OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
Caroline Sanderson meeets the Sudan-born author and learns of her experiences as an enforced exile.
'The English word “homesick” is a good one; we do not have... the same word in Arabic’. The young female narrator of the title short story in Leila Aboulela's Coloured Lights finds herself 'sick with longing for the heat, the sweat and the water of the Nile', and sits crying on a London bus as it passes the lions in Trafalgar Square... in a place where ‘darkness descended unnaturally at 4pm and people went about their business as if nothing had happened’.
When I meet the author of Coloured Lights in central London, not a mile from those lions, ironically it’s a bright, clear day, with hours of daylight still before us. Leila Aboulela has just flown in from the US following a publicity tour for her latest novel Lyrics Alley. Published in the UK at the end of 2010,
it was longlisted for the Orange Prize, the second of Aboulela’s novels to earn that distinction. Soon, she’ll be in transit again, back to Doha in Qatar; the place she currently calls home. For the moment however, she sits sipping tea with me on a bench outside in the sunshine. The impression I get is of quiet confidence and of serenity in her surroundings. A supremely well-travelled woman of the world, you might say.
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A STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
And yet twenty years ago, Leila Aboulela was an unhappy exile in this cold country, far from home. Being an outsider changed her whole life, and it made her a writer. The experience of being a stranger in a strange land would become the refrain of her novels and short stories. Her work transports us far beyond all those glibly-coined headlines about immigrants, and into the minds and hearts of those who find themselves sitting at chilly kitchen tables in alien continents, and yearning for the familiar. In the words of another of Aboulela's charaters: 'To see home again...was a chandelier on the ceiling of her life.'
'The fate of our generation,' writes Aboulela in Coloured Lights, ‘is separation, from our country or our family.’ And she should know. Her whole life has been punctuated by arrivals, departures, and separations. The daughter of an Egyptian mother and a Sudanese father, she was born in Cairo in 1964, where her grandparents lived. ‘That’s what women did then, went back to home to have their babies’. At the age of six weeks, baby and mother returned to Khartoum where Aboulela spent her childhood. It was well-to-do: the family home was a villa in a cosmopolitan area; the neighbours an American family on one side, and the Jordanian embassy on the other. Though Muslim, Aboulela, like many of her contemporaries attended the Catholic School secondary school in Khartoum. Her summers were spent in Cairo, and there were trips to London, notably at the age of 13 when she spent a semester there whilst her mother was studying for a PhD at the London School of Economics.
Later, Aboulela graduated from the University of Khartoum with a degree in statistics, and shortly afterwards married her childhood sweetheart. Her first child was born in 1986, and the following year, she came to London to study for a Masters and a PhD, with her young son, but without her husband, an engineer who was working in the Middle East. ‘London wasn’t so strange, but I found the studying
challenging. The education I had had in Khartoum was very disrupted; there were demos all the time and the university would often be closed.’ Aboulela’s determination to educate herself to a high standard seems to have come primarily from her mother, whom she describes as ‘very driven, very active. Much more of a fighter than I am. When she was a lecturer, she was the only woman in the department. She was always pushing and encouraging me. But I wanted to find my own style’.
A quieter, less trail-blazing style seemed to beckon her. ’I remember being envious of housewives, thinking it would be nice to read the paper. I had a strong desire to sit in the kitchen and listen to Woman’s Hour.’ Little did Aboulela realise that there would soon be more than enough time for such things. Her stay in the land of Radio 4 was supposed to be a temporary one. ‘We had always intended to go back home,’ she recalls. But then fate intervened. In 1989 there was a coup in Sudan, which made a return impossible. Years of instability in that country followed. And so began almost two decades of exile for Leila Aboulela, and a long and winding road to a new kind of life.
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A MAZE OF CULTURE SHOCKS
The following year, Aboulela’s husband got a job in the oil industry in Aberdeen, and the family, including her two-week-old second son, moved north of the border. ‘I thought to myself, I’m an immigrant now. What’s that going to be like?’ The answer was, to borrow a phrase from one of Abouela’s novels, ‘a maze of culture shocks’. Scotland did not provide the kind of cosmopolitan life she had been used to. It was cold and dark, and the weather depressed her. She found it difficult to make friends. ’I wasn’t working. No one in the playground would talk to me. It was so boring. I started thinking: is this what the rest of my life is going to be?’
Moreover, Aboulela’s arrival in Scotland coincided both with the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, and the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing. Suddenly it was a difficult time not only to be an immigrant, but a Muslim immigrant at that. ‘That was really when all the talk in the media about Muslims started. And I make a lot of effort to avoid hostility. I’m not a confrontational person at all; I don’t get into arguments about these things.’
And yet it was the desire to write a letter to a newspaper in response to an article about the Gulf War that changed her life for ever. ‘I suddenly decided
that I had things to say, but I didn’t know how. So I sent off for a correspondence course on creative writing. It cost £200 and I felt so guilty about the expense. When the course came it was quite structured and included a reading list of books by people like Maya Angelou, and Vera Brittain. Lots of Virago authors. I never wrote as a child, not even letters. But I had always read a lot. And all those women writers who were new to me, well I loved them.’
