A wealthy Muslim family in 1950s Sudan must deal with the challenges—and opportunities—of a changing world.
Director of a successful trading company, Mahmoud Abuzeid has an enviable, if complicated life. With two wives and four children, he straddles two worlds, insulated by his money and influence. His first wife Hajjah Waheeba is a traditional—and illiterate—Sudanese woman who is happy to remain in the family compound. Nabilah, his much-younger Egyptian-born second wife, yearns for the cosmopolitan attractions of her native Cairo. Her sophistication and intelligence represent the future to Mahmoud, who prefers her company. Waheeba’s son Nur, the family heir-apparent, has progressive tendencies like his father, although he is happily betrothed to his teenage cousin Soraya. The two are sweetly in love, but their future looks bleak after Nur is paralyzed during a swimming accident. Reluctant to bind his niece to an invalid, Mahmoud insists they break it off. Soraya, who continues to have feelings for Nur, throws herself into her studies, even enrolling in medical school. But eventually she agrees to marry Nur’s best friend Tuf Tuf. The news breaks Nur’s heart but ignites his creativity, leading him to become an in-demand poet and lyricist for popular musicians—a move which rankles the more conservative family members. Meanwhile, tensions between the two wives reach the breaking point when Waheeba arranges a secret circumcision for Nabilah’s six-year-old daughter Ferial, a custom Nabilah (and Mahmoud) find barbaric. This subsequently drives a wedge between Mahmoud and both his women, as he struggles to do the right thing for his family, especially Nur, who depends on the care of his mother. And all of this unfolds as Sudan struggles for independence from Britain. Rich in detail and generous in spirit toward its complex characters, this concise follow-up to The Translator (2006) showcases Aboulela’s talent for connecting political and personal upheaval.
Elegantly written family epic that brings to mind Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy.