Minaret by Leila Aboulela
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
With her Muslim hijab and down-turned gaze, Najwa is invisible to most eyes, especially to the rich Arab families whose houses she cleans in London. Twenty years earlier, Najwa, then an aristocratic Westernized Sudanese, could have never imagined this new life. She was a student at the University of Khartoum but her focus in life was on fashionable clothes, pop music, and parties. When a political coup forces Najwa’s family into exile in London, she soon finds herself orphaned and completely alone. For the first time in her life, Najwa turns to the solace and companionship among the women at the mosque, and when she adopts the hijab, she begins to see the world anew. Then Najwa meets Tamer, the intense, lonely younger brother of her employer and they find a common bond in her newfound faith and slowly, silently, begin to fall in love. Written with directness, simplicity and force, Minaret is a stunning and insightful novel about one woman’s journey toward spiritual peace.
I loved Leila Aboulela’s short story “Museum” which won the first Caine Prize in 2000. I read “Museum” from the anthology Opening Spaces – Contemporary African Women’s Writing and I thoroughly enjoyed it, mainly because Aboulela is Sudanese and writes about Khartoum. We rarely read or hear about Sudan in the African literature scene, so Leila Aboulela’s writing excites me!
In Minaret, all was well with Najwa and her family as they were upper-class and enjoyed various luxuries, despite Sudan’s failing economy. Since Najwa was very privileged, she was oblivious to the fact that Sudan was a very poor nation with majority of the citizens under the poverty line and with a government, which her father was associated with, that was very corrupt. Things turned upside down for Najwa and her family when Sudan faced a coup d’état, hence her family, excluding her father, were forced to escape to their townhouse in London. The storyline cuts to ten to fifteen years later and after a series of unfortunate events, Najwa who was once a rich, secular university student becomes a lonely, poor housemaid. As a housemaid, Najwa finally starts to take Islam seriously by wearing a hijab and going to the Mosque to pray daily.
The storyline towards the middle of Minaret gets a bit annoying. Najwa (now a housemaid), who is now about forty years old falling in love with Tamer, her employer’s son, was a bit strange to me. Why is this forty year old in love with a nineteen-year-old university student? I found Tamer to be very judgmental as he felt he was a better Muslim than everyone. Towards the middle of the story, I realized Najwa was a little too naive for my liking. Her fate was very sad as she was orphaned quite early due to political instability in Sudan, but I didn’t find Najwa to be a strong Muslim woman I could learn from. Surely, she had her strengths: she had a calm spirit, she was meek, she was very kind and regarded others’ feelings. Throughout the novel, she was trying to grow spiritually and was trying to become a better Muslim, but by the end of the novel I didn’t really see the depth of her growth. The conclusion of the novel seemed incomplete as well since Najwa’s character seemed stagnant. It was as though she was content being a housemaid and did not aspire to do anything better with her life or even go back to Sudan. I was quite disappointed that Najwa did not want more for herself.
Leila Aboulela is a great writer. I loved the calmness and simplicity of her writing in this novel. This book made me appreciate the Muslim culture, the importance of women wearing hijabs and helped me gain greater insight on the drastic effects of coup d’etats on citizens of a nation. I just wish the love story between Tamer and Najwa was more realistic and didn’t take up three-fifths of the storyline. But I still look forward to reading more of Aboulela’s books!
by Darkowaa Adu-Kofi