Lyrics Alley is the story of an affluent, influential Sudanese family shaken by the shifting powers in their country and the near tragedy that threatens the legacy they’ve built for decades.
In 1950s Sudan, the powerful and sprawling Abuzeid dynasty has amassed a fortune with their trading firm, one of the only indigenous companies in a business dominated by their British occupiers. With Mahmoud Bey at its helm, they can do no wrong. But when Mahmoud’s son, Nur, the brilliant, handsome heir to his business empire, suffers a debilitating accident, his hopes of university and marriage to his beloved cousin, Soraya, are dashed.
As Sudan’s diverging ethnic and religious populations collide and British rule nears its end, the country is torn between modernizing influences and the call of traditions past—a divide reflected in the growing tensions between Mahmoud’s two wives: the younger, Nabilah, longs to return to Egypt and escape the dust of “backward-looking” Sudan; while Waheeba is confined to her open-air kitchen and resents Nabilah’s influence on her family. It is not until Nur begins to assert himself outside the strict cultural limits of his parents that both his own spirit and the frayed bonds of his family can begin to mend.
In Lyrics Alley, Leila Aboulela takes readers to the heart of what it means to have faith in an unforgiving world. Moving from the alleys of Sudan to cosmopolitan Cairo and a decimated post-colonial Britain, this sweeping tale of desire and loss, faith, despair, and reconciliationis one of the most accomplished and evocative portraits ever written of Sudanese society at the time of independence.
“Rich in detail and generous in spirit toward its complex characters, [Lyrics Alley] showcases Aboulela’s talent for connecting political and personal upheaval. [An] elegantly written family epic that brings to mind Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy.”
— Kirkus Reviews
“Leila Aboulela writes with tenderness and sensitivity about the hopes of a country on the verge of independence. Through the eyes of the Abuzeid family, we witness the competing claims of the political and the intimate, of modernity and tradition, of duty and individual freedom. The resulting narrative is at once compelling and illuminating, full of the color and cadence of Aboulela’s homeland.”
— Tahmima Anam, author of A Golden Age
“Leila Aboulela’s Lyrics Alley gives us the rich and complex world of a Sudanese patriarch in the 1950s who presides over a household containing two wives, various nieces, two sons—a new world full of modern ambitions and ancient problems. I read it with the delight one has suddenly stumbling on lush and abundant hidden gardens behind foreign city walls, various with its own life and laws, and infinitely satisfying.”
— Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress
“This breakthrough novel by the author of Minaret and The Translatorrecounts the story of the Abuzeid family of Sudan—and a country on the brink of change in the 1950s as British rule nears its end. The Abuzeids are a wealthy, powerful clan, but they are not immune to the conflict between the traditions of the past and the pull of modernization. Their stories, revealed through the novel’s multiple points of view, are real, compelling, and ultimately moving. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy family sagas set against a political backdrop.”
— Evelyn Beck Library Journal (Starred Review)
“Haunting . . . Keeps the reader gripped . . . A tale of powerful feelings and potent words . . . this visceral, epic novel . . . gives fascinating insights into Sudanese society, with different characters embodying the dramatic clash between tradition and modernity. . . . Vividly evoking the alleyways of Sudan, Egypt, and Britain, this novel also movingly and meticulously traces the hidden pathways of the mind and heart with all its anger, shame, hate and love.”— Anita Sethi, The Telegraph
“Each scene is rich with period detail . . . Aboulela has the gift of making her readers care about her characters. This she achieves partly by making us privy to their thoughts, and revealing to us all their conflicts, contradictions, petty vanities, hopes, and ambitions. . . . [She] has created a story for all the senses, one to be savoured at leisure.”
— Aminatta Forna, Financial Times
“A superb family epic …..Understanding all too well how a family can shape an individual’s destiny is what gives her tale its humanity. . . . It is in her vivid, beautifully original portrayal of battling wives, Nabilah and Waheeba, that her real genius lies.”
