Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Sudanese Novelist Leila Aboulela Becomes International Figure Through Religion, Alienation

Sudan- Leila Aboulela
Sudanese Novelist Leila Aboulela / Photo Flickr

As soon as she published her first novel in 1999, Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela drew attention to her work. Critics and readers alike showed a clear interest in her successive publications, which focused on issues of identity, immigration and Islamic spirituality. In a short period of time, the circle of interest in and celebration of the Sudanese novelist expanded until she became a global figure of literary writing. Although her mother tongue is Arabic, she wrote her literary works in English. They found their way to readers in the six continents of the world and were translated into fourteen languages.

Aboulela was born in Cairo to a Sudanese father and an Egyptian mother in 1964. She grew up in Sudan, where she studied at the American School of Khartoum and then joined the Faculty of Economics at the University of Khartoum and obtained a degree in statistics. She later obtained her master’s and doctorate degrees in the same major from the London School of Economics. In 1990, she moved to the United Kingdom, where she settled in Scotland and then travelled from 2000 to 2012 between Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar before returning to Aberdeen in Scotland. She is married to a Sudanese man with a British mother and they have two children.

Aboulela began to write novels after her arrival in Britain. She has so far published four novels: “The Translator” (1999), “Minaret” (2005), “Lyrics Alley” (2010) and “The Kindness of Enemies” (2015). She also authored three story collections: “Coloured Lights” (2001), “Elsewhere, Home” and “Summer Maze ” (2017), in addition to two plays: “The Lion of Chechnya” and “Unseen Life.”

Sudanese thinker Al-Khatim Adlan translated Aboulela’s first novel, “The Translator,” into Arabic. Bader al-Din al-Hashimi translated “The Kindness of Enemies,” “Lyrics Alley,” and “Minaret,” the last whose Arabic title means “Minaret in Regent’s Park” (2012). Jamal Mohammed Ibrahim and Samia Adnan co-authored the translation of the “Coloured Lights” collection. The “Summer Maze,” translated by Adel Babiker, was published in 2017, a collection that included a group of stories that were published later in English in the “Elsewhere, Home” collection.

Aboulela explains that she chose to write her works English because of her education. Speaking to, Aboulela said, “I have pursued all my education in English and most of my readings were in that language. Therefore, my English command is stronger than the Arabic command.” She added that “the choice to use the English language was made when I began living in Britain because I wanted to address the English community in their own language so as to convey my concerns and issues as a Muslim Arab woman. Besides, English is a universal language through which I can address peoples of dozens of nationalities across the world.”

Religion and Alienation

Religion and alienation are two central themes in the literary works of Leila Aboulela. Most of her works address cultural and psychological alienation faced by Muslim immigrants in the West. They tell stories of Sudanese immigrant personalities who have faced the dilemmas of living in and coping with a cultural and social environment that was alien to them and were filled with nostalgia for their homeland.

We spoke to Aboulela, who said, “I started writing from day one. I wanted to clarify the psychology and emotions of someone who has a religious creed. I was very interested in going deep, not just looking at Islam as a cultural or political identity, but as a more essential component. Therefore, faith in my literary works is deeper than identity and more important than gender, nationality, class or race. At the same time, I do not deny or overlook such elements.”

Aboulela recalled that when she went to Britain in the early 1990s, she found that the image of Sudan was distorted in the Western media, saying, “I had to do something to change that negative image and tendentious reputation, so I started writing to correct that ugly picture.”

She added, “I was nostalgic for Sudan and for Arab culture. The people around me know nothing about my country or about Islam, the two main components of my identity; this increased my sense of alienation. By the end of the 1980s, there was a surge in negative sentiment toward Arabs and Islam in the Western media and around my presence in Britain, which put me on the defensive. I found that I needed to make it clear that life in Khartoum was going well; that people are good and that it was the circumstances that forced us to leave because we did not have any other option.”

Aboulela’s Narrative Works

“The Translator” speaks of a love story between a young Sudanese widow living in Britain and a Scottish academic specializing in Arab and Islamic studies, whose lover asks him to embrace Islam so that she can marry him.

“The Minaret” tells the story of a Sudanese refugee girl in Britain who suffered from a harsh life in exile and alienation from her homeland and the culture in which she was brought up. She then decides to become a devout Muslim and show more commitment to the teachings of Islam in search of inner peace.

