Minaret is a provocative, timely, and engaging novel about a young Muslim woman—once privileged and secular in her native land and now impoverished in London—gradually embracing her traditional faith. With her Muslim hijab and down-turned gaze, Najwa is invisible to most eyes, especially to the rich families whose houses she cleans in London. Twenty years ago, Najwa, then at university in Khartoum, would never have imagined that one day she would be a maid. An upper-class Westernized Sudanese, her dreams were to marry well and raise a family. But a coup forces the young woman and her family into political exile in London. Soon orphaned, and with her twin brother sent to jail on a drug charge, she finds solace and companionship within the Muslim community. Then Najwa meets Tamer, the intense, lonely younger brother of her employer. They find a common bond in faith and slowly, silently, begin to fall in love. Written with directness and force, Minaret is a lyric and insightful novel about Islam and an alluring glimpse into a culture Westerners are only just beginning to understand.
“Minaret is a wonderful book — readable, subtle and ambiguous, with a shocking clarity of voice. It has a coolness that comes from real skill.”
– Ali Smith, author of Hotel World
“In a narrative of complex reversals, Aboulela takes a huge risk in describing her heroine’s religious conversion and spiritual dedication. She succeeds brilliantly. This is a beautiful, daring, challenging novel.”
– Mike Phillips, The Guardian
“Harbors something remarkable beneath commonplace trappings . . . Lit up by a highly unusual sensibility and world view, so rarefied and uncompromising that it is likely to throw the reader out of kilter. . . . Her delicacy of touch is to be complimented.”
– Chandrahas Choudhury, San Francisco Chronicle
“To Western society, where bare flesh is allowed, if not encouraged, the modest attire of Muslim women has begun to be seen as somehow offensive. In this engaging novel, Aboulela argues against this unfair and socially determined position by detailing the emotional growth of a Muslim woman, Najwa. In the Seventies, she lived in Sudan, a faithless daughter of a powerful politician. But her life changes when her father is killed in a coup and she is forced into exile. In London, Najwa feels rootless and alone, her emerging identity stunted by the sudden exile. To her surprise, she is drawn towards Islam, finding strength in other Muslim women and an identity in their dress and in their manner. This is not a straightforward story but is timely, well-written and, in the end, asks us to think seriously and sympathetically about Muslim identity.”
– Tom Williams, The Observer
“Aboulela paints a fascinating picture of intercultural strife … Aboulela has chosen a complex structure and keeps perfect control of it. Beautifully written, restrained and lyrical, Minaret is both thought-provoking and disturbing.’
– Carol Birch, The Independent
“Instead of the coming-of-age novel, we have here perhaps the beginnings of a coming-to-faith genre. The subject matter is important, and Aboulela makes an informed escort into this world’
– Literary Review
“She draws Najwa’s odyssey of exile, loss and found faith beautifully.”
– Publishers Weekly.
“This simple near-parable of a story successfully combines a tale of inexperience and cultural confusion with an insider’s view of the conflicts and complexities within the immigrant and Muslim communities. A low-key, affecting account of one bruised young woman’s search for wisdom and solace.”
– Kirkus Reviews
“Clear and precise writing, sympathetic characters, and positive portrayals of Muslim religious practices lend this elegantly crafted novel broad appeal.”
– Starr E. Smith, Library Journal
“A novel that unpacks complex emotional baggage with deceptive sleight of hand.”
– Emma Hagestadt, The Independent
“The novel deftly oscillates between past and present as Najwa struggles to gain a grip on her ‘real self’. Aboulela is finely attuned to the nuances of cultural difference and her prose glistens with details of those things that define or unmake identity. . . . Aboulela’s fidelity to her narrator’s voice, as she struggles to find a foothold in an unstable world, makes for a disconcerting portrayal of how rapidly the ground beneath one’s feet can slip away.”
– Tania Kumari, The Telegraph
“Her prose moves with the steady pace of someone who knows her faith, and knows she must not falter. . . . Often delicate and evocative.”
– Jonathan Falla, The Scotsman
“Aboulela … writes poignantly of the exile’s diminished life in the West.”
