Initially I had mixed feelings about Minaret by Leila Aboulela but on the whole I did like it. It’s a fascinating glimpse of Sudanese culture, politics and Islam. These elements of the novel I thought were well written in way that wasn’t attempting to ‘teach’ the reader or explain or justify. Therefore, any aspects I didn’t quite understand for instance, the political situation in Sudan in the 80s, I had to look up to give myself some background and context.
The story is of Najwa a Sudanese Muslim woman working as a maid to London’s wealthy families. In her hijab and lowered social status, she is more or less invisible to those for whom she works for, and with the exception of the odd racist lout ,to everyone else around her. Her solace and refuge is in her rediscovered faith in Islam. But it wasn’t always that way. Years before she was a student at Khartoum University, the daughter of wealthy government minister, before a political saw her father arrested and later and executed while she and her twin brother and mother fled to exile in London.
Growing up in Khartoum, Najwa did not lack for anything, which she never questioned even when she falls in love with Anwar, a politically active fellow student. Anwar’s socialist politics come into direct conflict with Najwa’s privileged apolitical outlook on life. Though he mocks her and publicly insults her father, she forgives him and wants to continue their relationship. I struggled with this part of her story as I thought ‘seriously, how naive can you be?’. Even in later years when she is in London, Najwa reconnects with Anwar and despite everything in their past she re-establishes a relationship with which is no better than the one they had in their teens. At first I was irritated by this plot direction, but later thinking about it, I could see that she chose to be with him to have some link with her past life which had been abruptly snatched from her. Anwar represents ‘home’, a time that was carefree and happy (to an extent), but the sad reality is that he also represents what she lost. It’s not surprising when she’s finds comfort and a measure of peace in her faith, which in turn gives her the strength to leave Anwar.
Up till this point it seems like Najwa only exists to please others and to put their needs above her own. Her choice to wear the hijab, seemed to me to be the first time that she actively chooses to do something for herself,even though it so displeases Anwar, she chooses her faith over him. I thought this was pretty ironic, if not downright bold on Aboulela’s part as the hijab, particularly in Western thought tends to symbolise the lack of choice in a Muslim woman’s life. It’s something that is seen to be forced on a woman. It’s a powerful statement that Aboulela makes here, as is Najwa’s exploration of her faith. Aboulela makes something that is so often held in contention beautiful and right, without justifying or explaining it.
It’s easy, given Najwa’s position as a maid to see her as being downtrodden and with no agency of her own. Indeed, on the face of it does seem that way given the fallout when her relationship with her employer’s younger brother Tamer comes to light. But I don’t think this is the case, Najwa is much more resilient than she (and I initially) give her credit for. I felt the ending was a tad ambiguous, and again left me with mixed feelings. What seems like sacrifice on her part can also be read as her choosing for herself, once again, albeit in a very understated way. And sometimes to have what you want, even if it is only someone’s happiness, sacrifices have to be made.