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The Translator, by Leila Aboulela.

September 23, 2013
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The Translator, by Leila Aboulela.  Grove Press, Black Cat (2006), Edition: 1, Paperback, 203 pages. (Copyright, 1999.)


An exquisite novel about a Muslim woman, her life, her religion, and her love for a man from outside her culture.

Leila Aboulela is one of my favorite authors because she writes beautifully and her books are simply a joy to read. I found this to be true of The Translator, her first novel, as of her more recent books.  In Minaret and Lyrics Alley, Aboulela has expanded her writing skills to larger more complex stories, but The Translator is sharply focused on one woman and has an innocent charm of its own.

Sammar is a devote Muslim woman from Sudan.  She originally went to Scotland with her husband who studied medicine there.  When he was killed in a car accident, she returned to Sudan with his body and their young son.  She returned and for four years – the four years and ten days required by sharia law–she worked at a translator at the university, hiding in her room while she healed from her loss.  When Rae, a Scottish professor of Middle Eastern Studies, begins talking to her and listening to her, she slowly came back to life.  The attraction between them grew, but she was a devote Muslim, and he was not.  Was there any hope for them as a couple or for her alone?

At one level, The Translator is a romance, the story of a man and a woman falling in love and coming to depend on each other.  But it is much more than the romance genre provides.  Rae gives Sammar something that she had lost, something that all humans need.

From early on it was the way he spoke to her, to the inside of her, not around her, over her head, around her shoulders.  That was how others spoke to her, their words bouncing against her skin and ears, cascading, and she stood perfectly still, untouched, always alone.

What was real was that she had been given permission to think and talk, and he would not be surprised by anything she said.  As if he had given her a promise, never to be taken aback.

Yet when Sammar returns to Sudan, she slips easily back into life there.  The brilliant stars and the children are again part of her life.

Life was the dust storms that approached rosy brown from the sky, the rush to shut windows and doors, the wind whistling through bushes and trees. Brief mad storms and then the sand, thick sand covering everything. Whirls of sand on the tiles to scoop up and throw away.  To beat out of curtains, cushions, pillows, to dust away from the surface of all that was still.  Sand eternally between the grooves of things, in the folds of skin, the leaves of children’s books.  And life was rain that came at dawn lightening….

The Translator is also about religion, and novels that focus on religion are not always well written.  Whatever the religion, they tend to become rigid and simplistic.  Aboulela does not fall into that trap despite her own deep Muslim faith.  We see events from the perspective of Sammar, and Islam is simply a critical part of Sammar’s life.  As her relationship with Rae grows, religion threatens to divide them, but she cannot even imagine a life in which it is not central to all she is.  Yet Rae is a scholar, committed to viewing religion, as other topics, as an objective outsider.  The conflict is not simply over Islam, but over the challenge of holding on to both religious devotion and love of an individual.

In a predominantly secular world, Aboulela has given us a story which can help us understand and appreciate what religion can mean, whether or not we ourselves are religious.  Her book is particularly valuable because it focuses on Islam, a religion valued by millions and poorly understood by Christians and non-believers.  With Sammar we see the details of life as a Muslim woman, but more importantly, we can imaginatively begin to understand what it means to her to be a Muslim.

I strongly recommend The Translator to all readers, especially to those who seek to understand Islam and those who follow its tradition.  To those who want to see romance and religion written about with skill and grace.  And to all who simply love well-written prose.

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