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Leila Aboulela: Minaret

Leila Aboulela’s second novel tells the story of Najwa. She comes from a well-to-do Sudanese family. Her mother is well off and her father holds some senior, though somewhat shady position, connected with the President. She and her twin brother Omar are studying at the University of Khartoum. Her friends are as well off as she is, though she does meet a fellow student, Anwar, a man of left-wing views and becomes somewhat friendly with him. Then there is a coup. Her father is arrested and later executed for corruption. Najwa, Omar and their mother flee to London. At first they have money but then the great riches that their father is thought to have do not materialise and the family struggles. Omar turns to drugs and is arrested and imprisoned. Their mother dies.

Much of this information is picked up gradually as Aboulela does not tell the story in chronological order but jumps backwards and forwards. We learn that she does not do well at her studies. She goes to work for her uncle’s travel agency but when her aunt requires assistance for a party, Najwa goes and helps and remains helping her, effectively becoming a full-time maid. At the same time, there has been another coup and Anwar is now in London. They have a brief affair but it does not last. When her uncle’s travel agency business declines, the aunt and uncle move but Najwa continues to work as a maid for other Muslim families. In particular, she works for Lamya, a married woman who is doing a Ph. D., while her husband is working abroad and whose younger brother, Tamer, also lives in the family home, while he, too, studies. Najwa’s main job is to look after Lamya’s young daughter, Mai.

The main focus of the story is Najwa’s gradual conversion to being a good Muslim. Initially, she is opposed to the idea but under the influence, first of a female friend and then of Tamer she does become more devout, regularly attending prayers, praying and feeling that the fate of her family is because of their failure to fully embrace their religion. Things do not always go right. She and Tamer fall in love but when Lamya finds out, Najwa is summarily dismissed. But, by the end, she has realised and accepted that her religion is what is most important in her life and material things and, indeed, love, are very much secondary. Aboulela’s tale of the gradual conversion of Najwa is generally convincing, even if contrary to the views many Westerners might have and it is her skill to show us this conversion happening not in what we might consider some remote and old-fashioned country but in Britain.

Publishing history

First published by Bloomsbury in 2005