Back to Khartoum: Leila Aboulela returns to the land of her fathers

The acclaimed writer Leila Aboulela went back to Khartoum after 17 years to imagine the pre-Independence Sudan of her father's youth. She talks to Arifa Akbar about living in Britain and going home

Friday 17 December 2010 01:00 GMT

The story of an uncle's freak accident, paralysis and aborted romance, was one that Leila Aboulela had grown up hearing, and felt it best belonged in the annals of family history, not fiction. Hassan Awad Aboulela had been a spirited teenager from the upper echelons of Sudanese society, with a world of wealth and privilege waiting at his feet, when he dived off a shingled ridge off Alexandria's shoreline to hit a rock below the waters and break his neck. Hassan's betrothed – with whom he had shared an ardent courtship – watched him as he took the playful jump, and so witnessed the last time he would experience life before permanent paralysis.

It was only when she returned to Khartoum in 2006 to tend to her ailing father and subsequently reflect on the Sudan of his youth that Aboulela began to view Hassan's lurching fate as a metaphor for 1950s Sudan. It had stood, like an excited teenager, at the cusp of independence (in 1956) from its colonial rulers, brimming with hope, before its nosedive into a terrible, unforeseen national paralysis.

The stuff of family lore was turned into the stuff of fiction for her third novel, Lyrics Alley (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99/£18.99), which also encompasses themes of polygamy, female circumcision at a time when the nation's Anglo-Egyptian overlords had just passed a law to ban the cultural practice (a law everyone ignored) and the Sudanisation of the labour force following the end of colonial rule.

She stayed true to her uncle's story, only moving the date of his accident in the early 1940s to a decade later, and even included the poems he wrote following his accident, for which he received considerable popular acclaim when they were put to music. "It was when my aunt started to recite some of Hassan's poems - about Egypt and Sudan - that his story began to mean a lot more to me. What happened immediately after independence was that Sudan slipped into one coup after another. This book is capturing an optimistic time before the whole thing descends. The story of [the central character] Nur is showing the story of Sudan, the dashed hopes after Independence," she says.

The geography of this novel departs from the British-based terrain of her previous two books. Her debut, The Translator (1999), which was longlisted for the 2000 Orange Prize and the IMPAC Award, featured a Sudanese widow working as an Arabic translator in Scotland in the 1990s, grieving both the loss of her husband and her homeland. This fictive bereavement process may have reflected, obliquely at least, Aboulela's own state of mind after she relocated to Aberdeen from Khartoum in the late 1980s with her family, and found herself suffering deep withdrawal symptoms from her beloved home city.

The second novel, Minaret (2005), longlisted for the same two prizes, featured a woman culturally adrift in London and reconnecting with her Islamic faith after fleeing Sudan following the civil war in the 1980s. Like Lyrics Alley, both narratives bear at their heart a problematic romance, but this latest work takes us away from the immigrant experience and back into Aboulela's homeland, featuring characters who, like her, are half-Egyptian, half-Sudanese, and negotiating the tension between these two identities.

Perhaps if she had not left Britain in 2000 to follow her engineer husband to Indonesia and then to the Gulf, where she lives today, she might have carried on writing about Britain, reflects Aboulela. "I was in Aberdeen for ten years. I left before 9/11 and I felt something big had happened [in the West] but I wasn't there anymore. I was phoning friends finding out what was going on and how they were feeling. I felt that if I had been here, I would have continued to write about that experience."

Four years ago, her father became ill and she found herself in Khartoum after a 17-year absence, dwelling on the history of this city, until her reflections pushed their way into fiction. Her father died in 2008, as she was finishing the book.

"I hadn't returned to Khartoum in so long. I hadn't even taken a holiday back. My [Egyptian] mother had moved to Cairo to encourage the rest of the family to go there too. It was really like I was saying goodbye to my father. It felt like his life in Sudan was coming to an end. Even if he had not passed away, he would have moved to Egypt to join my mother. I was saying goodbye to the life he was clinging to. That's why I became so interested in his youth, and the lifestyle he had lived when he was young."

To some extent, Aboulela's adult experience as an outsider in Scotland chimed with a childhood of living in a mixed heritage household, as the daughter of a staunchly Sudanese father and a staunchly Egyptian mother. The home, she says, may have been in Khartoum, but it was culturally Egyptian. This formative, inner duality gave her a "useful" perspective for her fiction, in which she often regards a place from between the gaps.

