Prof. Al-Bishak, Member of the Order of the Niger (MON), is a man with multiple personalities having so many feathers to his hat. For decades, a famed journalist, a brilliant newspaper columnist and notable Editorial Consultant he has worked with The Guardian, Daily Times and the New Nigerian newspapers, among others. A robust critic and talented creative writer, he has given birth to a new literary theory called Leoparditude. He is a multiple award-winning journalist, novelist, varsity don and poet. The Zaria-born Al-Bishak was appointed a Professor of African Literature with a speciality in Literary Egyptology by the Federal University Lafia, Nasarawa State, in the year 2019. He is the captivating author of many creative and scholarly books. To many young writers and students, he is not only an intellectual whetstone but also a tower of literary strength especially to upcoming authors in Northern Nigeria where he now lives after his return from an almost two decades’ stay in Lagos. As a Professor of African Literature, he has a tenacious passion for Afrocentrism. He is a firm believer in the fact that the future of African scholarship lies with some African academics focusing serious attention on Africa as a strategy to reclaim its past glory as the home that gave birth to the first writing script and literature to the world. In this exclusive interview with Khalid lmam, a poet and Curator of All Poets Network, Prof. Al-Bishak pours out his mind on a wide range of issues. Enjoy.
LitVo: Sir, let us start this interview on a personal ground by asking you: who is Al-Bishak?
Al-Bishak: I am a veteran Nigerian journalist, academic, literary critic and creative writer.
LitVo: Is the name Al-Bishak your coinage, or known differently, why do you opt to be known as Al-Bishak? Tell us the secret, if any, behind this innovative coinage?
Al-Bishak: is a fusion of my real names – Al-Basheer (Al-Bishir) and Bako coined in my secondary school days over forty (40) years ago. I have adopted it as a writer and now bear it officially because that is what most people know me with.
LitVo: How was the journey as a young man through the world of journalism: would you say your adventure as a journalist was a torturous odyssey or it was mission accomplished?
Al-Bishak: You can hardly say that you have accomplished anything in life until you’re about to die because life is a continuous experience.
I went into journalism by accident when I published my poems in Sunday New Nigerian just as I was to become an undergraduate student of ABU, Zaria in the 1980s. Late Mr Yunusa Kadiri, who was a producer of the radio political programme, “Mirror of Change”, read them and liked them. We met at the Kaduna Nigeria Union of Journalists’ (NUJ) Club. He invited me to write political poems for the radio programme produced by the Kaduna State Radio now Kaduna State Media Corporation (KSMC). From there I joined the Current Affairs Unit as an artiste. Subsequently, I met the Editor of the Sunday New Nigerian, Mallam Abba Dabo, who gave me the opportunity to handle the literary pages of the newspaper, and I edited “Poet’s Corner” and the “Short Stories” columns. I did my NYSC with The Nigerian Statesman, Owerri, joined Triumph newspaper, Kano, then The Guardian and Daily Times in Lagos and became a public servant, returned to New Nigerian Newspapers as an Editorial Consultant, joined Nasarawa State University, Keffi and now the Federal University of Lafia as a lecturer.
LitVo: If you are to advise young people aspiring to be journalists, what would be your best advice to them?
Al-Bishak: My advice to them is to be hardworking, creative and principled. Journalism has no room for lazy bones. To excel you must be creative by doing things differently. To win respect as a journalist you must be principled – try to be objective and fair to all sides, and don’t compromise because of money.
LitVo: Personally speaking, was your exit from journalism what you anticipated long before it happened considering your unyielding romance with an academic scholarship before you eventually switched over from the newsroom to the lecture hall?
Al-Bishak: I had always dreamt of being an academic. It may interest you to know that as far back as my primary school I used the nickname, ‘Professor’. Alhamdulillah, I am now one. I knew that when the opportunity availed itself of being in the academia, I would be an academic.
LitVo: In one word, how would you describe your journalism career? Tasking, and fulfilling or simply a wasteful adventure that unnecessarily delayed you from being an academic in good time?
Al-Bishak: No experience in life is a waste. I gained a lot from my experience as a journalist, and still find myself practising it in some ways.
