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.
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.