"When I was growing up, we spoke Egyptian, we ate Egyptian food, we had other Egyptian friends. It was my father's preference. I think he saw marrying an Egyptian as being liberating from the customs of his day. He had left [the Sudanese city of] Umdurman to go to Victoria College in Egypt [which is described as the "Eton of Africa" in her book] and then Trinity College, Dublin. A lot of his friends married English and Irish ladies. I think marrying an Egyptian was a compromise. My mum and dad were speaking all the time about 'in Sudan we do this' and 'in Egypt we do that' so I was very aware of cultural differences.

"I was confused growing up, it gave me a feeling of being an outsider watching others. But I think this is good for a writer."

When she moved to Aberdeen with her children and husband to work as a statistics teacher at the local college, writing fiction had not yet entered her life. It was a slow realisation, even after she felt a surprising urgency to write, and signed up for an evening class at the local library, that this "hobby" could be anything more.

"I was homesick, that's why I started writing. I felt like I had something to say. I started creative writing classes at Aberdeen Central Library and the writer in residence there, Todd McEwen, encouraged me a great deal. He showed my stories to his editor and I thought that was just what happened to everyone who took his classes!" she laughs.

Although her husband was supportive when she gave up her career in statistics to see how far she could push her writing, her wider family circle in Sudan had a similarly dismissive reaction to the fictive family in Lyrics Alley when Nur's tentative attempts at writing poetry are deemed frivolous: "He [Nur] turned to writing after he had become disabled, after he had lost so much, but I also had a sense of loss. I was in shock when I got to Aberdeen and the writing helped me."

Yet she is unable to reflect back on this time with any sense of regret. Aberdeen was where she gave birth to her daughter, now aged 12, and where she discovered her passion for writing. She is, she says, irrevocably tied to Britain through her three children – her oldest son is 24 and her second son, aged 20, is studying architecture at Dundee University – who all regard themselves as British.

She notices the nuances and shifts in British society every time she returns. These days, the changing attitudes towards British Muslims appear less subtle, more alarming to her: "I think a lot has changed here. I have a friend who used to cut out all the pieces in the newspaper about Islam. Now she can't do that. She would be cutting out too much, and most of it, quite negative."

Ironically, it was her departure from Khartoum, and her first year in Britain, as a doctoral student at the London School of Economics – that led her to become more visibly Muslim by adopting the headscarf. The decision, she says, rose from her sense of spirituality, which asserted itself more powerfully perhaps, against the new, secular backdrop.

"I was 24 when I started to wear it. I had just had a baby and my husband was away. I had always had a sheltered life and it was the first time I found myself alone. Men were looking at me, flirting with me, and I felt like I needed a distance to protect myself. It was not at all to do with identity. I felt like it did create a distance with men and I carried on wearing it because I liked it. Now, you have girls saying that the hijab is about their Muslim identity, but that's not the real reason you wear a hijab. The real reason is to do with spirituality, and modesty, and how the Quran views relationships between men and women.

"I have always had a sense of spirituality and I felt safe living in a Muslim country where I didn't feel the current was going in a different direction, but when you're in a secular country, you see the current is going differently and you have to go your own way. No one is going to tell you when Ramadan has started, you have to make the effort."

The unquenchable debate on the headscarf and the common assumption that it is a signifier of Arab male oppression sits on a cultural sliding scale, for Aboulela. How women dress has always been subject to opinions and laws which may or may not be guided by politics and ideology, she suggests. "I think women's clothes have always been interesting for people. I was watching Trinny and Susannah and they suggested a woman over a certain age should never show her bare arms. We will always have rules."

In her world, the greatest levels of disapproval of the hijab emanate from among intellectual Arab circles who relate the covering to a lower social class and to superannuated religiosity. "I know of a cousin who started wearing it before marriage and there was concern. People said she's never going to find a husband."

Aboulela appears to express her faith, overwhelmingly, in devotional terms, and in language divested of the contemporary burden of identity politics. This attitude extends itself to the way in which her Muslim characters relate to and rely on Islam as providing inner fortification against hardships. In her 2006 introduction to The Translator, Anne Donovan observes of the central character, Sammar, that her alienation in Aberdeen is as much cosmic as it is cultural. "She does not understand the habits and customs of the people around her. Above all she is mystified by a culture which does not recognise the presence of God."

Aboulela's work abounds with practicing Muslims but there are no suicide bombers, or angry Islamists, or demagogic clerics to be found. The Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram described the religious element of her fiction as a "certain narrative logic where faith and rituals become moving modes of living", and she feels strongly that this is the only way to talk about Islam.

"I want to write about the faith, but it's so difficult to talk about it like this when everyone else is talking about the political aspects. I'm concerned that Islam has not just been politicised but that it's becoming an identity. This is like turning religion into a football match, it's a distraction from the real thing."

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