Leila Aboulela’s fictional story is based on the real story of love, fate, and success of her uncle Hassan Aboulela, a Sudanese poet and lyricist. Hassan Aboulela is depicted through the life of Nur Abuzeid. The narrative, though, is largely focused on the women in the story – particularly Soraya, Nur’s love and his muse, and Nabilah, Nur’s Egyptian stepmother, an outsider, the (much younger, snobbier, selfish) second wife.
The men are as men do. Nur shines through with his penchant to charm the reader with his goodness and his sense of responsibility, not the least because of a twist of fate that ordains he lose the love of his life to his best friend. He finds his strength in his talents even when resigned to his fate. His life is contrasted against that of his elder brother Nassir who refuses to answer the call of duty and responsibility, stunted in his stature by his own addictions and shortcomings. Their father, the patriarch, Mahmoud, poses as a traditionalist and a modern man of the world as and when it suits his goals – be it family or business.
However, for an insight into Leila Aboulela’s writing space, look at her women and how they draw upon the strengths of one another.
Soraya is smart, sensible, intelligent, and very much in love with Nur. Until the very last. Soraya is a woman who knows what she wants. Like Nabilah, whom Soraya grew up admiring for her taste and sense of style. Nabilah could not protect her own daughter from the ‘backwardness’ of her Sudanese family but when the moment of decision came, she did cast it all away to make her own life better the way she thought best. In my view, Nabilah’s character mirrors a quote I recently came by: DO what you have to do until you can do what you want to do. Nabilah is also living under the shadow of two extremely pragmatic women: her mother and her grandmother (her late father’s mother) and there is no love lost between the two. These two important and significant characters do not really interact until the very last. But when they do, they tie up the loose ends.
Some beautiful takeaways:
‘A mother is a home, a hearth, a getting together. A wife is company and pleasurable details; expenditure and social contacts’
On Nabilah: ‘This was the day Nabilah, empowered by her native Cairo, started to contemplate divorce and the right to stay here forever, not go back with Mahmoud to Sudan at the end of the summer. The day she started to contemplate the right to a normal life like that of her mother, the girls she had gone to school with, and the neighbour’s daughters. Enough of this African adventure, of being there while thinking of here, of being here and knowing it was temporary; enough of the dust, the squalor, the stupidity. Enough of the buildings that were too low, gardens that were too lush and the skies that were too close. Enough of his large family, his acres of land. and his connections, of money without culture, prestige among the primitive.
She would put an end to it all: an end to being inferior because she was the second wife, and of being superior because she was Egyptian. Enough of these contradictions! Life should be simple: a man who goes to work and comes back the same time every day; a good climate and uncomplicated children; outings on Friday; a picnic or a walk – everything proper and understandable’
‘His father, who was at first ashamed, and now is coming round, because success is much easier to understand than Art. Success carries respectability and draws people near. His mother, too, will repeat the story to that gossipy neighbour and soon, very soon, it will cross the river and reach Soraya’s house. The pleasure lasts, settles and lasts, long after the receiver is moved away from his ear.’