Fall from Grace: Book Review of Leila Aboulela’s Minaret

Abstract

Real life examples highlight the key intriguing element of Leila Aboulela’s 2005 novel Minaret. Minaret is a mirror of Aboulela’s life experience. The novel tells the story of Najwa, who enjoys a coddled existence in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.

Following a political coup, Aboulela’s life completely changes when her father is executed and her family flees to London. This review suggests that Najwa’s reasons for entering into domestic servitude with a wealthy Arab family in London speaks to her need to re-establish a sense of family after the loss of her father, mother and brother.

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Fall from Grace: Book Review of Leila Aboulela’s Minaret

In recent years literature that covers Islamic issues and themes largely condemns devout factions of Muslims as uneducated, hostile and unconsciously engaged in Islam due to family pressures, cultural pressures and the barely suppressed desire to wreak havoc on the infidels.

A character largely influenced by the excesses and extremes of the Taliban has developed in popular culture as a result: this literary character is usually a male, backwards, always armed to the teeth, and chauvinistic to the point of stoning women for wearing lipstick, being raped or wanting to be a doctor.

A common theme has also developed in popular literature – the idea that Muslim men are somehow there through misguided political beliefs, and require only education, social status or access to food and clean water to realize and amend the error of their ways, while the assumption holds that Muslim women are there purely by an unfortunate accident of birth (Suad & Najmabadi 2005).

However, these sensationalized and condescending views and interpretations of Islam ignore the quiet appeal of the religion, and the simple, stoic relationships with God and family that it values and encourages. This may explain why according to Jawad (2006) conversion to Islam is a growing phenomena worldwide (Jawad 2006). One example occurred in 2002 in Britain, when the “Muath Welfare Trust, a community center catering to the needs of the Muslim community in Birmingham,…ran a New Muslims project.

The leader of the project reported twenty four converts. Seventeen among them were white women and the rest…were men. One man was of Caribbean origin; the other six were white” (Jawad 2006). Jawad (2006) also noted that some of these converts came “from affluent backgrounds, such as…Joe Ahmed-Dobson, the son of former cabinet minister Frank Dobson…and Jonathan Birt, son of the former director of the British Broadcasting Company” (Jawad 2006).

These real life examples highlight the key intriguing element of Leila Aboulela’s 2005 novel Minaret. Minaret flies in the face of “the age of global interconnectedness and the decreasing salience of nation as an overarching feature of identity” (Bhimji 2008)

Leila Aboulela was born in Cairo and spent her childhood in Khartoum, Sudan, where she was educated in the Catholic faith-based school system, though she was Muslim (Contemporary Authors Online 2007). For several years she attended the Khartoum American School before reentering the Catholic system for junior high school (Contemporary Authors Online 2007).

The English language was a fundament of her education in both institutions, and indeed provided the means to study in England following her graduation from the University of Khartoum in 1985 (Contemporary Authors Online 2007).

Beyond Khartoum, Aboulela “felt free to embrace her religion, which she believes to be a more vital part of her personality and her writing that her nationality” (Contemporary Authors Online 2007). As Aboulela explains, “I grew up in a very westernised environment and went to a private, American school. But my personality was shy and quiet and I wanted to wear the hijab but didn’t have the courage, as I knew my friends would talk me out of it…In London…I didn’t know anybody.

It was 1989 and the word “Muslim” wasn’t even really used in Britain at the time; you were either black or Asian. So then I felt very free to wear the hijab” (Sethi 2005). In Aboulela’s words, “there’s more freedom for Muslim women to be religious in Britain…But then you have to decide what you are going to do with all this freedom…so being religious is one of the things I chose” (Sethi 2005).

Minaret is a mirror of Aboulela’s experience. The novel tells the story of Najwa, who enjoys a coddled existence in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. She is “an average Sudanese girl, not too religious and not too unconventional” (Aboulela 2005, p.31).

