By Leila Aboulela
Black Cat. 276 pp. Paperback, $13
In every international upheaval, innocent bystanding people are "upheaved," so to say. What happens to those unfortunates who must precipitously flee their countries? Leila Aboulela, an award-winning Sudanese writer who now lives in Scotland, addresses this question in the spare, strange and beautiful "Minaret."
Najwa, the narrator, grows up, along with her spoiled twin brother, as the daughter of one of the richest families in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. She is cheery and heedless, trapped in the seemingly benign circumstances of her own adolescence. She's beautiful, raised in the Western way, a knowledgeable listener of pop tunes, a steadfast drinker of Coke. Her mother is materialistic (she comes from very old money) but kind. Her father, an unabashed social-climbing workaholic, jokes that he married his wife for her money and toils long hours in the government. They are happy, as far as any family is happy. But Omar, Najwa's twin, is a bit of a backslider. He's lazy, apathetic, has begun to drink and may be dabbling in drugs, but he's young. Probably nothing will come of it.
They are secular Muslims. They don't pray or observe any holidays. Najwa and her mother dress in revealing Western styles. But they haven't been tested yet. Nothing particularly bad has happened to them. They have been sheltered by extreme wealth and great good fortune. The rest of Sudan may be in a shambles, but Najwa and her kin might as well be living inside an egg, waited on hand and foot by servants, passing long afternoons at the country club pool, going on annual shopping trips to London.
The fragile shell cracks soon enough. At the University of Khartoum, Najwa meets Anwar, a prickly left-wing student revolutionary. He's attracted to her but repulsed by her wealth. Her father, Anwar tells her, is one of the most corrupt men in the government. And soon enough, the government falls. Najwa's father is taken away, tried and hanged. Najwa's mother and her children flee to London. But what then? They have plenty of money, but all their real support, their place in society, is gone. Omar sinks quickly into the world of drugs and ends up in prison for 20 years. The mother dies, brokenhearted. Najwa is left alone.
Yes, she could continue school, but she was never that good at it. She could immigrate to Canada with an uncle, but she doesn't feel like it. She's numb, alone, sickeningly free.
There's another coup in Sudan, this time ousting the leftists. Anwar, the left-winger, turns up in London, sanctimonious and irritated beyond belief. How could this have happened to all his strongly held ideals! He sulks and allows Najwa to console him with fancy clothes, a new computer, her virginity -- whatever he needs until her money runs out -- all the while lecturing her on her family's unworthiness. A few years later the money does run out and Anwar dumps her. She's middle-aged now, poor Najwa, penniless and with just a few housekeeping skills. She goes to work as a nanny for a woman named Lamya, who has come to London to work on her PhD, leaving a husband in the Middle East. Lamya has, however, brought along her 2-year-old daughter, Mai, and her teenage brother, Tamer, who wishes above all to study Islam but who has been forced by his parents to take a business degree.
During the years of Najwa's downfall in society, Islam has come to be her only comfort and anchor. She has received it gradually and gratefully, learning the prayers, changing her way of dress, relying more and more on her circle of devout women in the mosque. She has become a bit of a pain to her still-incarcerated brother, showering him with pieties when she visits him in prison. But her religion is literally all she has.
All this, in many ways, is back story. Najwa now spends quiet days taking care of little Mai, considering the fact that she used to have servants and now she's the servant. She cooks and cleans and learns to cherish the time she spends with the handsome young Tamer. They share a fervent love of God and cherish each other in a world that essentially has no use for either of them.
Najwa's life is full of routine humiliations. Going home alone on a bus one night, she's accosted by a jeering boy who pours a soft drink on her and says, "You Muslim scum." She can only get off the bus. When Lamya's string of pearls goes missing, she accuses her servant. What else can she do but bear the reproof? By now, she's completely depleted, psychologically beaten.
Escape to the mosque is her only recourse. She loves the Eid al-Adha festival marking the end of Ramadan and is pleased when she's asked to lead the women in prayer. Though she has no money, she longs to go on hajj, every Muslim's obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca. "If my Hajj is accepted," she tells Lamya's brother, "I will come back without any sins and start my life again, fresh." But on this worldly plane, her life has narrowed and constricted and been nothing but a disappointment. Her youth, her wealth, her freshness, her virtue -- all, long gone. Her fantasy of how she might be included in Tamer's life is heartbreakingly sad, excruciatingly humble. She might be his concubine, she daydreams, an elder woman who would be allowed to help in his choice of a bride, who would take on the responsibility of his household, so that he might be carefree and happy. Her vast naivete is still painfully young.
This is not particularly a "Sudanese" novel. "Minaret" addresses immigration, alienation, the fierce stripping of all our defenses of body and soul. In this melancholy tale told in a purposefully minor chord, Aboulela reminds us of the human heartbreak that adventuring governments bring down on their citizens, and how religion may offer those orphans of the storm an alternate, if sometimes jerry-built, family.