The stories of the “Summer Maze” and “Coloured Lights” collections address the same themes. For example, “Missing Out” depicts a Sudanese mother who does whatever she can to ensure that her son’s stay in Britain is temporary while he completes his studies, so as not to permanently move away from her. In the story of “The Museum,” we see the character of a Sudanese woman who is studying in Britain and has conflicting feelings about a Scottish male student. When the two go together to a museum about African history, the Sudanese woman feels hurt because she discovers a deep cultural gap between them that is impossible to fill. In the story of “The Boy from the Kabab Shop,” we see an Egyptian-Scottish young girl whose name is Dina who starts a romantic relationship with a Moroccan-Scottish young man named Qasim. When Dina sees him praying, she becomes surprised by what she sees and does not know whether she should follow in his footsteps or go home.

Leila Aboulela would go on to address similar themes through real-life events in modern Sudanese history. Her literary works are full of narrative, descriptive and linguistic images that reflect the various cultural and civilizational features of Sudan. This tendency was clearly manifested in her history-based novel “Lyrics Alley,” inspired by the biography of well-known Sudanese poet Hasan Aboulela (1922 – 1962), in a compelling mix of autobiography literature and fiction.

Critical Views

Aboulela clearly favours the school of realism; all her literary works can be categorized in that context. She said, “I do not tend to experiment in writing and I believe that the reality of these challenges requires us to be accurate when describing them. This is particularly because the school of realism has always been dominant when it comes to novels.”

Some British critics felt that Aboulela was able to provide a different image of Muslim women through the heroines in her novels. This is because women in Aboulela’s characters find refuge and power in religion, rather than in escaping from it, the latter which is a prevalent theme in modern literary works. Women in Aboulela’s characters are strong and self-made and do not allow others to shape their characters.

British critic Mike Phillips has said that Aboulela is one of the most prominent writers known for a new type of English narrative literature that has given rise to several novels authored by Muslim writers exploring the hotbeds of conflict between different Islamic cultures and the prevailing life in America and Western Europe. He said, “these writers do not aim to provide an explanation of Islam or belittle and taunt it. They avoid using a tone of flattery and intonation used by many popular writings addressing the identity and conflict of cultures in Britain.” He went on to say that “they write from inside [their countries]” about their experiences since childhood and capture a complex network of customs and traditions.”

Sudanese writer Jamal Mohammed Ibrahim said that Aboulela has achieved a breakthrough for Sudanese writing and creativity, creating a similar impact to that of the late Tayeb Saleh. “Emirati newspaper Al-Ittihad described her by saying, “Leila Aboulela has great narrative potential and the ability to build worlds that are full of life. She is also talented in painting pictures of weak, humiliated and contradicting characters that have internal struggles.”

Female writer Susana Tarboush wrote an article in which she said, “Aboulela excelled in examining the feelings of her characters and the sudden transformations and changes in such feelings. She takes us to hidden realms within ourselves and shows us estrangement between people of different cultures and even between members of the same family. She does this in a way that combines clarity with poetic feelings.”

However, Sudanese critic Osama al-Khoad is not so flattering, accusing Aboulela in “The Translator” of “expressing rejection of ‘the other’ unreservedly, failing to prevent civilized and moral dialogue between the West and Arabs and sacrificing the technical level in favour of an extreme type of propaganda that raises the slogan of victory rather than dialogue.” Al-Khouad added, “Aboulela gains because of her narrative skills and power but loses because of the uncompromising propaganda, which is the enemy of every writer. “The Translator” is enjoyable and refreshing to read, but it goes in one direction that does not serve the writer or her message.”

Awards Won by Writer

Aboulela won the “Ken International Award for African Literature” in 2000 for her story “The Museum,” of the “Coloured Lights” collection, which also competed for the short stories’ MacMillan Silver Pen Award. The collection was also used in a US project entitled “Muslim Traveler’s Bookshelf;” one of 25 books that have been used for familiarization about the Islamic cultural heritage as a subject that is open for discussion.

Her novel “Lyrics Alley” was nominated for the Best Book Award in Scotland for 2011 and was shortlisted for The Commonwealth Award. “Lyrics Alley,” “The Translator” and “Minaret” were nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Impact Dublin Literary Award. The New York Times put the “The Translator” on the list of its notable books of the year in 2006 and the same novel made it to the final list of nominations for the Saltire Awards in Scotland.

A number of the writer’s stories and plays were aired in the form of BBC radio dramas and some of her works were incorporated in educational and cultural programs sponsored by the British Council and the United States National Humanitarian Support Agency.

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