— Lesley McDowell , The Herald
“A graceful and elegantly told saga . . . Aboulela writes with a light touch. . . She uses words to powerful and sometimes surprising effect, language that seems to spring naturally from the very environment she’s describing. . . . This beautiful book is a testament to what might have been as well as what might be.”
— Jane Charteris, Literary Review
“Aboulela writes with precision and depth of feeling in the voices of a range of characters.” — Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe
“If Herman Hesse were alive today, he’d fall in love with Lyrics Alley… Ms. Aboulela has written an intriguing novel that is a delight to read. The convincing, well-developed characters; spontaneous, beautiful language; well thought-out images; and the book’s rich examples of traditional and cultural aspects of everyday life in 1950’s Sudan make this novel a must-read.”
— Ahmad Ghashmary, Altmuslimah
“Fleet and engrossing narrative. . . . [Aboulela shows] a generosity of spirit that extends to all her characters.” —The New York Times Sunday Book Review
“Aboulela paints the history that unfolds behind the family upheaval with a delicate hand. . . . She offers characters that absorb and fascinate.”— The Economist
“Its themes include desire, love, poetry, popular music, film, privilege and poverty. At the core is the dilemma of a culture torn between the divergent calls of tradition and modernity. This is an unprecedented novel that breaks new ground in writing about Sudanese society at the time of independence.”
— Rachel Holmes, Head of Literature and Spoken Word The Southbank Centre
“Aboulela’s skill is in teasing out nuance in different contexts, while making the reader care about her characters as individuals… The author succeeds in creating characters which convince us; they are as imperfect, unpredictable and endearing as real life.”
— James Copnall, Times Literary Supplement
“In beautiful, subtle prose . . . Aboulela explores themes of love, faith and divided families with a tender restraint.”— Marie Claire
“A tender love story, a family saga, and a portrait of 1950s Sudan teetering on the brink of modernity.”— Lee Randall, The Scotsman
“There are many terribly sad scenes, and some really shocking ones in this novel, as we learn about a society with lots of conflicts between tradition and modernization, about attitudes to women and to disability. It is beautifully and evocatively written, with a cast of memorable characters. This is highly recommended as a personal read, and offers a reading group much to discuss, including the characters, the role of women, attitudes towards disability and social change.”— Luci Davin, New Books Magazine
“An assured and highly readable portrait of a family in flux and two societies—Sudan and Egypt—on the cusp of momentous changes. . . . Lyrics Alley is an evocative description of the struggle between tradition and modernization.”— New Internationalist
“Aboulela turns tragedy into triumph in Lyrics Alley. . . . Dazzling.”
— Publishers Weekly
“The novel is written at a pace that doesn’t falter for a second. . . . A beautiful and absorbing read.” — Business Standard
“An evocative story of desire, loss, despair and reconciliation.”
— The Middle East
“Set in 1950s Sudan, Leila Aboulela’s latest novel, Lyrics Alley a family saga about a poet, beautifully elaborates on how tragedy can bring a gift in its wake.”
— Mariella Frostrup, Psychologies
“A light shines through Lyrics Alley, an optimism one doesn’t often find in contemporary novels. There is nothing sentimental about this light. It exists alongside the dark and feeds off it. Each of Aboulela’s characters has an experience of this, from Nabilah who returns at the novel’s end to Sudan and her husband – “Umdurman was not up to her standards, but Mahmoud was excellent” – to Nur, who finds new life and a measure of peace in his writing. “The winds don’t blow in the direction the ships favour,” reads a line from a poem Nur studied in school. And well that they don’t, Aboulela seems to be saying.”— Denise Roig, The National
“Aboulela excels in the evocation of time and place, between World War Two and the Free Officers’ revolution in Egypt….Aboulela confidently draws her wonderfully rich characters, neither purely virtuous nor evil but beautifully human. Her fine touch reaches down even to minor figures…This certainly isn’t airport orientalism. Many of the push-button ‘Muslim world’ issues are here – not least female circumcision – but they emerge naturally, in context, and are not distorted by displacement or magnification. Whether traditional or liberal, Aboulela’s women are spirited fighters, always seeking to extend their influence within the family and out in the wider world.
