Thursday, 30 May 2013

Minaret (2005) - Leila Aboulela

Minaret by Leila Aboulela is not my usual kind of novel. I was introduced to it by the CWWA Book Group, who chose it as their second book. I found the book enjoyable, though in parts it was frustrating; the central character’s passive approach to her life is somewhat irritating. She is a strong woman in the sense of carrying on with her life despite great upheaval and emotional problems, but yet she is very willing to go along with whatever direction she is pushed in by others; be it her family, friends, employer or romantic partner. 

Set during a twenty year period, Minaret follows Najwa from her life as a privileged member of the [unwittingly] corrupt upper class of the Sudan, to her gradual social and economic descent after her family’s downfall. Presented as a fragmented narrative, moving between 1984-5, 1989-90, 1991 and 2003-4 in a non-linear pattern, the novel also charts Najwa’s spiritual awakening and exploration of life through the frame of Islam. 

The movement back and forth in time is something that, I feel, detracts from the novel. The initial juxtaposition between Najwa going for a job as a domestic servant, and her privileged life in Khartoum is very powerful, but after that the fractured narrative seems to serve little purpose. Noticably, Najwa's writing style alters as she develops as a woman. She is initially is a teenager, greatly preoccupied with popstars and Western films, but as the novel develops and she matures, the writing style alters to reflect this; as Najwa experiences her religious awakening, she begins to write in a more eloquent and refined way. 

Identity, its concept and meaning, is the central theme of Minaret. Najwa is forced to examine her own identity as a Sudanese woman when she finds herself in exile in London. Constantly reminded that she is a ‘modern’ woman, Najwa is increasing drawn towards the Islamic identity she has previously shunned. Ultimately, the discipline and security of the religion that Najwa has skirted around for her entire life is what she finds salvation in, following her twin brother’s imprisonment for the violent assault of a policeman during his arrest for drugs-related offences, and her mother’s death from Leukaemia.

The narrative, through Najwa’s self-discovery, questions whether one’s identity lies in one’s origins (e.g. Najwa’s Sudanese origins) or one’s religion. Najwa slowly falls in love with the younger brother of the woman she acts as a domestic servant to when the novel moves forward to 2003. This young man (Tamer) strongly identifies as a Muslim; his family refer to him as being devout. For him, identity is found in religion 
because it has been more of a constant in his life than any sense of belonging or a ‘home’; the family spent time in various countries including those in the Middle East and Sudan itself.

Najwa clearly initially identifies as a Sudanese woman, but her displacement in London and the break-down of her familial unit pushes her towards re-identifying as a Muslim woman. Najwa’s shame at her father’s trial for corruption causes her to avoid any contact with the London Sudanese community, further alienating her from her Sudanese identity. She has moments of clearly being lost between these two identities, including when she reluctantly agrees to sleep with her boyfriend, Anwar, which leads her to a brief personal crisis.

Anwar represents both consistency and great disruption in Najwa’s life. They initially meet in Sudan and engage in a respectable relationship. Anwar hurts Najwa deeply by referring to her father by name in a political speech at the Khartoum University they both attend. Their paths cross again when Anwar is also exiled to London following a military coup. He has also experienced a fall from grace after the decline of the political party he worked for. 

Ultimately, Najwa chooses to turn to religion and, in doing so, turns her back on Anwar. Despite being presented as somewhat of an antagonist in Najwa’s life, the novel ends with Najwa experiencing yet another period of tumult and change, whilst we learn that Anwar has settled down and been able to return to Sudan.

Aside from identity, a principal theme is duty. Najwa’s life is constantly steered by both her sense of duty and the imposition of her duties by other people. As a young woman in Sudan, she is reminded of her duties towards her parents and as a Muslim woman; despite not being devout, she fulfils the role expected of her. Later in life, Najwa takes on the role of domestic servant, and dutifully attends classes at her local mosque. 

