My Thoughts on Minaret

Author: Leila Aboulela (Egyptian-Sudanese)

leila-aboulela-book-minaretMinaret was fine. I found that my favourite parts of it were minor themes that may not even have been that intentional.

So the story follows this girl called Najwa, high in class in Sudan – and we’re talking family-is-besties-with-the-president kinda high class. She’s an average girl, but because of all that she has, it appears as if her future looks bright. That’s a mistake, though. Because everything crashes when her parents die, the money leaves, she and her twin brother become immigrants, and he gets locked up.

I didn’t get attached to any characters. I think that after reading the blurb, I was expectant of things that I didn’t get. I was thinking along the lines of Elif Safak’s The Forty Rules of Love (OMG why am I constantly talking about this book?!) or even a Khaled Hosseini And The Mountains Echoed kind of thing. But nah. I think its (lack of) depth disappointed me. There seemed to be numerous opportunities for the narration, or main character, Najwa, or anyone else, really, to go deep into introspection and general attempts to figure this crazy “life” thing out. But I feel like someone (writer? Characters?) got scared every time they were probing a bit too low beneath the surface, and then would quickly come up for air. =(

The writing…hmm. It was very simple. Immature is not the right word to use, though. I don’t know how to describe it. As I read it, some of the thoughts that flew through my head were:

a) Aboulela must have been really young when she released this book. (Not so. She was like 40.)

b) English must not be her first language. (I don’t know if that’s true. I listened to her speak on a BBC World Book Club podcast, and she sounded like English was extremely comfortable to her.)

I suppose in the end, the language itself seemed basic and unembellished to me. Which is not to say that it made it a bad read. In a way, I think the language itself complemented the (way the) story (that) was told. The story sounded like everyday life. Like a bunch of journal entries, or a memoir. It didn’t sound like something that was supposed to be dramatically spectacular. It sounded…ordinary.

Najwa’s life disappointed me with her mildly frustrating lack of personal talents, abilities and convictions, and her allowing herself to remain at a low status as she inevitably grew older. And the book’s ending didn’t satisfy me at all. But let me talk about the minor themes that I enjoyed.

 

  1. CLASS

Najwa comes from the high class of a lowly ranked country. Bang, an easy target; and a nice perspective to tell an African story through. People are (and as at 2004, when this was published), I believe, not used to that one. Despite Najwa’s lack of a superiority complex (she never felt “better” off than others, never maltreated/disrespected maids, never used her money to get her places; she just lived like she thought people were meant to live), she is still a target for bozos like Anwar (least favourite character to read; interestingly, Aboulela’s declared favourite character to write) to tease because she has what a lot of people don’t. She’s more “Westernized” though neither of them are (were?) religious. Had never been outside Khartoum, the capital.

Here’s a quote that struck me:

“I would always be inferior to his ‘masses’, my problems less trivial and less worthy”. –Najwa, about how Anwar, who was even supposed to be her boyfriend at some points, viewed her.

And yes, I can, of course, personally relate to this somewhat-displacement or whatever. But, I mean, Anwar is just…unnecessary. I got tired of him so fast, especially when he was in London with Najwa. (Side note: this Najwa name really reminds me of ‘Nana Adwoa’! LOL)

 

  1. FAMILIAL RELATIONSHIPS

Obligatory accord and natural discord create a dynamic in relationships that I just can’t stop being fascinated by.

I honestly did not feel like Najwa had any kind of close relationship with her parents; but their death still shook her. I was fascinated by her undying love for her twin brother, Omar, despite all the faults and vices he descended into, as well as their disagreeing viewpoints. I loved this particular sentence about him:

“He sits in his chair and a world separates us in spite of genes and love.”

Right? Even love and blood can’t bring you closer than as close as you can get! When you’re different, you’re different!

Lamya, Najwa’s eventual employer, has friction with everybody: her brother, her husband, her mother, Najwa herself. Tamer, Lamya’s brother, feels someway about his father (who is absent the whole book, by the way), that I can understand:

“I don’t think he was listening to me. He will never change his point of view.” – Tamer.

He was talking in terms of academic interest here, by the way! If you know me well, you know why this excites me.

I think Tamer is the most beautifully written character. I like how Najwa sees him, at the point where she says:

“He flickers between soulful depth and immaturity.”

LOL, I feel like that’s what I do too.

 

  1. WRITING IN ENGLISH

Anwar is some super anti-Western world guy. Then somehow, he finds himself living in Britain. He is inactive in his activism and feels useless. All he can do there is write. And his English too is bad. (First language was Arabic.) I don’t know why this filled me with such evil glee. And his pride wouldn’t even let Najwa (whom he made edit his essays that kept getting rejected anyway) give him advice constructive enough to help him improve. I mean, in my head, I was just like, “Yoo, be there and not move forward.”

 

Now here’s a theme in the book that I didn’t like: religion. And no, this is not because I myself am not a Muslim. I think spirituality from anywhere, when represented well, earns my respect. (Refer again to how much I adore The Forty Rules of Love and even Eat, Pray, Love.) But that’s the problem, I guess. I didn’t find much spirituality in this book. There was religion, yes. But spirituality? Nah. Again, I think I would attribute this to a general shallowness, and hesitation on someone/everyone’s part, to go deeper. Apart from some one time Najwa said she actually listened to prayers for the first time, or something like that, I didn’t feel the strength of spirituality. What I did see was the use of religion as a fall-back mechanism. So, yeah.

A quote that I found funny:

“All through life there were distinctions – toilets for men, toilets for women, clothes for men, clothes for women – then at the end, the graves were identical.”

 

A quote that got me reflecting:

“I did reach a kind of detachment, like things didn’t matter, not in a careless, angry sort of way, but more like I could take them in my stride. So what if I didn’t like what I was studying, it would just be three years and they’ll pass fast. But the feeling didn’t last long. I couldn’t get it to last. While it did, though, while I was there, I was happy.” – Tamer.

 

I would neither highly recommend, nor discourage anyone from reading this book.

-Akotowaa

 

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