Sunday, January 30, 2011

leila aboulela's novel 'lyrics alley'

Tracking a Sudanese-Egyptian family saga
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 30 January 2011

The title of Egyptian-Sudanese author Leila Aboulela’s novel “Lyrics Alley” refers to the poetry and song lyrics for which the paralyzed Sudanese poet Nur Abuzeid becomes famed, and also to the network of small streets in Umdurman on which he and his relatives live.

Nur’s first cousin and former fiancĂ©e Soraya, whose engagement to the poet was broken off by his father after Nur was paralyzed, is consoled by hearing songs with Nur’s lyrics on the radio. “Soraya would walk down the alley and hear snatches of Nur’s lyrics coming from the houses. She would sit up in bed and sing along with the radio. And every time she heard it, the pain decreased and the enjoyment increased.”

Aboulela’s novel was inspired by a real-life character, her uncle Hassan Awad Aboulela (1922-62) who wrote the lyrics for many popular Sudanese songs and was paralyzed in an accident. A similar accident befalls his fictional counterpart Nur Abuzeid, son of one of Sudan’s richest men Mahmoud Abuzeid. Nur, who had just completed his studies at the exclusive Victoria College in Alexandria, is paralyzed when he dives off rocks into the sea and breaks several vertebrae. Prior to that he had been the natural heir to the Abuzeid family business as his elder brother Nassir is an irresponsible wastrel.

In an interview with Saudi Gazette Leila [portrait below by Vaida V Nairn] said that in drawing inspiration from Hassan Awad Aboulela, “I was faithful to the details of his accident and the development of his career as a poet, and I used translations of his poems. However, the other characters and their storylines are fictitious.”

She shifted the timeline somewhat in her novel. “My uncle’s accident took place in 1948 but in the novel I moved the date to 1951 so that it would coincide with the progress of independence in Sudan. I also took many other artistic liberties and the novel should not be read as a true biography of the poet or his family.” She adds: “Of course many people in Sudan and in my family will be intrigued by the blur of reality and fiction and eager to explore how much truth is in the novel.”

Asked how her extended family has reacted to the novel, Aboulela replies: “Members of my family have been really positive and supportive. They’ve helped with sources and many of them shared with me their personal memories of Hassan.”

She did not find it difficult to write the novel. “This is because I was motivated by love for my father, and for my family. At the same time I did not let sentimentality or loyalty prevent me from being frank regarding the treatment of women in 1950s Sudan and the colonial-Egyptian prejudice towards Sudan.”

“Lyrics Alley”, Aboulela’s third novel, is published in London by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. The US edition will be published by Grove Press on 1 March. Aboulela’s earlier novels “The Translator” (1999) and “Minaret” (2005) received considerable critical acclaim. Both were longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. “The Translator” was in addition shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year.

Aboulela’s short stories have also garnered praise. In 2000 she became the first-ever winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story “The Museum”. Her 2001 short story collection “Coloured Lights” was shortlisted for the Macmillan Silver PEN Award.

While Aboulela’s first two novels were each focused on one female character, “Lyrics Alley” is a family saga, with a large number of characters and shifting points of view. The rich, complex narrative takes us into the characters’ inner lives, with Aboulela’s characteristic eye for detail, and her lyrical touch and atmospheric writing.

Asked why she chose multiple points of view, Aboulela says: “In ‘Lyrics Alley’ I was capturing my late father’s youth, his childhood growing up in Umdurman. My father had four brothers and five sisters. He had countless first and second cousins. All these families lived very close to each other with narrow passages leading from one hoash – open-air courtyard – to the next.”

The families shared meals, slept in adjoining beds, and were often joined by poor relations from the provinces and by servants and guests. The men worked together, and cousins very often married each other. “To reflect this teeming, close-knit populous world I had to have a large canvas,” Aboulela says. “Initially I had envisaged an even bigger cast, more brothers and sisters, more points of view – but to be realistic I narrowed down the list and concentrated on going deep with five characters and their points of view.”

Aboulela was born in Cairo in 1964 to an Egyptian mother and a Sudanese father. At the age of six weeks she moved to Khartoum, where she lived until 1987. She graduated in economics from Khartoum University and then moved to Britain where she gained an MSc and an MPhil in Statistics from the London School of Economics (LSE). In 1990 she moved to Scotland with her oil engineer husband Nadir Mahjoub and her children, and started writing fiction in 1992. Since 2000 she and her family have lived in Jakarta, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha. She now divides her time between Aberdeen in Scotland, and Doha.

