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Minaret – Leila Aboulela

July 13, 2012

“I write about what I find moving and disturbing.  Culture-shock or how, again and again, the carpet gets pulled from under our feet.  My fictional worlds reflect Muslim logic.  But my characters do not necessarily behave as “good” Muslims; they are not ideals or role models.  They are flawed and complex, trying to practise their faith or make sense of Allah’s will, in difficult circumstances.”

At times when in some sections of society, Muslims are being blamed for all the woes of this world, this statement from the author is pertinent.  I have yet to read all her work, but so far, judging by the short story I read in Granta magazine and this lengthy piece of work, I love how deeply she cares for her characters, and not just the main ones either.  As for them being “flawed and complex”?  Totally, but if in real life, everyone is flawed and complex, then why shouldn’t it also be the case in novels?  And why shouldn’t that even be more so for people seeking to live in light of the standards of a perfect Supreme Being?  And that is what I enjoyed most with this book: the author isn’t giving us an apologetic of Islam.  After all, if anyone wants to find out about the faith, let them read the Koran.

What the author does in this book however, and does so wonderfully, is show us how the characters navigate this thing called life while holding onto Allah as the Supreme Being in their lives.  It is how Najwa navigates this new life of hers in London, a place where she’s had to think of who she is, and settling on the conclusion that only Allah knows her; the essence of who she is as a person, unlike those in her “host” country who can’t go past the hijab, crossing the road to avoid her, if they don’t abuse her, that is.  And there are the families she cleans for, who for a moment, cannot even think that their wonderful housekeeper might have lived a upper-class life in Khartoum.  But then again, they will first need to know she was Sudanese, and since she does not make it her life mission to advertise it…

Is that the reason why she fiercely holds onto Allah?  Because at least He knows her; this girl whose dream was to marry well and raise a family; this woman who’s happy being a housekeeper; this woman who’s come to enjoy being at the Mosque, who likes to go into Selfridges to try clothes on; clothes she has no intention of buying.  But a girl can have fun, right?

Yet she wonders at the workings of this her God.  If they had prayed enough…If they had been observant enough…  These thoughts assail her at times, not all the time however, for this is not a sad novel, nor is it a fluffy one.  While I do not want a novel to preach at me, however subtly so, I also do not want to be fed junk; I want to learn something.  Reading should educate us, enlarge our minds and sometimes, confirm something.

I was confirmed in my thoughts that the hijab maketh not the woman when I came to the scenes where Najwa is with her girlfriends at the Mosque.  Najwa the housekeeper, stunted by the events of Khartoum and by the harshness of life as a refugee, is no more.  But then again, had she really existed?  Instead, Najwa is Najwa, a funny, intelligent, passionate and quiet woman.  I think that is what Tamer saw……..

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