….the world of Lyrics Alley is one in which bad things happen ‘for pedagogical reasons’, in which almost everybody sees the light in the end, almost everybody reforms. But it’s a Tolstoyan sort of moralising, not prudish or preachy but compassionate, even wise….In Aboulela’s writing, human life is balanced between trial and reward, burden and bliss. Her insights and characterisation are as balanced as her sentences, which are subtle, nuanced, well-rhythmed, sometimes intricate. They are quiet and sensitive, not showy, yet they can aspire to poetry.
Rather than a cultural sob story, Aboulela offers the warmth and deep meaning of Muslim family life, and of Islam’s great usefulness to many. In case the reader had forgotten, Lyrics Alley reminds us of the beauty of the Quran, and of Sufi poetry, and the shahada, ‘starting with no, and ending with the grandest word, Allah’.”
— Robin Yassin-Kassab, Wasafiri
Lyrics Alley was inspired by the life of the poet Hassan Awad Aboulela. It is a work of fiction, filled with imaginary characters and situations and not intended as an accurate biography. My father often spoke to me about his cousin Hassan, who passed away before I was born. Hassan Awad was six years older than my father and my father looked up to him. My father was intent on following Hassan’s footsteps. He would also, like Hassan, leave Umdurman to attend Victoria College, the British boarding school in Alexandria, considered at the time to be the Eton of the Middle East. In the future they both aspired towards a university degree in Britain and then to return to join the family business and work side by side. By all accounts Hassan was an outstanding student in Victoria making his mark in academics as well as in sports. A golden future lay ahead of him. British Colonial rule was coming to an end. The Sudan was a country with huge potential, the family business was prospering and poised for the younger educated generation to modernize it and carry it forward into a new Independent Sudan.
Yet on Hassan’s last day at Victoria College, a trip to the beach with his school-mates changed the course of his life. My father was not with him on that day. His elder brother Saad was. Saad was closer to Hassan in age and his best- friend. When my father related the story of the accident to me, it was from my Uncle Saad’s point of view. I pictured the beach at Sidi Bishr, I pictured the English soldiers who pulled Hassan out of the water. I pictured my Uncle Saad saying casually, “Come on Hassan, get up!”
It could have been a fatal accident but instead Hassan was left a quadriplegic. No Cambridge University after all, no joining the family business, no marriage. The crash of that dream traumatized my father, who was at the impressionable age of thirteen. My father went on to graduate from Victoria College and travelled to study at Trinity College, Dublin. Hassan Awad stayed in Umdurman and my father kept in close touch with him, following his news and visiting him regularly whenever he returned to Umdurman.
Writing Lyrics Alley was triggered by my aunt Hajjah Rahma Aboulela (Hassan’s sister) reciting to me Hassan’s very first poem- Travel is the Cause. I was captivated by the line In you Egypt are the causes of my injury. And in Sudan my burden and solace. It was good, it was strong. Here was a writer addressing another writer across the passage of time. Hassan’s words won me over. I completely believed in him. Also, the Egypt/Sudan dichotomy ruffled my Sudanese-Egyptian identity. And this was how the character Nabilah entered into the novel. She not only represented the era of Anglo-Egyptian rule but reflected my own double heritage.
The 1950s was a fascinating and pivotal time in Sudanese history. With British rule coming to an end, the Sudan was at a cross-roads. Sudan was not technically part of the British Empire nor was it administered by the Colonial Office. This was because it was an Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. When Britain invaded Sudan, it did so alongside Egypt and relations between Sudan and Egypt have long been fraught. I became interested in this era, because my mother is Egyptian and I myself emigrated to Britain. Therefore, the three countries that made up my identity- Sudan, Egypt and Britain- were all coming together in this particular setup.
