Interview with Sudanese-Egyptian writer Leila Aboulela
The challenge of identity in a non-monochrome world

Recently translated into German, "Minaret" tells the story of a young Sudanese woman exiled in London who finds refuge in Islam. Award-winning author Leila Aboulela talks to Anna-Theresa Bachmann about her work, Muslim immigrants in the UK and the recent Sudanese revolution

In-betweenness and identity formation are two recurrent themes of your work. In "Minaret", readers are confronted with complex characters whose identity along the lines of class, gender and religiousness is challenged and formed over time and space. From a storytelling perspective, such complexity can be quite challenging. Why do you hold on to it?

Leila Aboulela: It mirrors my own life. My mother is Egyptian, my father Sudanese. I grew up in a house filled with differences, even though both of my parents were Muslims, Arab and African. During my childhood in Sudan, I was influenced by a country, the culture of which is in a constant struggle between being African and Arab. Then I moved to the UK and married my husband, who is half-Sudanese and half-British. To me, coming from a non-monochrome and mixed background is the norm. During the writing process, I reflect on what I know and what feels natural to me.

Aberdeen, where you still live today, is also where you first started writing, your language of choice is English, and your main readership is in the global north. Do you perceive your work as an example of what post-colonial scholars call "writing back"?

Aboulela: The concept of "writing back" can be a source of motivation. My own feelings of anger at the way Muslims were unjustly portrayed in the British media made me feel defensive and compelled me to start writing. But if you want to produce art, you want it to be more than defensive – you want it to be more than a response, it must be structured in such a way that it is self-supporting. As a result, I also think that "writing back" can be problematic.

Cover of the German edition of Leila Aboulela's "Minaret" (published by Lenos Babel)
The "empty space" of freedom: Muslims who come to Europe find democracy and a better standard of living; they appreciate the decency and human rights they find. And yet, no longer subject to the social taboos of their upbringing, they often yearn for the traditional parameters they left behind

It assumes your audience is a certain person – white and European. Looking at the profile of the people buying my books, that might certainly be the case. However, demographics change over time, more and more of my readers now are second generation immigrants, people who grew up in the West. Or they are Africans based in Africa. Or English-reading Muslims in Pakistan and the Arab world. I am writing for them too.

In "Minaret", the main character Najwa is living in London after fleeing Sudan. When engaging in a love affair and exploring her own sexuality in the UK, Najwa realises that nobody will judge her. Yet she describes this kind of freedom as an "empty space". Can you elaborate on that?

Aboulela: For Najwa, the social taboos of Sudan no longer apply in Europe and she is free to do what she likes. But somehow this freedom feels shallow and empty. She discovers that she wants the traditional parameters. She wants her boyfriend to marry her; she is neither happy nor comfortable having an affair outside of marriage. It is not just the rules of Sudan or Sudanese culture, it is her own deeper convictions that are being threatened in Europe.

This is one of the core elements of the novel and it reflects the reality of many Muslims who come to Europe. They find democracy and a better standard of living; they appreciate the decency and human rights that they find. But they still don't throw away their traditions, they don't throw away their faith or religious practices. Europe expects them to do so, is waiting for them to do so, but this does not happen.

Najwa finds strength and comfort in religion. Do you agree with some critics who regard "Minaret" as a depiction of Islamic feminism?

Aboulela: I am not sure what people mean when they say Islamic feminism, as its definition is not clearly agreed upon. However, I do feel that "Minaret" is my most feminist book, because it does carry a disappointment in men and the need for the heroine to depend on herself.

The story shows Najwa being let down by one man after the other: her father, her brother, her boyfriend, and then even the last man she falls in love with is too immature to support her. The novel charts Najwa’s journey of being disappointed in men and then having to rely on herself and her faith to become a stronger person. In that sense "Minaret" can be described as a feminist novel.

Timewise, “Minaret” takes place in late 80s Sudan and extends to the early 2000s. Had Najwa migrated to the UK ten years later, would her experience have been any different?

Aboulela: Islam has evolved in the UK, with a new generation of Muslims who have grown up in the UK and are experienced in being both Muslim and British. The novel presents a more simplified, smaller and united Muslim community, because this is how things were in the 1990s. Najwa’s spiritual development is linear and straightforward. Had she migrated to the UK ten years later, she would have found more differences among Muslims, more sophisticated structures, as well as more Islamophobia. Her development and interactions with other Muslims would have been more complex.

Over the years the number of Muslims in the UK have grown and there is a lot of diversity within the Muslim community itself. At the same time, the core challenges have remained the same – the adjustment of Muslims to Europe and the adjustment of Europe to Islam.  I started writing "Minaret" in 2000, it was published in 2005 and we are still talking about it in 2020! It has been translated into German now by Irma Wehrli and feels relevant to a German readership, because the subject matter of practicing Islam in a secular Europe is as topical as ever.

When a university student in Sudan, a miniskirt-wearing Najwa secretly admires her fellow classmates who are dressed in the white Sudanese thob. In April 2019, activist Alaa Salah became an icon of the Sudanese Revolution wearing the same traditional outfit. What was your reaction to this picture, which went viral globally?

Aboulela: It was very moving and beautiful to see. At the time depicted in "Minaret", this is exactly the kind of thob girls were wearing at Najwa’s university. When Alaa Salah wore it, it was intended as a patriotic symbol, because this is not how she or other young women in Sudan normally dress these days.

Women played such a strong role in the Sudanese Revolution against Omar al-Bashir and now they have a greater say in the current transitional period. Some of the laws women protested against have already been amended, such as the law banning women from travelling without their male guardian’s permission. The strict dress code has also been abolished.

Yet, some Sudanese activists criticise that the transitional government is working too slowly, and they are worried that the military will hold on to their power. What is your opinion on that? 

Aboulela: The transitional government has hit a run of bad luck due to the pandemic and the recent flooding in Sudan. This is unfortunate. Our prime minister, Abdallah Hamdok, is a highly qualified professional with an outstanding career in African development.  He leads an exceptional team, and they have their priorities straight. Change is taking longer to happen, and it is understandable that people are impatient. I am more worried about what might happen when the transitional period comes to an end. It is possible – through democratic elections – that the former military regime will regain power wearing a different guise. Avoiding that will be the revolution’s biggest challenge.

What can we expect to hear from you in the future?

Aboulela: The publishers of the German edition of "Minaret", Lenos Babel, are planning to bring out my short stories "Elsewhere, Home". The collection includes stories I’ve written over twenty years and includes "The Museum", which won the Caine Prize for African Writing. As for my current writing, I am working on a novel set in 19th century Sudan. It is about the revolutionary army led by the Mahdi against the Ottoman Empire and the siege of Khartoum, which resulted in the death of the Scottish general Charles Gordon.

Interview conducted by Anna-Theresa Bachmann

© 2020

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