Minaret by Leila Aboulela

In spring 2006, I was in a Barnes & Nobles in downtown Philadelphia looking for a book to read, when Minaret caught my eye. It was in a display of books recommended by the staff. The front cover wasn’t that intriguing (usual woman with a veil on her face that often shows up on books about Muslim women) but I do remember being intrigued by the back cover especially a quote taken from the book: “I’ve come down in the world. I’ve slid to a place where the ceiling is low and there isn’t much room to move. Most of the time I’m use to it. I accept my sentence mad do not brood or look back. But sometimes a shift makes me remember.” I thought “Wow! What an interesting line in a book about a Muslim woman written by a Muslim woman.” It was really heartening. In that sentence alone, we’re given a glimpse in two worlds of the protagonist, Najwa, a Sudanese immigrant in the U.K., who works as a maid for a wealthy Arab family but used to be part of wealthy family herself in her native Sudan.

Image via Amazon.com

Image via Amazon.com

The book goes back and forth between two periods in Najwa’s life. In the first, she is part of an elite family in the Sudan. Her father is an advisor to the president, her mother a housewife who spends lots of time doing philanthropy. Her brother Omar is carefree and more concerned with parties and the latest trends than with school or the aspirations his father has for him. Najwa herself is consumed with fashion, pop music and her social circle. During this period Najwa isn’t very religious. In fact, she tells the reader that the extent of her religion extends to fasting during Ramadan and charity work with her mother. We’re also told that the family servants pray more than she does.

What I found so interesting about this period in Najwa’s life is her complete obliviousness to the world outside her privileged life. Because she is so privileged, she doesn’t notice the turmoil that is erupting in her country (and will eventually cause the downfall of her family). In fact, she rarely notices the servants who work for her family. The class division is very apparent in Najwa’s interaction with the house staff, despite them all being Muslim. Class and religion is interwoven throughout the novel. With the exception of Tamer, Najwa’s employer’s brother, members of the upper class seem to have little, if any religious influence in their life, while Muslims who are working class appear to have a more obvious religiosity. I’m not sure if this was intentional or not but I found it interesting nonetheless.

When a Socialist coup occurs in Sudan, Najwa’s father is tried for corruption and killed while she and her family narrowly escape to London. From this point on, Najwa’s life becomes more difficult. Her mother eventually dies from cancer, her brother becomes a heroin addict, stabs a cop during an arrest and lands in prison, while she eventually goes through the trust her father established for her. She also has a trying relationship with Anwar, a student she met while at university in Sudan. Anwar is a communist who constantly belittles religion as well as the wealthy lifestyle of Najwa. Curiously, Anwar is the only person with whom Najwa has a sexual relationship.

All of this causes Najwa to look more closely at Islam and to a spiritual journey that lasts throughout the remainder of the novel. It is through an introspective spiritual lens that Najwa looks at her past, present and future. Throughout the novel, there is a sense that Najwa is looking for personal redemption and a way to make sense out of her current situation. That’s what makes this novel interesting and different. There isn’t a preachy tone to the novel nor is the protagonist suppose to represent all Muslim women. This is clearly a tale about one Muslim woman and her struggles and triumphs.

Also, I found the frankness about various issues, including class, sex and race, to be refreshing. Aboulela describes Najwa’s only sexual experience with Anwar in a way that is not sensational or condemnatory. Even in Najwa’s relationship with Tamer, we get a sense that she is a still a sexual being even if factors such as age and class make their relationship difficult. She describes the smell of his musk as well as his looks and his charms. We know she is still a Muslim woman but we also get the sense that she is human. And that is what I liked most about this novel. Najwa is human and easy to relate to. It is easy to see her pain and disappointment and to also share her journey.

Book Review: Sin is a Puppy that Follows You Home
Erotica by Muslim Women for Muslim Women
Book Review: She Wore Red Trainers
Book Review: Muslim American Women on Campus by Shabana Mir
  • http://jamericanmuslimah.wordpress.com Jamerican Muslimah

    Can I just tell you how much I love this author? After reading Minaret I searched for her other books and immediately ordered them. What I love about Ms. Aboulela is that her Muslim characters are complex. They don’t follow a stereotypical Muslim line of thinking or behaving. At the same time there is no doubt about the fact that her characters are looking towards Islam for their spiritual and sometimes ethical guidance. You MUST read her other books…

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    Thanks for the post; this book sounds incredibly interesting; I’m especially interested in the class angle. I’m adding it to my “to read” list!

  • http://chocolatemintsinajar.com/ jessyz

    Sounds like a really promising book, I’ll be on the lookout for it. Thanx for the review

  • Faith

    @Jamerican: I’ve been wanting to read her other books for a while now but for some reason I haven’t gotten around to it. I’ll have to get them off Amazon. I think Minaret is the only novel that has been published in the US right?

    You’re right. The characters are complex and Islam is a strong influence.

    @Fatemeh: Definite must read!

    @jessyz: It is a good book. Worth the read.

  • naseema salam

    I read this book a while ago, and this is one of the few books that actually bear resemblence to the emotions that muslim women experience in their everyday lives. The sexual content in the book is not for the purpose of titilliation or exudes the notion of something forbidden. The ending of the book did leave me with a sense of sadness, i think i wanted a happier or more fulfillign ending for the main character.

  • http://jamericanmuslimah.wordpress.com Jamerican Muslimah

    Faith, I ordered them on Amazon. The other two books were published in the UK.

  • http://hijabstyle.blogspot.com/ Jana

    Can’t believe I hadn’t seen this post til now ha! I must say I really like this author’s books. Like everyone else here, I agree that characters are truly 3D. Beats a LOT of other books by Muslim women I’ve read in the past.

  • http://www.islamonmyside.com Shawna

    I thought this was a good read. One of my professors received it as a freebie. I was doing an independent study with him on self-censorship and country-imposed exile with him at the time. (We focused on Salman Rushdie and Nadine Gordimer, mainly.) He printed an article that was basically a judgement of her as a writer. I’ll have to give you a link if I can uncover it. It discussed her as writing between cultures and was really worth reading for the purpose of picking apart. I was shocked and inspired.

    I read MINARET well after the class ended. I could teach a class of my own on that book! I have to say I was simultaneously bummed by it and inspired. This post makes me want to read it again. :)