A prize-winning Sudanese writer depicts the appeal of Islam.
Following her lyrical first novel (The Translator, 1999), Aboulela narrates a sadder, starker story of one girl’s fall from privilege to a life of exile and menial work in London. In Khartoum, Najwa was “an average Sudanese girl, not too religious and not too unconventional” who fasted at Ramadan but also danced with her westernized friends at the American Club. But her indulged life of servants, travel and shopping ended with the coup that forced her to flee with her mother and brother Omar while her father was arrested for corruption and later executed. In London, the grieving family loses its way: Najwa’s mother falls ill and dies; Omar turns to drugs and is sentenced to 15 years in prison for dealing. Najwa herself—always passive, her opinions dominated by the men around her—falls back under the spell of manipulative Anwar, a politically active boyfriend from Khartoum who is now an exile too. Sex with Anwar intensifies Najwa’s feelings of guilt and alienation, and when he refuses to get engaged, she is cast further adrift. Invited to attend classes at the mosque, she discovers a refuge and “a wash, a purge, a restoration of innocence.” Najwa adopts the headscarf and covers her body. Through the mosque, she finds work as a nanny in affluent Muslim households, in one of which she meets Tamer, a student who disapproves of his secular family and wants to study Islam, not business. A relationship develops, which ends with Najwa’s dismissal. The family offers her money to stay away, which she accepts on one condition. This simple near-parable of a story successfully combines a tale of inexperience and cultural confusion with an insider’s view of the conflicts and complexities within the immigrant and Muslim communities.
A low-key, affecting account of one bruised young woman’s search for wisdom and solace.