The writings of the Anglo-Sudanese author resonate deeply with Muslims in the diaspora, especially the Muslim women who feature in his books as central characters.
Themes of belonging, faith and what it means to be British are rare topics in popular mainstream fiction when written from the perspective of Muslims.
These are precisely the topics that award-winning Sudanese author Leila Aboulela examines in a host of highly acclaimed books, where women feature as central characters.
She won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000 for one of her short stories, The museum. His book, Elsewhere Home which is a collection of short stories, won the Satire Society’s 2018 Fiction Book of the Year.
Telling untold stories and perspectives, Leila’s characters are everyday people who happen to be Muslims. Their faith is a big part of their identity and woven unabashedly into his stories. It doesn’t feel artificial.
Born in 1964 in Cairo and raised in Khartoum, Leila moved to Aberdeen, Scotland after getting married in her mid-twenties. This uprooting from her life and the alienation she first felt in the UK is a theme she writes about often, and this experience comes through in her writing.
She came to the UK in the 1990s, a time of rising anti-Muslim sentiment. This deeply upset Leila, and she channeled her emotions into prose. It was almost a therapeutic effort that allowed her to vent her anger at being distorted as a Muslim and to tell stories that challenged the mainstream narrative.
“Britain can be very resistant to outsiders, in a weird way, so no matter how well people fit in and no matter what they do, there’s always this reminder that they’re strangers and they have to qualify to belong,” Leila said World TRT.
Being a Muslim immigrant in the UK can pose a host of challenges, including facing religious abuse, intolerance and exclusion. UK-born Muslims may experience similar hostilities because of their faith, where anti-Muslim prejudice is unfortunately entrenched and Islamophobia is an institutional problem.
Women are often the most obvious targets, especially those who wear headscarves. Leila’s female characters reflect this vulnerability, but at the same time they have an inner strength. This power comes from facing adversity, but it is their faith that defines and strengthens them.
Leila’s books appeal to everyone but speak volumes about a largely unrepresented Muslim audience in the diaspora. Its characters and themes are familiar and comforting; a simplicity that sums up the greatness of Leila’s work.
In his latest novel, Summon birdthe three main Muslim female characters of Arab descent, set out on a part-holiday quest to visit the grave of Lady Evelyn Cobbold in a remote part of Scotland.
A Scottish aristocrat born in 1867, Lady Evelyn converted to Islam when she was young and adopted the Muslim name Zainab. She was the first British Muslim woman to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in 1933 and wrote a book about her experiences, titled Pilgrimage to Mecca.
By including Lady Evelyn as a focal point of the story, it connects these foreign-born Muslim women to Scottish Islam and a sense of Britishness.
On their journey to visit Lady Evelyn’s resting place, the female protagonists find themselves on an inner quest to discover their own purpose in life, and Leila cleverly weaves Islamic themes into the story. For example, a hoopoe, a bird mentioned in the Quran that symbolizes wisdom, appears to women as a spiritual guide.
Leila also fuses Celtic folklore into the story, which nicely encompasses the shared bonds.
Leila’s writing is very grounded in her own identity, which is refreshing and relatable. She states that her favorite verse in the Quran is the story of Queen Bilquis ‘Sheba’ and Prophet Suleiman ‘Solomon’. The Prophet understands the language of the birds, and he sends the hoopoe with a message to the queen, asking her to follow the path of God.
It also draws inspiration from the 12th century Sufi poem, “The Conference of the Birds” by Farid-ud-Din Attar, which is a common point of reference in Muslim culture. The epic poem tells the story of the birds of the world, led by the wise hoopoe in search of their king – the legendary Simurgh.
The Simurgh is a mythical bird in Persian literature and a metaphor for God in Sufism. The birds embark on a perilous quest and are distracted by their own inner weaknesses, but those who succeed eventually discover that the legend they seek is not an outer “entity” but exists within themselves.
These stories which are central to Islamic belief, together with cultural stories from the past, are seamlessly integrated into the novel and provide a subtle way of introducing Britons to Muslim culture and identity, as well as reminding them of their own heritage and past. .
Leila says Lady Evelyn’s story appealed to her, not only because of the Scottish aristocrat’s connection to British Islam, but also because of the loneliness she felt at being the only Muslim in a remote part of Scotland.
“It was this loneliness that appealed to me because it took me back to my first feelings of loneliness when I arrived in Britain. I was also in a place where there was not much of Muslims,” she said.
As well as incorporating some of her own experiences into her work, Leila is driven to use her writing to break down barriers.
“Literature and the arts are certainly a good way to help break down Islamophobia and misrepresentation. Fiction is non-threatening. Most people are welcoming when you offer them a novel or a piece of music or dancing, or even a meal linked to Islamic culture.
“In fact, they kiss it more.”
Source: World TRT