LitVo: As one of the few young Northern Nigerian writers in the early 1980s writing in the English language how was the experience was? In those days, it was a fact there were few, if any, notable Northerners on the Nigerian literary landscape, was there support for some of you from the North to develop your craftsmanship from anywhere? Did the established Nigerian writers from the South like the Achebes or the Soyinkas bother to hone you guys’ skills through mentorship or workshop and so on?
Al-Bishak: My foray into creative writing was self-driven blessed by God. It was a clear case of chasing one’s dream. I was inspired by the literary works we studied and the literary clubs at school and the opportunities provided by the news media such as radio and newspapers which promoted creative writing.
When I met Chinua Achebe at Nsukka during my NYSC I read to him my poems and later sent him my collection of short stories which he read and sent me his comments.
LitVo: Would you say the drought of some notable writers from the North then was influenced by the low level of literacy in the region or simply due to cultural conservativism against fictional writing since in the North there was a rooted flourishing culture of poetry and academic scholarship as far back as the glorious days of the ‘Jihad’ led by Sheikh Usman Danfodio?
Al-Bishak: Scholarship in Northern Nigeria predated the Jihad by Usmanu Dan Fodiyo, which was a late 18th century CE to early 19th century CE phenomenon. The North had been intellectually connected to the al-Qarrawiyyin University of Fez, Morocco and al-Azhar University of Cairo, Egypt, established in the 8th and 10th centuries CE, earlier than Oxford and Cambridge Universities, Britain, set up in the 11th and 12th centuries CE. The connection with the North African varsities filtered through the Universities of Gao, Timbuktu, and Sankore in Mali and the University of Gobarau in Katsina. There was a kind of University of Islamic Jurisprudence at Madabo Quarters, Kano. These are the foremost citadels of learning that impacted the North educationally before the coming of British colonialists who replaced Arabic scholarship with European scholarship. When Sir Frederick Lord Luguard came to Nigeria he admitted that the North had educated people and good administrative and judicial systems which was why he introduced the Indirect Rule of Governance through which he ruled the North. But in Southern Nigeria that had no substantially educated people, he adopted the Direct Rule system by creating warrant chiefs for ease of administration and then introduced Western education to them. So while the North continued with Arabic education, the South continued with Western education. Later the British colonial government abolished Arabic education or subordinated it to Western education, which placed the North at a serious disadvantage both educationally and administratively.
The North had produced intellectual works in Arabic, Kanuri, Hausa, Tamajek and Fulfulde such as the Diwan of Bornu, Kilwa Chronicle, Kitab Ghazawat of Sultan Idris Alooma, Mahram of Mai Umme Jilmi, Badi Bismillahi of Sheikh Tahir Fairamma, Kano Chronicle, etc. In addition, were Taj-al-Din Fi Ma Yajibu ala’l Muluk , Wassiyat al-Maghili, Waraka Maktubu Fiha Asl al-Wanqariyin al-Muntasibin lil-Shaikh Abd-al-Rahman. Aside from these works of history, theology and sociology that were indigenously produced, similar works were imported into the North like Tarikh al-Sudan, Tarikh al-Fattash, Kitab al-Ghunja, etc. All these works predated Jihad or the British colonial invasion of Nigeria. Usman Dan Fodiyo himself authored works such as Wathiqat ahl al-Sudan, Kitab al-Farq, Ta’lim al-Ikhwan, etc. His son, Sultan Muhammadu Bello wrote Infaqul Maysuur while his daughter, Nana Asma’u wrote literary works including poetry. Other indigenous poetry had been written such as in the diplomatic correspondence of Bornu Sultan Uthman bin Idris to Mamluk Sultan of Egypt in 1391 – 1392 CE. Further, 17th century CE Katsina scholars, Muhammad ibn al-Sabbagh (Wali Dan Marina) and Muhammad ibn Masani (Wali Dan Masani) produced scholarly works in Arabic and Hausa including praise poetry and panegyric for Sultans of Bornu and Katsina. A Hausa poem by Masani is Wakar Yakin Badar.