All of that changes when a military coup occurs and her father, a senior official who worked closely with the previous government, is put on trial for corruption charges, found guilty and hanged (Aboulela 2005). Najwa, her brother Omar and her mother suddenly become fugitives in their own country; they flee as a family to London and continue a wealthy expatriate lifestyle in the United Kingdom until the money runs out (Aboulela 2005).

Things degenerate quickly: Omar develops a drug habit and becomes a drug dealer (Aboulela 2005). He stabs a policeman during the course of a violent arrest and receives a 15 year prison sentence (Aboulela 2005). After that Najwa’s mother, the last remnant of her former identity, succumbs to a long illness and leaves Najwa on her own in London (Aboulela 2005). Alone, Najwa slowly begins to find solace in the favors of a former lover, Anwar (Aboulela 2005).

When she first begins her affair with Anwar, she attempts to share his political opinions: “What’s wrong with us Africans?” I asked Anwar and he knew. He knew facts and history but nothing he said gave me comfort or hope. The more he talked, the more confused I felt, groping for something simple, but he said nothing was simple, everything was complicated, everything was connected to history and economics.

In Queensway, in High Street Kensington, we would watch the English, the Gulf Arabs, the Spanish, Japanese, Malaysians, Americans and wonder how it would feel to have, like them, a stable country. A place where we could make future plans and it wouldn’t matter who the government was … A country that was a familiar, reassuring background, a static landscape on which to paint dreams” (Aboulela 2005, p.102).

According to Whittaker (2005), this vacillating occurs in Najwa because Najwa herself is “passive, her opinions dominated by the men around her…[she] falls back under the spell of manipulative Anwar, a politically active boyfriend from Khartoum who is now an exile too.

Sex with Anwar intensifies Najwa’s feelings of guilt and alienation, and when he refuses to get engaged, she is cast further adrift” (Aboulela 2005; Whittaker 2005). Following the spurning by Anwar, Najwa attends classes at the local mosque, where she experiences a safe haven and “a wash, a purge, a restoration of innocence” (Aboulela 2005, p.83).

Najwa adopts the traditional head covering and covers her body also, and eventually finds work as maid through her connections at the mosque (Aboulela 2005). Though she still remembers her past with some resentment, Najwa accepts that “I’ve come down in the world. I’ve slid to a place where the ceiling is low and there isn’t much room to move…most of the time I’m used to it. Most of the time I’m good. I accept my sentence and do not brood or look back” (Aboulela 2005, p.66).

In a wealthy Muslim home Najwa meets and falls in love with Tamer, a devout student who wants to study the Islam faith as opposed to business, and is dissatisfied with the secular nature of his family (Aboulela 2005). In Tamer and the men at the mosque Najwa sees “these men Anwar condemned as narrow-minded and bigoted…were tender and protective towards their wives. Anwar was clever but he would never be tender and protective.(Aboulela 2005, p.91).

Critics and reviewers have described Minaret as “an understated reflection on belief and belonging and an authentic and moving portrait of a Muslim woman trying to make her way in modern British society.

Quietly and without didacticism, it speaks of the pressures class and race exert, especially on those acutely unsure of their present place and future direction in a world increasingly intolerant of anyone outside the ever-narrowing mainstream” (Whittaker 2005). Giardina (2006) describes Najwa’s “conversion [as] not an easy surrender to tradition. Instead it is a hard-won dedication to service, and the book’s ending is a hint that the peace she has achieved is contingent and subject to perpetual challenge” (Giardina 2006).

The Kirkus Review (2005) described Minaret as a “simple near-parable of a story [that] successfully combines a tale of inexperience and cultural confusion with an insider’s view of the conflicts and complexities within the immigrant and Muslim communities” (Neilson Business Media 2005). And Starr E. Smith in a review for the Library Journal, singled out the book for its “clear and precise writing, sympathetic characters, and positive portrayals of Muslim religious practices.”