In Sudan, Hassan Awad Aboulela’s name will always be linked to the popular singers Ahmed Al Mustapha and Sayyid Khalifa. Hassan wrote the lyrics for many of Ahmed al Mustapha’s songs and three hugely successful songs by Sayyid Khalifa. These poems were put to music and sung by the two singers. Hassan Awad’s very first poem Safari (Travel is the Cause) was sung by Ahmed Al Mustapha, who is regarded as the pioneer of modern Sudanese music. Many others songs followed including the even more popular Ayam wa Layali( Days and Nights), Al Zahr Fah, the dance hit Qurbu Yuhanin, Gharam Qalbein, Jafeit Ma Bint (You’ve Cooled and Gone) and Rahmak ya Malak(Have Mercy, Angel) which Ahmad Al Mustapha performed with the singer Sabah in an Egyptian film. Sayyid Khalifa sang Hassan Awad’s Ya Salaam, Ya Salaam as well as his two last poems, Amal (Hope) and Asrab Al Hisan (Flocks of Beauty) both of which were more literary and sophisticated than his early works. The lyrics were written in classical Arabic and reflect a more mature, skilful poet composing at the height of his abilities. The popularity of Hassan Awad’s lyrics endured with later-day singers bringing out their own versions of the songs. Notably both Yassir Tamtam and recently, Nancy Agag recorded Hope.
I might have discovered Hassan Awad’s poems late in my life but I am one of a few. In the words of Salah Elbasha, writing on the tenth anniversary of Ahmad Al Mustapha’s death whom he described as the pillar and godfather of Sudanese music, “There is a specific song (Travel Is the Cause) whose words, almost the whole population of Sudan know by heart. It has a sad story behind it….”
In fictionalizing Hassan’s progress as a poet I was regrettably, unable to pay tribute to Sakina Muhammad Kheir. She was the one who, as a young girl, wrote down Hassan’s words and edited his poems. Instead in the novel she is represented by the youth Zaki as I felt that the novel already had enough female characters and I did not want to dim the character of Soraya. Sakina Muhammad Kheir was one of Sudan’s pioneering women of education. When she completed her education in Umdurman, she returned to her home town of Sinja where she set up a girls’ school and joined the local council. After her death, the school was named in her honour.
In writing Lyrics Alley I kept company with my father’s youth, his times and his love for his brothers, sisters and cousins. It was an emotionally loaded journey which needed an intellectual angle. The character of Badr, the Egyptian teacher, was the cool, comforting, rational voice which set me up and kept me buoyant. Inspired by the Arabic tutors my brother and I had as children growing up in Khartoum, Badr was in many ways, the most modern of the characters. He projected to our day and age. And writing about him brought out the best in me. As I progressed in the writing, Badr became the spine to the whole novel.
Click here to watch a clip of Ahmed Al-Mutapha and Sabah singing Rahmak Ya Malaak Have Mercy Angel, lyrics by Hassan Awad Aboulela
Click here to listen to Ahmed Al- Mutapha singing the popular dance song, Qurbu Yuhanin, lyrics by Hassan Awad Aboulela
Click here to watch a video clip of Muntasir Sayed Khalifa in concert singing his late father’s hit Asrab Al Husaan (Flocks of Beauty), lyrics by Hassan Awad Aboulela.
On the last day that Soraya loved the sea, she was wearing her new blue dress. A dress that was made by a Greek dressmaker in Alexandria, the perfect beach dress. Fresh watery blue-and-white splashes; a crisp white bow pinching her waist. Everyone said she was pretty. On the beach, under an orange umbrella she sat squinting from the sun, alert to the crescendo and break of the waves. With her were her sister, Fatma, Fatma’s husband Nassir, and their two children. They were waiting for Nur to join them. Nassir was dozing in his deck chair. The newspaper he had been reading collapsed on the bulge of his stomach. He was too large for the shirt he was wearing and was perspiring in spite of the breeze. Fatma looked out of place wearing her pink tobe and annoyed that the children were kicking sand in her face. She preferred shopping to the beach. She would have been happier in Cairo but Soraya adored the Alexandria lifestyle; the waking up late to the sound of the waves and the aromas of a heavy breakfast. Waking up to the knowledge that all through the night Nur had been asleep on the couch in the living room, just outside the door, steps away from where she and the children slept.