Book: A review of Richard Ali’s “City of Memories”, By Bokoru Julius

Cover of the book "City of memories"
“Richard Ali mirrors how religion has become a weapon for people with a lust for contemporary relevance and political power”

By Bokoru Julius

City of memories follows the ill-timed love affair of the children of two rivalling political colossus, Eunice Pam and Ibrahim Dibarama, in the north-central state (Plateau). The book is set in an alternate reality where there is a junta in present day Nigeria

The feud, spanning for decades, between these titans would catch up with their hapless children- the conservative Faruk, son of Ibrahim Dibarama; and the idealistic Rahila, daughter of the powerful Eunice Pam- consequently leading to the subtle, yet explosive scheme of things that made City of memories.

In this book, the first of its kind in Nigerian literature, Richard Ali mirrors how religion has become a weapon for people with a lust for contemporary relevance and political power. The warring sides in this book are armed in one hand by a sword and a holy book (Bible or Quran), and in the other hand by love. Against a backdrop of ethno-religious sentiments and political skirmishes, Richard Ali makes love the central theme in this book. Beautiful: the love between Eunice Pam and her daughter Rahila, between Ibrahim Dibarama and Faruk, between Rahila and Faruk, then, a different type of love is introduced by a virtuous Bolewa maiden, Maryam Bazaar, a love more fated than Romeo and Juliet’s.

But, that is not all that there is to love in City of memories, our story begins from the little town of Bolewa, a town which has somehow managed to discard a history which otherwise should be haunting. Richard Ali painted this little northern town so dreamily that I find myself these days punching ‘Bolewa’ into a search engine. Ali’s intricately woven story of love begins from Bolewa, the original city of memories, where the protagonist Faruk must find out how love destroyed his mother Ummi al-qassim and nearly brought Bolewa down in an inferno. Faruk must pick the fragments of his mother’s tragic life and piece it together with recent developments to answer the Nigerian question

One has to envy Ali’s bravery to have attempted a work so unconventional. He becomes a master of flashback, mixing the past and the present with mathematical brilliance. Ali’s prose is virgin and unique, a stunning blend of philosophy and poetry. The memoirs of Ummi al-qassim alone were worth well over a thousand naira. There are many passages one has to read endlessly for personal enjoyment. His language control is highly commendable, rare in many first novels. Ali’s use of dialogue was awesome. Here is a conversation between Faruk and Rahila:

“How is it you have an answer for every question I ask?”

“How is it you have a question for every answer that I have?”

“Oh, stop it!”


“This wisecracking”


“Ask me if I love you”

“Do you love me?”


“Then your saying doesn’t matter”

“I love you”

“I know”

Page 133. Richard Ali was in his creative best here. It has been difficult to stop reading this part in replay

Richard Ali and Chimamanda Adichie

This book could not have been published in a more significant time. It is now that the real Nigerian question has set itself more imposing against us: What’s the path to peace and progress? How do we answer the chattering rifles in the south and the bombs in the north? Can there ever be peace and harmony in our dividing lines, say, Christians and Muslims, Fulani and Middle belt tribes, north and south? If at all, City of memories failed to answer any of these questions, at least it exposed them for what they are. It introduced a new way of seeing Nigeria, of seeing northern Nigeria and its intricacies which from a distance was never seen

In the course of a little research, I found out that while city of memories may flourish in the north and west, it may not be the most popular book in the south and especially in the east. There are not many Southerners who would appreciate a Christian antagonist and a Muslim protagonist, vice versa. There are still very few people over here who may agree with this…

“Ironsi lacked guts, lacked vision, lacked everything, alienated everybody, could not impose his authority- and his wife didn’t help matters, promenading like a victor all over the place. Most of the political leaders simply folded their arms and let the first killings happen…” Page 52

Richard Ali was pretty dogmatic and overly personal with city of memories. The name Faruk resurrects from a very dear part of Richard Ali’s memory, of a very dear friend who did a lot in shaping our author, who very sadly was cut by fate. Emmanuel College is shared by the author in real life and a character in the book. There was an abundance of high and middle class intellectuals in the book, akin to the middle class intellectual Kogi family the author was born, sufficient to leave a lower classer disconnected. With these, it is valid to say Richard Ali left too much of his prints on City of memories. That takes nothing away from the beauty of the book and expertise with which it was written. It’s a book with enduring excellence, by all means a classic, one that will linger in relevance long after the author is no more.


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