But the colonial government subverted the education of the North by refusing to recognize Arabic education and works written in indigenous languages. That became a great setback for the North, while the South leapt forward because of Western education. Don’t forget that it was the Arabs that educated Europe in the Medieval Ages via the works of Abu Qasim (Abucasis), Ibn Suna (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Al-Kwarizmi (Logarithm), Al-Gabari (Algebra), etc. So Northern Nigeria had its fair share of education in both the humanities and sciences before the British colonial invasion. It was after the British imposed Western education in the North that they created the Translation Bureau in Zaria and encouraged the use of the Roman alphabet in place of Arabic letters by organizing writing compositions or literary competitions and publishing the works in Hausa from the 1940s. So, Northerners have always been creative and writing Hausa fictional works in Arabic letters known as Ajami not promoted by the British and now the government. The supposed low output of creative writings in the North is the result of the failure of government policy to integrate and promote indigenous writings in Arabic and Ajami. Even so, there is a deluge of Hausa fictional writings in the Roman script not recognized by our educational institutions.
LitVo: What is your assessment of the Northern Nigerian literary landscape now compared to the days you were growing as a young writer?
Al-Bishak: When I was growing up there were few writers in English and publishing outlets available. To be a writer you had to do well at school especially in the English language and composition. To speak well in school debates was an added advantage because it boosted your confidence. Both boys and girls used to compete well. If a boy was eyeing a girl for a platonic relationship (not lust), he had to do well at school, and vice versa. Your performance at school would give you the confidence to write. Then there were few publications you could post your work to be published. And if published in a newspaper or magazine or read on the radio, you became an instant star in your community or among your mates. People would congratulate you and accord you both honour and respect. Some people would even give you gifts.
But nowadays things are different as there is hardly any ambition to excel via a clean process. Because of the preponderance of social media, everybody can write and publish anything with bad English, and call themselves stars. In my heydays, it was a great honour to be published by a publishing company. But, now you open any social media platform and start posting whatever you like. There is more self-publishing these days, which means the quality of writing is low.
LitVo: Are you satisfied with the literary boom in the North at present especially relating it with the evolutionary activism of some vibrant Northern Nigerian based platforms such as Hilltop Art Foundation and All Poets Network? Where do you see the future of the North in terms of literary output and quality production as more and more young educated Northerners are embracing literary creativity as a way of life?
Al-Bishak: I don’t know if there is a literary boom in the North at the moment. It depends on what you mean. But, I know that both Hilltop Art Foundation and APNET are contributing their quotas towards promoting literary activities in the North, and I commend them.
LitVo: Sir, before your crossing over to the university, you wrote a book that radically seems to propose a new direction for African literary criticism, tell us more about it. What is it about and in what fundamental ways is your Leorpaditude a literary concept different from both Negritude and the Tigritude?
Al-Bishak: In African literary studies we have always relied on literary theories propounded by the West. I thought that African scholars must don their thinking caps, and create theories too. It is not enough to sit back and keep relying on Europeans to formulate theories for us. I looked at the works of Negritude writers which is stuffed with so many emotions by either flattering Africa or over-condemning the Europeans. By the way, Negritude was a movement founded in France by African students including Leon Damas, Aime Cesare and Leopold Senghor. Their works were lampooned by the likes of Wole Soyinka who created the Tigritude concept by saying that, “A tiger doesn’t shout its tigritude but acts.” If you studied the works of Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, etc, you would see the esoteric images and bombastic language employed because they were somehow aping the European modernist writers at the time. So I came up with my concept to avoid the extremities of the two.
LitVo: Do you believe Africa gave birth to the first writing alphabet, and that some best Western thinkers were taught by Africans?
Al-Bishak: This is not a matter of belief but historical facts and records properly documented by both Western and non-Western scholars. Ancient historians like Herodotus, Iamblichus, etc recorded the fact that Greece, which is the precursor of Western civilization by producing writers like Homer, Aeschylus, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, etc owed its civilization to Kemet (ancient Egypt) which had colonized it and introduced formal education including schools and writing with its materials to it. Further, the Greek scholars travelled to Egypt where they had to shave their heads and sit at the feet of black Egyptian masters to learn. Egypt has the most ancient university in the world. The Egyptians were black Africans, not Arabs that came to Egypt in 639 CE. The aboriginal black Egyptians have been in Egypt since about 10,000 BCE. They produced the Pharaohs, pyramids and sphinxes. They invented writing which they called medu-netjer (words of God), a paper which they called paperaa from the papyrus plant, pen from reed and ink. So as the Egyptians invented writing, they also have the first alphabet of any written language.
LitVo: What would you say to the claim that the likes of Plato stole their ideas from the ancient African brains that were the beams of scholarship in the days of antiquity?
