Tuesday, July 19, 2005

leila aboulela's 'minaret' on BBC

By a quirk of timing, BBC Radio 4's serialisation of Sudanese-Egyptian writer Leila Aboulela's novel "Minaret" was broadcast in the Book at Bedtime slot during the period following the bomb attacks in London on July 7.
It is hard to think of a more appropriate book for this time when understanding between Muslims and wider British society is under huge strain. The serialisation was wonderfully rendered by actress Adjoa Andoh, who brought a lively variety of voices to her reading.

Aboulela has a gift for writing from the interior experience of a Muslim woman, and "Minaret" takes us deep into the life of her Sudanese first-person narrator Najwa. Aboulela approaches the story with her customary grace and skill, and her characters are subtly drawn. We learn what it is that brought Najwa to a renewal of her religious faith, and to the decision to start wearing the Islamic headscarf.

The novel, published recently by Bloomsbury, constantly moves in place and time between Khartoum and London, in a time frame from the mid-1980s to today. The minaret of the title is that of Regent's Park mosque, glimpsed by Najwa as she waits to enter the flat of her new employer Lamya whose small daughter she looks after.

Najwa tells us at the beginning of the novel "I've come down in the world." Born to a privileged family in Sudan, and with her father close to the president, she mixes with a Westernised partying crowd of young people in Khartoum in the mid-1980s. At university there is a mutual attraction between her and Anwar, a young radical who is critical of her father and the family's well-off lifestyle.

Disaster befalls the family after a coup in which Najwa's father is arrested. Najwa flees to London with her mother and twin brother Omar and her father is tried and hung. Najwa's twin Omar, who has long been a worry to her, ends up in prison.

While working for Lamya, Najwa develops a close friendship with Lamya's brother Tamer, which causes her conflicting emotions.

Aboulela was in 2000 the first winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing for the short story "The Museum". She was longlisted for the Orange prize for women's fiction in 2000 with her first novel "The Translator". Her collection of stories, "Coloured Lights", was published in 2001. She has had several dramas performed on BBC Radio.

Aboulela's writing exemplifies the capacity of fiction to touch readers and encourage empathy in ways that straight reporting can never do. Such imaginative leaps are needed now more than ever.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette
July 19 2005

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