Something spoke to Aboulela; triggering the thought that she might become a writer herself.
‘So I completed the assignments and posted them off. It was before email, before the days of instant responses. You can’t imagine the excitement of getting a reply. It meant the world to me’. For the Fiction module, Aboulela wrote her first ever story. ‘I showed it to my husband. He couldn’t believe that I had written it. I showed it to my friend. She said it was really good. And I started to think that this was something I could do.’ Aboulela abandoned the correspondence course, and signed up for a creative writing evening class instead.
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’I remember being envious of housewives, thinking it would be nice to read the paper. I had a strong desire to sit in the kitchen and listen to Woman’s Hour.’
VENTURING INTO THE REAL WORLD
For the first time since arriving in Scotland two years before, she felt as if she was venturing out into the real world. ‘I was unbelievably excited. I would be awake all night before a class with excitement. But when I think of what I had to do before I could get there... I had to cook, change the baby’s nappy, put the children in their pyjamas, brush their teeth and load them in the car. Because I was afraid to drive in the dark, my husband had to drop me off. Then he would go home and put the children to bed. Then later he’d have to get them up again, put them back in the car and come and pick me up. But I had to do it.’
And how worth the effort it was. Her class tutor was very encouraging about her work, and she wrote more stories. Soon she was receiving support from another quarter; writer Todd McEwen who was then writer-in-residence at Aberdeen Central Library. The depression of the early years in Scotland fell away and an internal shift took place. ‘I thought: I’m a writer.’
Aboulela somehow managed to write during the day, whilst looking after her children. ‘I remember actually pushing them away sometimes: I was so caught up in what I was writing.’ Thanks to McEwen, Aboulela found an agent and in 1999, her first novel, The Translator was published by Scottish independent, Polygon. Much of it was written while she was at the kitchen sink. ‘I’d write whole chunks in my head whilst washing the dishes, and then write them down later.’ With moving restraint, her debut novel recounts the cross-cultural love that develops between Sammar, a young Sudanese widow, working as a translator at a Scottish university, and Rae, a twice-divorced Scottish academic. They are drawn to each other despite coming from backgrounds that couldn’t be more different. The contrasts are beautifully conveyed. When Sammar returns to Sudan, she opens the fridge door on a hot day: ‘the blue, cold frost, and it was Aberdeen where he was, his jacket, and walking in grey against the direction of the wind’.
The Translator was a novel ahead of its time. It didn’t find a publisher in the US until 2005/6 by which time the whole world was talking about the tensions between Muslim countries and the West. It was subsequently chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The earlier success of The Translator in the UK encouraged Polygon to follow it with Aboulela’s afore-mentioned short story collection, Coloured Lights, particularly after one of her stories, ‘The Museum’, won the inaugural Caine Prize for African Writing in July 2000. An acutely observed tale of a fragile human connection which fleetingly transcends cultural obstacles, ‘The Museum’ tells of Shadia, an overseas MSc student, rendered timid and unhappy by the strangeness of Scotland: ‘Her eyes bulged with fright, watered with cold’. Despite his very Western blue eyes, long hair, and a silver earring which seems to embody her sense of culture shock, Shadia is increasingly intrigued by fellow student, Bryan. On a visit to a museum, the sense of yearning and the desire for escape which throbs in both of them is laid painfully bare.
This period of early writing success was followed by yet another time of upheaval for Abouelela. After exactly ten years in Scotland – a ‘perfect decade’ as she puts it – the family (which now included Aboulela’s third child, a daughter born in Aberdeen in 1998), moved to Indonesia in August 2000, where they remained for four years. Aboulela continued to write, scripting a number of radio plays, including a five-part adaptation of The Translator for Woman’s Hour. She also wrote her second novel, Minaret, which was published in 2005, both in the US and the UK where it was longlisted for the Orange Prize. By then, the family had moved once again, this time to Dubai.
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AN EMOTIONAL HOMECOMING
In 2006, Aboulela finally went back to Sudan. It was her first visit in 17 years and it was an emotional homecoming. ‘I was afraid it wouldn’t be as beautiful as I remembered it. But it was. It was just as before.’ Despite spending a large proportion of the next few years there, looking after her gravely ill father, Aboulela found that she had come to terms with the fact that she wouldn’t live in Sudan again. ‘My life had turned a different corner. Going back gave me a sense of closure.’
And yet it was her childhood land which provided the inspiration for Lyrics Alley, the fictionalised story of her uncle Hassan, who was paralysed as a young man after a swimming accident on holiday, and separated from the woman he loved as a result. He later became a renowned poet, his verses speaking eloquently both of his own unrequited longing, and the yearnings of his country’s so-often exiled people.
Aboulela heard his story from her aunt, Hassan’s sister, and it gave her the bones of a novel, although it was almost a year before the story came together properly. The result is an atmospheric and affecting account of the trials and tribulations of a family dynasty, which teems with life. By turns funny, tender and shocking, it moves between Sudan, Egypt and London, with the clash between differing traditions, and the pull of the West a central theme.
