Minaret, by Leila Aboulela.
Minaret, by Leila Aboulela. New York : Grove Press, 2005.
GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR REVIEW
A moving, well-written novel about a young, westernized woman from Sudan who is exiled after a coup and works as a maid in London. The Muslim faith and community come to sustain her.
I have 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 am good. I accept my sentence and do not brood or look back. But sometimes a shift makes me remember.
These are the opening words of Leila Aboulela’s fine novel, spoken by her narrator, Najwa. As Najwa tells her story, she moves back and forth in time. Initially her family is wealthy with servants of their own. She and her twin brother are college students in Khartoum, and Najwa is attracted to Anwar, a radical. Her father is high up in the Sudanese government . After a coup, he is executed, and Najwa, her brother and mother flee to London.
In London Najwa’s difficulties multiply and she recognizes how privileged her former life was. Her mother dies, her brother is involved in drugs and violence and is sent to prison, and Najwa has to deal poverty. Anwar reappears in her life and a romance develops between them. London gives them freedoms unthinkable in Khartoum. But freedom turns out to be “an empty space,” and Najwa leaves him. In the novel’s present tense, she has re-established her connection to Islam and is working as a servant for a Muslim family. She is employed to cook, keep house, and take care of her employer’s young daughter while the woman works on a Ph.D. The household also includes her employer’s brother, Tamer. Slowly Najwa and Tamer become close although “It‘s not very Islamic for a man and a woman to be friends.” Trouble ensues because he is significantly younger than she, his family has ambitions for him, and most damning, she is their maid.
Aboulela is an excellent writer, lyrical and sensitive. Her depiction of her varied characters is rich and believable. Even though their beliefs and practices are not my own, the characters were real and alive to me. Najwa’s ambiguities soften her story, and there is an element of suspense. The novel is very accessible and a pleasure to read.
Perhaps the strongest section of Minarets is Najawa’s experience of Islam. Initially she was a rather secular young woman. Ramadan was the only religious ritual that she observed. In London, appalled at the secularism of her lover, she reaches out to the Muslim women who have encouraged her to come to their mosque. Once there she makes friends and becomes deeply involved. She takes a class in learning to read the Qur’an because she wants “to read the Qur’an in a beautiful way.” She liked the other Muslim women and “the informality of sitting on the floor and the absence of men. The absence of the sparks they brought with them, the absence of the frisson and ambiguity. Without them the atmosphere was cool and gentle, girly and innocent…” Shifting into wearing the veil, she realizes that she is “another version of myself, regal like my mother, almost mysterious.” She feels “a new gentleness” and appreciated being protected from the rude attention of men on the street. When troubled, she takes refuge in her faith and repeats its prayers.. For her, Islam is a loving religion and one in which God forgives actions which she remembered with guilt. And she is confident that God can restore her happiness. (Aboulela uses the term God, rather than Allah.)
Minaret is the first novel I have read that shows the power of Islam for women. Leila Ahmed and various Arab feminists have convincingly argued that within the Islamic traditions, women’s practices differ from those proclaimed by its male leaders. Women in their Apartments focused on Muslim women, but they seemed vague and alien to me. Palace Walk and other novels have shown how Islam has been used by men to restrict women. [Links to my reviews.]
In addition Minaret powerfully depicts what it means to work as a maid in the home of others. I surprised how much Najwa’s life as a servant mirrored the lives of the African American women who worked as “domestics.” Minaret is also an interesting contrast to A Bit of Difference by Seti Atta, about Deola, a young Nigerian woman, who was educated in England and worked there professionally as an accountant. Both of these focus on the work that women do, not solely their emotional lives. And not all women from “Third World” countries have the same options abroad.
I gladly recommend Minaret to all readers who like a good book and especially to those interested in Muslim women.