Published in 2010 by Grove Press, Lyrics Alley tells a story of love, alienated families and faith with a kind moderation.
Mahmoud, an astute businessman and his brother, Idris have established a successful trading empire in Umdurman, Sudan. With Mahmoud at the helm of the Abuzeid family, no one can do wrong, lest the family’s reputation is tarnished. Even though the story opens on a gloomy note (due to his sickness), it is evident that Mahmoud has it all or so it seems. He is married to two women who are as different as night and day- senior wife Waheeba is the Sudanese traditional one, “with the tribal scars on her cheeks………..that looked like cracks on a French loaf” whose whole life is restricted to her hoash while Nabilah, the Egyptian is the epitome of sophistication and modernity. Mahmoud associates Waheeba with ‘decay and ignorance’ while Nabilah is the glitter of the future. “He would never regret marrying Nabilah. It was not a difficult choice between the stagnant past and the glitter of the future, between crudeness and sophistication”.
The story is set in the era when Sudan was on the brink of independence but its core is about romance and the meaning of spirituality especially in the Islam faith. Nur and free-spirited Soraya are childhood sweethearts and cousins. A star student at a British college, Nur is everything to Mahmoud and Soraya. To Mahmoud he is the heir to the Abuzeid dynasty and to Soraya, he’s the love of her life, her ticket to escape from her conservative father and a connection to the outside world where women were forbidden. But all this changes when Nur suffers an accident that leaves him incapacitated. Everyone in the family is affected by this accident-as one character observes, even the rich were vulnerable to tragedy. For Nur, life suddenly comes to a halt. If Soraya’s tongue was sharp, it becomes sharper and it’s heartbreaking the way she waits for a miracle cure for her beloved. For Mahmoud, he has lost an heir and for once he is grateful to have Waheeba in his life.
Given the era in which the plot is set, there is not much discussion about the fights or protests or political power struggles as is wont to in many a fight for independence. Rather, that historical part seems to take place in the background of the struggles of the two lovebirds and their families as they come to terms with Nur’s tragedy. All we get are just snippets into what was happening on the political scene- we read briefly about the British heading to the Suez Canal and the massacres there, about the Egyptians’ impatience with the lingering British army and the deteriorating relations between Sudan and Egypt. But maybe the latter is better understood in the intense if not hostile relationship between Mahmoud’s two wives.
Yet Aboulela is deft, the story is told through multiple characters and she moves effortlessly between them. The scenes created are rich with detail, and the characters beautifully crafted especially when it comes to various views about Islamic faith. We read about women not allowed to wear glasses, being fully covered, not exposing their arms and hair and of women always being separated from the men. It is a world full of warm nostalgia, the colonialists aren’t the villains they have been painted to be in most cases- here they are good-hearted and well-intentioned and sun-burnt as portrayed by the Harrisons. Every character portrayed in the story is valued, even the barely noticeable Egyptian tutor, Ustaz. It is Ustaz who helps a depressed Nur revive his love for reading and poetry. As Nur gains fame as a lyrical poet, he is grateful to his family and their devotion and is proud of his success- In you, Egypt, are the causes of my injury. And in Sudan, my burden and solace”. It is in Sudan, his homeland that Nur finds a new purpose in life.
Ustaz helps the estranged Nabillah realize that had she tried harder instead of being more fixated on her prejudices on ‘backward looking’ Sudan, her stay in Sudan and her marriage to Mahmoud would have been more pleasant. It is through Ustaz that one gets to appreciate the beauty of being religious.
Lyrics Alley is excellent, the prose is smooth and clear and the story telling so gentle. This a book one will read at a more leisurely pace in order to enjoy it more. It is indeed a story of two souls kept apart by fate. As Nur’s poem Eid Cresent says: “………let me narrate the story of two souls, whose love was struck by the evil eye, in a twist which fate had hidden…”
Leila Aboulela was born in Cairo, but grew up in Sudan. She won the first Caine prize for African writing. Her other works include Minaret, The Translator and Coloured lights. Lyrics Alley was inspired by the author’s uncle, Hassan Awad Aboubela a celebrated poet of his time.