Polygamy and female circumcision also feature. Though most of the incidents in the novel are invented, it includes real quotes from Hassan’s verses, including the poem that made him famous, ‘Travel is the Cause’.
The stars know what is wrong with me... Your portrait is enveloped in my heart. I remember and I will narrate how our love was struck by the evil eye...In you, Egypt are the causes of my injury. And in you Sudan, my burden and my solace.
Though a fluent Arabic speaker, Aboulela writes in English. ‘I was educated in English and I always read in English.’ When she is writing dialogue however, she hears it in Arabic in her head, translating it into English as she writes. As part of her editing process, she tries to ensure that the English version sounds authentic and not stilted, something that her radio work has greatly assisted her with. But occasionally, she leaves Arabic words in place, providing a splash of exotic linguistic colour, and challenging the reader to discover their meanings. Like Baraka. Ya habibi. And most frequently, Al-hamdullilah, or All praise is due to Allah.
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’I wasn’t working. No one in the playground would talk to me. It was so boring. I started thinking: is this what the rest of my life is going to be?’
THE CONSOLATIONS OF FAITH
When loneliness struck in Aberdeen, Aboulela started to go to the mosque which was housed in a converted bank. It was a new experience, as her upbringing, although nominally Muslim was not a religious one. ‘Going to the mosque made me feel less homesick. It helped connect me to my life in Sudan.’ Back home, even among people who were not religious, the presence of God was always acknowledged. ‘Even bad Muslims still believed. Coming to the UK was a shock for me. I just assumed everyone there would also be a believer.’ In Aberdeen however, she met some Scottish converts to Islam, and spent a lot of time talking to them about their reasons for doing so. Some had married Muslim men. Most however were already religious, but had started to find that Christianity wasn’t ‘strong enough’ for them. The whole experience was a revelation, and it transfused directly into her daily life, and into her fiction. Minaret, Aboulela’s second novel portrays the testing spiritual journey
of her heroine, Najwa from upper-class westernised young Sudanese woman, to devout hijab-wearing Muslim in London. It is a long way from all those stories about the ‘radicalisation’ of young men in the mosques of the West as it is possible to be, and fire- breathing clerics and suicide bombers are conspicuous by their absence from her work. Yet there is also something provocative about women who choose a religious path, over hard won female freedom, whilst Aboulela’s portrayals of bruised human hearts, reaching out for something more, will also speak to those of any or no religious persuasion.
In person, Leila Aboulela has the same grace and quiet restraint that characterises much of her work. She is not easily drawn on the everlasting debate about the rights and wrongs of wearing the hijab, despite the fact that when we meet, her head is covered with a striking green patterned scarf. ‘I’m not a political writer. I don’t want to get into an argument that won’t go anywhere. I’m trying to be honest, that’s all. I agree that women have more freedom in the West: I’m living proof of that. But there have always been dress codes for women. It’s not true that Western women can wear whatever they want. They are bombarded with advice all day long: women over a certain age shouldn’t show their bare arms; shouldn’t grow their hair long.’ That last bit of ‘advice’ was gleaned from Oprah Winfrey on her recent US trip. Aboulela was also astonished to discover that it also isn’t done to go grey in the US of A. Political writer or not, ambiguities about the freedoms of Western life are never far away in her work.
It’s clear that Aboulela places her Muslim faith at the centre of her life, and her novels and stories frequently feature characters who are led to ‘reach out for spiritual pleasure’, as Najwa, the heroine of Minaret puts it. Their religiosity is never overdone but the consolations of faith are clearly highlighted. ‘Maybe I was happy because I was praying again – not like when I was young when it was just to boost my grades or to complement my fast in Ramadan – but with the intention of never giving it up. I reached out for something new,’ says Najwa.
These days for Leila Aboulela, home is where the heart is. Or at least, where her children are. ‘My children think of themselves as British, and they make me feel British when I’m with them. And when I’m in America, I become really British.’ On her recent visit, Aboulela found herself comparing New York taxi drivers unfavourably with their Knowledgeable London counterparts. ‘I can never believe it when they expect you to direct them to your destination,’ she says, laughing. With Sudan newly split into
two independent nations, Aboulela feels cautiously optimistic about its future. ‘Sudan has been behind an Iron Curtain, shut off from the rest of the world. That’s partly due to the sanctions of course, but now there’s a growing middle class, and lots of investment from Chinese oil companies.‘
The setting for Aboulela’s next novel is not Sudan however, but present-day UK, with forays into nineteenth-century Chechnya. The historical bits feature the so-called ‘lion of Chechnya’, Imam Shamyl who fought a jihad against the Russians to protect his culture and homeland, which attracted the support of Queen Victoria. It’s a prospect to savour. If any novelist can gently bring jihad and British royalty together, it will be Leila Aboulela.
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‘I’d write whole chunks in my head whilst washing the dishes, and then write them down later.’
by Leila Aboulela
in paperback by