Leila Aboulela, Minaret (London: Bloomsbury, 2005 and 2006). 288 pp., £12.99 (hbk), ISBN:0747576262, £7.99 (pbk), ISBN: 9780747579427
Susan Alice Fischer
In ‘Street Haunting’, Virginia Woolf reminds us that in the modern city the fluidity of identity is located at the intersection of time and space. As the narrator meanders through London’s streets and her mind wanders into different times and spaces, she asks which is ‘the true self’: ‘Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?’
Woolf’s unmooring of identity from fixed points in time and space as she wanders the streets of her native city has been echoed by many London writers. While for Woolf London offers an exploration of her creative freedom, for others it is no stroll in the park. Those who write of migration to London portray protagonists who are quite literally, and often brutally, dislocated as they are forced to find a more fluid sense of identity in the global city. Those who portray orthodox religious communities find their urban meanderings strictly delineated by the spatial and temporal precepts of their religious cultures. In Leila Aboulela’s Minaret (2005), the prescribed norms of Islam ultimately help the protagonist locate a sense of self as a refugee in London.
Leila Aboulela’s Minaret is structured along the discontinuities of time and place caused by protagonist and narrator Najwa’s exile from her native Sudan. Following the praise to Allah with which the book opens, the first lines of the novel focus clearly on Najwa’s spatial awareness: ‘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’(p. 1). Once Najwa becomes religious, Islam locates her very clearly in both time and space. Following the prologue which introduces Najwa’s present story in London in 2004, the first main section of the novel takes place in Khartoum in the months leading up to the 1985 coup that will change her family’s life forever. Before the coup, Najwa, her twin brother Omar and their parents live a Westernised life punctuated by regular holidays abroad and cosseted by a retinue of servants. At university, Najwa meets Anwar, a student activist in the party that will bring about the coup. Despite Anwar’s hatred for the government and her father’s role in it, Najwa is attracted to him. At the same time, she is peripherally aware of and drawn to the female students who wear the traditional tobe, who wrap the secular portions of their lives around the calls for prayer, and who represent a glimmer of spiritual longing that will emerge fully once Najwa’s life changes.
The change is sudden and devastating. Awakened in the middle of the night by a warning telephone call, Najwa peers out into the night and witnesses her father’s attempted escape and capture. He is imprisoned while the rest of the family flee to London. Arriving at their Lancaster Gate flat, Najwa and Omar find that the ‘first weeks in London were OK. We didn’t even notice that we were falling. Once we got over the shock of suddenly having to fly out the day after Baba was arrested, Omar and I could not help but enjoy London’ (p. 56). But after their father is executed and his assets frozen, the twins realise they are now refugees, and they lose their sense of a secure foothold in London as the family tumbles from privilege.
The second part of the novel, which takes place in London in 2003 after Najwa has accepted Islam, shows just how much life has changed. Najwa has not completed her education and now works as a housekeeper for a woman she has met at the Regent’s Park mosque. Her employer, Lanya, a PhD student and young mother, lives the sort of life Najwa once knew. Lanya’s acceptance of Western values is contrasted by the religiosity of her younger brother, Tamer, who lives with her. Now wearing the hijab, Najwa is drawn to Tamer because of his dedication to Islam. The sections that follow fill in the intervening years from 1989 to 1991, intersecting with and elucidating the present time of the novel and showing just how far Najwa has fallen. These years chart Najwa’s conflicted relationship with Anwar — now also a refugee in London following a second military coup—and her growing identification with Islam.
In some respects, Aboulela’s narrative is similar to other women writers’ novels about migration to London. Hanan Al-Shaykh and Monica Ali also show the hardships that accompany wrenching relocations, whether brought about by desire for better opportunities or political exile. Their protagonists are similarly caught between places, their identities fractured. Yet because their vision is essentially secular, their protagonists seek a new sense of self through London’s secular space—its workplaces, its leisure spaces, its streets. In these narratives, a reclaiming of sexuality on their own terms is part of the female protagonists’ assimilation into a secular Western life.
Here, however, Najwa’s sexual experiences are anything but libratory. Her entire interaction with Anwar, sexual or otherwise, is thoroughly demeaning, not least because she does nothing to stop his steamrolling of her will. Now that her parents are dead and her brother incarcerated, Anwar represents her only connection to home and to the innocence of her youth before the coup. Their choice of initial meeting place at the Hyde Park Corner McDonald’s, that quintessential symbol of Western neo-imperialism’s global reach, not to mention non-halal meat, tips us off that this will be an ill-conceived liaison. We know this too when he cringes at the sight of veiled Arab women in black (p. 167) which is contrasted with his more admiring gaze when Najwa tries on Western clothing in Selfridges’s fitting rooms.
After some time in an exploitative relationship with Anwar, Najwa is horrified to realise that she has forgotten the time of Ramadan through her involvement with him. She seeks refuge not in secular Western feminism but in another sort of empowering women’s world—that of the ladies’ area at the Regents Park Mosque. This religious space offers Najwa the opportunity to transcend time and space and thus piece together the dispersed fragments of her world: ‘I close my eyes. I can smell the smells of the mosque, tired incense, carpet and coats. I doze and in my dream I am back in Khartoum, ill and fretful, wanting clean, crisp sheets, a quiet room to rest in, wanting my parents’ room …’ (pp. 74-75). Najwa’s connection to the women in the mosque and her adoption of the hijab can be read as a recuperating of self from the various male forces that have disrupted her life and worn her down. Islam becomes the embrace that gives her a sense of place and belonging in an otherwise hostile world.
As a practicing Muslim, Najwa’s interaction with London’s times and spaces is reconfigured. Heeding the call to prayer and other religious times, her life is now ordered by religious concerns. This very clearly includes the space of the female body. Once she becomes a practicing Muslim, she encounters Anwar only one more time as a prelude to her redemption. Significantly, she wears the hijab and meets him in public space, while most of their previous meetings have been in private space. This will contrast sharply with her essentially chaste friendship with the younger and religious Tamer, her employer’s younger brother, whom she mostly meets in public spaces, and in all cases she is wearing the hijab. Her connection with Tamer, the only untainted male in the book, is essentially innocent. The bargain she strikes at the end of the novel not only gives Tamer what he wants, but also enables Najwa to start her life in London afresh
Within the novel’s vision, Islam brings to Najwa a vital new sense of identity. As she says to Tamer, ‘I feel that I am Sudanese but things changed for me when I left Khartoum. Then even while living here in London, I’ve changed. And now, like you, I just think of myself as a Muslim’ (p. 110). Minaret is an engaging novel with a highly likeable protagonist searching for a place for herself in London and for meaning in a life violently shattered by events beyond her control.
To Cite This Article:
Susan Alice Fischer, ‘Review: Leila Aboulela, Minaret’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 2 (September 2007). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2007/sfischer.html. Accessed on [date of access]