When Leila Aboulela’s first novel The Translator (1999) was reviewed in The Muslim News it was dubbed “the first halal novel written in English”, and no doubt Minaret (2005), her second, would be similarly lauded: Aboulela’s work is devoutly Muslim. She writes about Islam tenderly and with a particular affection for womens’ space within it, being herself a proponent of the hijab, of traditional wife- and motherhood, of piety. She evidently considers religion an emotional facilitator and a refuge, a place of protection for the weak of heart and mind. Thus in Minaret she envisions a woman – Najwa - lost, desperate and alone, who is saved from the corruption and chaos of London life by religious epiphany in the Regent’s Park Mosque. This is difficult and questionable (even though it is beautifully rendered by Aboulela) and perhaps more than a little ideologically challenging for an independent Western woman. Perhaps particularly for this Pagan lesbian…
Minaret is written in three interwoven threads, all narrating a different time-point in Aboulela’s protagonist’s life. In 2003 Najwa is a servant to wealthy Sudanese siblings, Lamya and Tamer, both students living in London. Deferential and largely unnoticed she arrives each morning in hijab to cook, clean and take care of Lamya’s only daughter Mai. (Lamya’s husband works abroad and, it becomes clear, never visits.) In the evenings she attends classes, talks and prayers at the nearby Regent’s Park Mosque with her closest friend Shahinez.
Twenty years ago, however, Najwa would never have imagined this devout, maidenly life in service. Back in 1984, the period of the narrative’s second strand, she is a business student at Khartoum University, the only daughter of a high-up government official with close ties to the President of Sudan. Life is awash with privilege – six servants, regular trips to Europe, a second home in London - and wrought by the West. She wears skimpy dresses and skirts and strappy tops, frequents parties, clubs and swimming pools (in bikinis!) and spends all her time listening to pop music and exchanging make-up tips with girl-friends. Her brother Omar is even experimenting with drugs. Revelling in freedom, she looks down upon the hijab-wearing girls in her classes; she never prays, although she notices that the family servants do. (One gets the feeling that in 1980s Khartoum religiosity is connected to money, or the lack of it.) She does fast for Ramadan, but noncommittally and mostly to loose weight.
At university she becomes involved with Anwar, a student radical who writes vitriolic articles about corruption in Sudanese government and derides her for her lack of interest in her own country’s political climate and social conditions. These halcyon days end abruptly, however, when a military coup (supported by Anwar) fells the Presidents government and executes her father for embezzlement. She, her mother and Omar flee to political exile in London. At first it is an adventure and Najwa is comfortable, almost "home at last", but after a year things begin to change. Omar’s fledgling drug problem escalates into full-blown addiction, which eventually leads to a lengthy term of imprisonment; Najwa's cool and supportive mother dies soon after leaving her to take work as a servant with a charitable aunt.
A third strand, dated 1989-90, sees Najwa reunited with Anwar in London, now a political refugee himself after a second coup in Sudan. As time passes it becomes clear that Anwar has no intention of marrying her – he doesn’t want her corrupt father’s blood in his children’s veins – even though they have been sleeping together. For Najwa sexual freedom is the epitome of terrifying; she realises, suddenly, that nobody would be shocked or scandalised if she became pregnant with Anwar’s child. Nobody would deride her or chastise her because nobody would care. She has no family left to protect her honour and she identifies this “freedom” as a “hollow emptiness”. Adrift in a world apparently without moral order or familial restraint, she finally turns to the controlled world of the mosque for comfort. Finding there a community of women ready to accept and love her, and a set of rules designed to cushion her from her own doubts and fears, she becomes a good Muslim for the first time in her life. Back in 2003 and now in her early 40s, her faith gives her the strength to endure her poor servant’s life and, eventually, leads her into a socially taboo but religiously sound relationship with her devout 19 year old employer Tamer.
Aboulela is doubtlessly a skilled writer: her prose swift and precise with an unerring eye for detail, her dialogue lively and realistic. Najwa is also generously rounded, filled with conflict and guilt as her promiscuous past threatens to overwhelm her present religious solution. Sadly the same cannot be said for many Minaret’s auxiliary characters. Tamer is honestly portrayed with his thoughtless and youthful naivety, but Lamya, Omar and Anwar are little more than straw men set up to provide contrast to the novel’s religious personalities. Secular and non-religious individuals are given the shortest of shrifts. Perhaps there is something incredibly brave about writing a woman and her religious experience this way and in this environment, positing religious belief as a balm to loneliness and conscious obedience as a safety net, the outside world as a threat and the mosque as a refuge. After all, many women world over – Christian, Jewish, Muslim - feel this way both strongly and positively. Still, there is something I find faintly disturbing and more than faintly repressive about it all.
In Minaret women only find fulfilment in certain psychological roles: sister, mother, wife, maid. That isn’t to say Aboulela writes women in social constraints. They go to university, become doctors, become social workers; they’re vibrant, happy and sociable with one another. The only outer signal of their difference is the hijab and a demure way of dressing, which is perfectly agreeable if a woman chooses it for herself and is not coerced. (Of course, measuring social coercion remains problematic.) But they’re emotionally determined, without scope for movement beyond the traditional familial model. When they do move beyond, they break taboo and consequently fail as women. A number of compare and contrasts are rather clumsily made to demonstrate. Lamya, absolutely secular and academically ambitious, is a terrible mother to Mai, neglectful and even violent on occasion. Her marriage has broken down because of her independence, because of her lack of willingness to compromise her own wants with her husband’s “needs”. On the other hand Najwa’s friend Shahinez with her bevy of boy-children manages to juggle motherhood and mosque perfectly. At the end of the novel she even decides to take a degree in social work part-time, helped by her live-in mother-in-law, so that she can have the best of both worlds. She has played by the rules and so is rewarded.
What distresses me most though is that Aboulela writes Najwa’s coming to Islam not as a personal journey of discovery but as an abnegation of responsibility made under psychological pressure. Is this really a “new freedom” for her? Certainly wearing the hijab and praying restores her sense of self and allows her to persist but only because it actively conceals and changes her. It makes her placid and obedient; it makes her servile. Before she came to London and in the time before her mother’s death Najwa is optimistic and vital. After she is necessarily grief-stricken and emotionally burdened. She has been dependent on others for guidance all her life and robbed of that support – financial and emotional - she feels lost. She craves an order that Islam happens to provide. But she doesn’t make a positive choice to convert because she really has no choice; there are no other channels open to her.
Anwar, as a politicised atheist, requires that she make her own decisions and take responsibility for herself. This is something she is literally incapable of doing. Tamar on the other hand is absolutely non-political but utterly devout, his first and only wish is to love and protect her. Hers is to care for his every need. At one point she fantasises about being his family’s slave instead of servant, then she could be his concubine used as he wished. This weakness of hers, this inability to be a woman *for her own sake* is reflected upon almost positively.
Now this may be my own feminist fury. I understand that for some women obedience in the name of belief is a conscious choice…still it riles me and throws my feelings about this otherwise thoughtful novel out of kilter. Probably this is a good thing; surely being challenged is a good thing. My own assumptions are obviously fallible. Still it seems to me that psychological wellness is born within and that religion is hardly a poultice for lack of self.
These came this morning. Joy. Joy. Joy. I could wet myself in excitement. And many thanks to Gavin Grant at Small Beer Press for putting me in two chapbooks (below) instead of one. Wooooo!