Al-Bishak: It is so. Many writers have written about it including George G.M. James in his phenomenal book, Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy Is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy. Another is Innocent Onyewuenyi who wrote The African Origin of Greek Philosophy.
LitVo: As a Professor of African Literature, is Afrocentrism to you important or a path to tread or both? Why is it significant and why should it be a path?
Al-Bishak: As long as there is Eurocentrism in Western scholarship so will there be Afrocentrism. Eurocentrism is the European perspective of interpreting civilization via education which makes the Europeans superior to other races, and they distort the history of other races to make them inferior. Afrocentrism tries to present the history of Africa from the perspective of the African and free it from Eurocentric distortion. So Afrocentrism is important.
LitVo: What kind of attention would you love to see your colleagues beam on Afrocentrism or Afrofuturism and similar Afro-related isms or theories?
Al-Bishak: As African intellectuals, we must stand up to be counted among global intellectual giants by creating theories and not just rely on European scholars to be formulating theories for us.
LitVo: In your view, if the energy of some African academics is invested in striving to domesticate the ideas of Western thinkers, would that pave the way to a brighter future for African scholarship? And isn’t relying on African homegrown literary theories not boxing Africa out of the universal scholarship arena?
Al-Bishak: Every idea or theory is local because it is borne out of the local experience of the theorist. What makes it national or international is when it is taken out of the locality and propagated. When European theorists come up with theories they don’t have Africa in mind. They have only Europe as their area of concern. But when non-Europeans come upon such theories, they try to domesticate them. For instance, we have had theories such as African Marxism, African Feminism, etc. If Europeans invent theories adopted by African scholars, what stops African scholars from inventing theories to be adopted by Europeans? Are African scholars inferior to their European counterparts?
LitVo: Why do you think or put differently, what are the factors that African homegrown literary theories are not accepted as universal?
Al-Bishak: African scholars are lazy and don’t want to challenge themselves to do something original. They are interested in pulling down their counterparts rather than propagate their theories. European theories are “universal” only because they are propagated across the world starting from Europe. But African theories are looked down upon in Africa; so they don’t even fly out.
LitVo: Is over-dependence on Western thinkers, ideas or literary theories the future for African scholarship?
Al-Bishak: I think that the situation will gradually change since some of us introduce our students to new African theories.
LitVo: What should be the role of African diasporan scholars in helping Africa to occupy its rightful place on the global map of scholarship?
Al-Bishak: I think that they are already playing their role in that direction. It is the Africa-based scholars that should approach them to seek any special support.
Litvo: Sir, considering the pronounced paucity of funds to drive the production of African intellectually-shaped new ideas, and since most of the available funds are from the West and they are not without some pre-defined agenda to be accessed, what advice do you have for young researchers and writers with Africa at heart?
Al-Bishak: It is true that foreign funds are tied to some preconditions. So African governments and businessmen should come together to subscribe to a research fund to help the young researchers. Nigeria’s Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) used to have a research fund. I don’t know how effectively the fund has been utilized. But, young researchers must depend on themselves before they get external funds.
LitVo: Where do you see the role of Africans in the diaspora as far as making funding available to those ambitious African researchers and writers?
Al-Bishak: As I said before, any intervention needed from the diasporan Africans has to be initiated by the Africa-based scholars.
LitVo: Sir, it is quite rewarding speaking to you. Many thanks for your time.
Al-Bishak: Thanks for having me.
Khalid Imam a bilingual poet, playwright, editor, translator and literary columnist, is the founder and curator of All Poets Network Initiative. He is a teacher and award-winning writer of over a dozen books in all genres. He was among the ten finest Nigerian writers selected by the Wole Soyinka Foundation in 2017 to participate at the Study Abroad In Lebanon (SAIL). Some of his books include: “The Song of San Kano,” “Letter to my Students,” “Sodangi,” “Emir Muhammad Sanusi II the Toast of Kanawa, etc. and co-authored, “A Clan of Madmen” with late Ibrahim Shu’aibu. He is reputed as the pioneer editor and notable promoter of ‘Teen Authorship Scheme’ in Kano as he singlehandedly edited three secondary school teen authors anthologies: “A Citadel of Excellence,” “The Bird’s Evidence” and “A Wise Whisper.” He also edited “Hawayen Alhini,” an Hausa poetry anthology contributed by the undergraduate Hausa students of Bayero University, Kano in 2008