossment-in-Something, and that pssst you can still hear right now was-is the deflation of my butt-hurt pride.

Well, I shrunk my wings, scurried off and ingratiated myself into a nook (and cranny). My attempt at ingratiating myself to my father had failed miserably. I picked up my biro and calligraphed the life out of the Lathiefs till I became a rough-around-the-edge Lateef.

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