In Minaret, Leila Aboulela continues her exploration into the cross-cultural topics that she embarked on in her award-winning debut novel, The Translator (1999). Against the backdrop of multicultural London communities with its intricate class and religious tensions, the author builds a multifaceted story around Najwa, the central figure and first-person narrator, as she searches for her place among the city’s diverse milieus.
Najwa grows up as the daughter of an upper class and westernized Khartoum family at a time of relative political stability in Sudan. She and twin brother Omar enjoy a carefree and pampered student life that is suddenly shattered through political events in their country. They flee to London, yet, eventually, Najwa ends up on her own, totally unprepared for her new life. The freedom to do what she likes when she likes it, that was central to her protected life in Khartoum, is fast replaced by the sense of displacement and deep loss. There are temptations, of course, but these are accompanied with growing feelings of doubt and guilt. When left-wing activist Anwar, the admired friend from her student days, turns up in London, having been forced to flee also, she is torn. While they deepen their relationship, the shadows of the past haunt both of them.
Aboulela delves deeply into the emotional conflicts of a young woman at odds with a societal environment for which she was not prepared. Without family support and, as disturbing for her, her fear that people find out who she is, she turns to her faith, seeking from it inner security, calm and harmony. This becomes the centre of the Najwa’s new existence. While the return to her faith is convincingly explained, less clear is why Najwa abandons her studies to take on a role as servant and nanny. Why is she so committed to fade into the background, to become invisible? As she reassesses her younger life – her own attitude toward the family’s servants back home, who she took for granted and ignored at best – she may feel the need to atone for past behavior? Maybe. To contrast Najma’s regained perspective on her life, Aboulela introduces Lamya, her employer. Characterized in somewhat negative terms, Lamya, nonetheless, represents many professional Muslim women. The encounters leave the reader with much food for thought. It seems, however, that Najma yearns for the easy-going happiness she discovers in her women friends at the Mosque, and also remembers her own joyful childhood that still appears in her dreams. Can she find happiness herself again?
The narrative moves back and forth between Khartoum and London, covering essential passages in Najwa’s life over a twenty-year period. Starting in the mid eighties when she is eighteen, happy and privileged, the narrative then jumps to 2003 when she has already changed into the subdued servant and devout Muslim. As the story unfolds the reader can fill in the blanks that are hinted at throughout, but these require the reader’s close attention and patience that questions will be answered. Despite the complex issues she addresses, Abouela’s writing is easy and straight forward. Her lively direct dialog brings immediacy to the narrative.