Minaret by Leila Aboulela

When the pull of piety proves too strong in a life of cold freedom
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The Independent Culture

Najwa goes to discos and listens to Western pop, outwardly concurring with her friends' dismissal of national dress and religion. But she is drawn to the aesthetics of Islam. To her the clothes represent elegance and grace and, though not religious, she loves to hear the dawn azan calling the faithful.

A profound yearning disturbs her. There is guilt, too, nebulous but partly focusing on her privileged family life – a life traumatically curtailed by a coup. The family flee to London. Her father is executed for embezzlement, a sentence advocated in an article by Anwar. Najwa's early years in London are painful. She meets Anwar once more and becomes his lover, but guilt gnaws at her. No one here would condemn her if she became pregnant, she realises, and it makes her feel hollow: "This empty space was called freedom."

When she finally steps into the mosque, "the words were clear, as if I had known all this before and somehow, along the way, forgotten it". She leaves Anwar – his atheism less easy to forgive than his advocacy of her father's execution – adopts the hijab and finds "a new gentleness".

All this is recalled during the unfolding of the present-day love story. Tamer is much younger than Najwa, a devoutly Muslim boy forced to study business. He treats her respectfully, and offers the one thing she has been craving: pity. "It feels right, nourishing." She daydreams about living centuries ago and being his family's slave, his concubine. Together they fantasise about "a time of horses and tents; swords and raids." "But I must settle for freedom," she says wistfully, "in this modern time."

Aboulela paints a fascinating picture of intercultural strife. Anwar, the atheist Communist, despises Western ways. Tamer, the devout Muslim, has no sympathy with anti-Americanism and is not at all political. Prejudice abounds, from the white racist thugs who douse Najwa with orange juice to gentle Tamer, who, on discovering that she once loved an atheist, declares harshly, "Can't you spot an unbeliever the first time they open their mouths?" Tolerance, it seems, is in short supply.

Aboulela has chosen a complex structure and keeps perfect control of it. Beautifully written, restrained and lyrical, Minaret is both thought-provoking and disturbing.

Carol Birch's 'Turn Again Home' is published by Virago