However another interpretation exists: after political exile in London, could Najwa not have been searching for a family, given that this was the only thing she truly lost as a result of her exile? In Khartoum as well as in London, Najwa’s focus was entirely on her family (Aboulela 2005). On her own in London with no family, the appeal of Tamer’s family makes sense as a surrogate family for Najwa’s lost father and mother, and for Omar (Aboulele 2005).

Najwa is vocal about her disdain for her new city, her lingering sense of being rootless and the aimlessness that she feels there: “I walked down Gloucester Road and thought that whatever happened to me, whatever happens in the world, London remained the same, constant; continuous underground trains, the newsagents selling Cadbury’s chocolates, the hurried footsteps of people leaving work. …

For the first time in my life, I disliked London and envied the English, so unperturbed and grounded, never displaced, never confused. For the first time, I was conscious of my shitty-coloured skin next to their placid paleness… I had a warm bath when I got home. I heated up a tin of soup.

My dislike of London went away and left me feeling ill.” (Aboulela 2005, p.74). However once she has become more involved with the mosque and with Tamer’s family, her view toward and description of the city of London changes drastically: “London is at its most beautiful in the autumn.

In summer it is seedy and swollen, in winter it is overwhelmed by Christmas lights and in spring, the season of birth, there is always disappointment. Now it is at its best, now it is poised like a mature woman whose beauty is no longer fresh but still surprisingly potent” (Aboulela 2005, p.112). The influence of Tamer and his family, coupled with her experience as a member of the mosque, begin to replace Najwa’s family by proxy.

In Aboulela’s writing, the focus remains on the feelings of separation and disconnection that exist between Muslims and Christians, and in Minaret Najwa’s experience of losing of her family and being forced to continue on her own in a foreign city exacerbates the sense of displacement that remains an intrinsic feeling for any person moving constantly between disparate cultures and nations. Najwa’s identity was built around her family in Khartoum; therefore the longing for her family is actually a longing for her own self.

Leila Aboulela’s 2005 novel Minaret tells the story of a woman whose identity undergoes displacement at the loss of her family. In addition to surviving exile and loss of status, the main character Najwa also experiences a loss of identity when her brother and mother leave her life. Najwa finds not only solace and a sense of purpose in her association with Tamer’s family and the mosque, but also regains a sense of identity that she so desperately desires.

Rather than reading the novel as a tragic story of the price paid by a refugee, Minaret is best understood as the conscious effort on the part of its main character to reclaim a part of herself. Thus the combined experiences of embracing the faith of Islam, working for Tamer’s family, and feeling a sense of tenderness, loyalty, purpose and peace with Tamer and his traditional family values, Najwa successfully recreates the family she lost.

References

Aboulela, L. (2006). Minaret. London, Bloomsbury.

Bhimji, F. (2008). Cosmopolitan belonging and diaspora: Second-generation British Muslim women travelling to South Asia. Citizenship Studies, 12(4), 413-427.

Contemporary Authors Online (2007). “Leila Aboulela.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit, Gale Group.

Giardina, B. (2006, November 4). Minaret. Townsville Bulletin. 83.

Jawad, H. (2006). Female conversion to Islam. In K. Van Nieuwkerk, (Ed.), Women embracing Islam: gender and conversion in the West (153-172). Austin, University of Texas Press.

Neilson Business Media (2005). Minaret. Kirkus Reviews, 73 (13), 697.

Phillips, M. (2005, June 11). Faith healing. The Guardian. 3.

Sethi, A. (2005, June 5). Keep the faith. The Observer. 22.

Smith, S. E. (2005). Minaret. Library Journal, 130 (12), 63.

Suad, J. & Najmabadi, A. (2005). Encyclopedia of women & Islamic cultures: Family, law, and politics. Boston, Brill Academic Publishers.

Whittaker, P. (2005). Minaret. The New Internationalist. 381, 30.

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