Through the characters in “Lyrics Alley” Aboulela explores issues such as modernity and tradition. Mahmoud is a visionary businessman, but his brother Idris, a widower, is so conservative that he will not allow his schoolgirl daughter Soraya to read a newspaper or to wear spectacles. It is her fiancĂ© Nur who gives her the spectacles she needs to see clearly.

Mahmoud has two wives. The first is the Sudanese Hajjah Waheeba, mother of Nassir and Nur. The younger wife is the stylish Egyptian Nabilah, by whom Mahmoud has a young daughter Ferial and son Farouk. Aboulela depicts with skill the escalating rivalry between the two wives. Nabilah may be more superficially sophisticated, but Waheeba has a deep claim on Mahmoud who will never divorce her. Nabilah’s feelings of Egyptian superiority over Sudan lead her to feel some revulsion even at her own children’s Sudanese looks. Female circumcision, which Nabilah and Mahmoud oppose, is involved in a shocking plot development.

A key character from outside the family is Ustaz Badr, a devout and wise teacher from Upper Egypt who has been a private tutor to Mahmoud’s children. He lives in cramped conditions with his family and is desperate to lease a flat in Khartoum’s first high-rise building which Mahmoud is planning to build.

Aboulela has been extensively involved in radio drama at the BBC, both in dramatizations of her fiction and in scripting original plays. One could imagine “Lyrics Alley” as an effective radio or TV series or play. Aboulela says: “There are no plans yet, but I would certainly welcome the idea.”

Over the years Aboulela’s work has been translated into 12 languages. So far, the Dutch, Turkish and Polish language rights have been sold for “Lyrics Alley”. Her first two novels are forthcoming in translation into Malayalam, published by Olive Publications of Kerala, and she hopes the same publisher will also translate and publish “Lyrics Alley” in Malayalam.

Aboulela is also keen for “Lyrics Alley” to appear in Arabic. She says: “I am striving towards an Arabic translation, eager to see my uncle’s poems return to their original.”

Asked whether another volume of short stories is in the pipeline, Aboulela says: “I am hoping to publish another story collection. This would include my story ‘Missing Out’ in Granta as well as one that was published in the Virginia Quarterly Review and The National newspaper.”

At the same time, “I am ‘incubating’ a new novel, so I might head in that direction.” She is attracted by writing non-fiction and memoir “but somehow it doesn’t come naturally to me as fiction does – so it tends to take more time.” She adds “there was quite a gap between Minaret and Lyrics Alley and I hope now there won’t be such a gap until my next book is published.”

In addition to her own writing, Abouela has recently been involved in creative writing activities in Doha for Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP). “I taught a “Six Steps to a Story” course over a period of 6 weeks,” she says. “We started off with free-writing exercises designed to tap into the subconscious mind, then we moved on to points of view, building characters and finally to editing ones work and re-writing. I also gave them published short stories to read as I believe that reading is essential to pick up skills and inspiration.

“All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would welcome the opportunity to do it again. The students were of various abilities but there was a lot of talent and plenty of enthusiasm. I was lucky to have them over a six week period and watch them develop and grow in confidence.”

Aboulela’s increasing prominence over the past decade as a Muslim fiction writer, whose work often explores relations between Muslims and Westerners, has coincided with a fraught time in relations between Muslims and the West. How has this affected her writing, and do people look to her and her writing for explanations and understanding?

“From the beginning of my career I had wanted to write about Islam as a faith and about Muslims who, with varying degrees of success, are engaged with their faith,” says Aboulela. “I have always been keenly aware of the absence of religious observance in Arabic literature and cinema, an absence that doesn’t reflect the reality of most people’s lives. The men who crowd the mosques, the women who go on Hajj, the teenage girls who wear hijab are to a large extent invisible in the Arabic literary scene.”

For literature to be effective and meaningful it has to mirror people’s lives “otherwise it becomes an insubstantial as a dream.” Over the past decade, the interest in Islam has focused on terrorism and the veil. “For me the challenge is to resist explaining, defending or getting pulled into an agenda set by others. I write without looking over my shoulder, focusing on what I intimately know rather than on issues that grab the headlines.”

Leila Aboulela’s website is at

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