Throughout her life she clearly envies those with a clear sense of duty; she is more aware of their servants than anyone else whilst living in Khartoum, and tells the reader outright that she feels jealousy towards the girls who are devout enough to pray at University, although she only seems to accept and acknowledge this jealousy when looking on the situation with hindsight. As the book reaches its resolution, Najwa succumbs to her duty as a Muslim and chooses to go on a religious pilgrimage over being with her new love, Tamer.

Associated with these themes of identity and duty is the hugely significant side plot of Najwa’s decision to wear the hijab, or Islamic headscarf. Najwa initially dresses in a way appropriate for a woman of her faith, class and Sudanese origins, but the pressure to be a modernised and indeed Westernised woman overcome this, and she yearns for nights at the American Club of Khartoum where she can dress like the other young people there. Najwa is influenced by the Western pop stars she listens to, and her family holidays to London.

When she moves to London, Najwa makes the natural progression away from the constraints of the Islamic Sudanese society and towards the free lifestyle that living in London brings. As her life begins to unravel, Najwa yearns for the anonymity and protection brought by being veiled. She presents her newly veiled and modestly dressed self to Anwar as a way of severing their relationship for good; Najwa shows Anwar that she has chosen a religious existence over him. Anwar is very clear in expression his opinion on the ‘backward’ nature of the Islamic doctrine and its treatment of women.

Najwa describes a particularly distressing scene in which she is fearful on her way home from the mosque because of wearing her hijab, and the racial abuse she incurs as a result. Despite this, she is clearly more comfortable with her new modest attire. Her narrative is littered with references to beauty, in both herself and the women around her. In her youth she considers herself and her mother beautiful. After her religious conversion, she takes great delight in seeing her friends from the mosque when they are not wearing their veils. This again relates to the issue of identity. Najwa initially self-identifies as beautiful, but later is more open to seeing beauty in others.

Minaret is exceptionally detailed and maintains high verisimilitude in its depiction of the Muslim religion, informed by the writer’s own religious experiences in Sudan and the UK. Various aspects of the daily practices of Muslims are presented in an accessible but non-patronising way. The representations are both detailed and convincing, especially to the uninitiated. Najwa attends the mosque on a daily basis for prayer, and also attends classes for women there. Her ultimate goal is to go on religious pilgrimage to Mecca. One could argue that Najwa is rewarded, in a religious sense, by finally being able to go on pilgrimage when she agrees to end her relationship with Tamer; her trip is funded by the money his family gives her to leave them alone. 

Despite descriptions of the day-to-day experience of being a Muslim, there is a lacking in descriptions regarding being a Muslim in London, and interactions with Western people whilst Najwa undertakes her exploration of faith; the only interactions with white Western people are negative, with the exception of one white Islamic convert. 

The CWWA Book Club posed the following question, which I would like to briefly discuss: Leila Aboulela has sometimes been described as a ‘halal novelist’, or a writer who stays within religiously permissible topics. Would you agree with this definition? I would absolutely agree with this. Najwa's story is one of religious awakening and discovery, and shows Islam to be both a natural choice for her, and the 'right' choice. Through her exploration of Islam, Najwa finds fulfilment in her life. She appears to view her religious pilgrimage as a chance to be reborn and cleansed of all previous sins, including those of her family. 

To conclude, Minaret is an interesting text, particularly for the way it presents the daily experience of being a woman belonging to the Islamic faith. The narrative is interesting as it shows Najwa fall from grace and begin to build a new life for herself, albeit one far from her privileged existence in the Sudan. I found Najwa to be a frustrating character in the way she is so passive and allows her life to be shaped by those in it, rather than by taking an active stance herself. I enjoyed the text as a whole, but dislike the fractured narrative. I would definitely be interested to read the other novel by Leila Aboulela, and someone at the CWWA Book Club recommended it. The Book Club provided some fascinating discussion on the text, and it was brilliant to hear other people's opinion on Najwa's story.

If you have read Minaret, I would love to discuss it with you

-CKB

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