– Anderson Tepper, Vanity Fair
“Minaret is an understated reflection on belief and belonging and an authentic and moving portrait of a Muslim woman trying to make her way in modern British society. Quietly and without didacticism, it speaks of the pressures class and race exert, especially on those acutely unsure of their present place and future direction in a world increasingly intolerant of anyone outside the ever-narrowing mainstream”
– Peter Whittaker, The New Internationalist
“With Minaret, Aboulela brings a long-anticipated work of fiction. This novel is an important stitch in the growing tapestry of Western Muslim culture. Like all good art, it presents with beauty and insight the things we already think and feel. Aboulela’s achievement is impressive – a story of religious transformation that is authentic, lyrical, captivating. It explores the spiritual and political themes with which we’ve all been challenged and concludes that maybe all we want is to feel secure. “
– Raneem Azzam, Q-News The Muslim Magazine
In Minaret, I wanted to write about the kind of faith my mother and grand-mother passed on to me and to show that a woman’s need for spiritual fulfilment is as urgent and as valid as her need for love, family and a career.
I was very close to my grandmother and spent a lot of time with her in my early years. She grounded me in an awareness of God, in forming a relationship with Him and in instinctively asking for His help. She told me stories from the Qur’an and because I often saw her reading commentaries on the Qur’an, I wanted to become like her, knowledgeable and intellectually able. This awareness of Muslim teaching was reinforced and continued by my mother who consistently supported and expressed respect for religious people even though we did not move in such circles. My mother encouraged me to take all my studies seriously and in secondary school Religious Education became one of my favourite subjects. I was attracted to its logic and how it was relevant in day to day life. I was also inspired by the lives of the first Muslim women. The syllabus was full of issues that were specific to women and that held my attention. In this respect my life was different from Najwa’s. I did not have the same kind of distance she had from religion or the same kind of freedom.
However, my daily life in Khartoum was a fairly liberal Westernised one (certainly in comparison to the majority of Sudanese) and I did have friends whose lives were similar to Najwa’s. When I went to Khartoum University I continued to move in liberal circles and I became conscious of the disdain with which religious people were held by left-wing intellectuals. This troubled me and discouraged me from wearing the hijab although I spent a lot of time on the campus watching and admiring the girls who did. They seemed to me to be romantic and intriguing.
The Regents Park area of London is very important to Minaret. From 1982 onwards, I ended up spending a lot of time there. The flat and the surrounding area – the Central Mosque, Regents Park, the shops in the High Street – became the backdrop to my life at various important stages.
Regent’s Park Mosque was the first mosque I ever stepped into. This was an entirely new experience for me as women (at least the ones I knew) did not go to mosques in Khartoum. In the mosque I met for the first time Muslim women who were non-Arab, women who had made England their home and were slowly building for themselves and their children a new identity as British Muslims. I also had the chance to attend many talks by foremost Muslim scholars – Sheikh Nazim Ed-Daghistani, Nuh Keller, Maurice Bucaille and an inspiring African-American convert whose name I can’t recall. In the courtyard of the mosque my brother and I were excited to see Yusuf Islam – in Khartoum we had known him as Cat Stevens and I loved his song Wild World, it was now on the radio in a new mix by Maxi Priest.
The elegance of Regent’s Park, the down-to-earth atmosphere of the mosque, the extravagant shops of the High Street – the mix and character of this area in London inspired Minaret.
Bism Allahi, Ar-rahman, Ar-raheem
I’ve come down in the world. I’ve slid to a place where the ceiling is low and there isn’t much room to move. Most of the time I’m used to it. Most of the time I’m good. I accept my sentence and do not brood or look back. But sometimes a shift makes me remember. Routine is ruffled and new start makes me suddenly conscious of what I’ve become, standing in a street covered with autumn leaves. The trees in the park across the road are scrubbled silver and brass. I look up and see the minaret of Regent’s Park mosque visible above the trees. I have never seen it so early in the morning in this vulnerable light. London is at its most beautiful in autumn. In summer it is seedy and swollen, in winter it is overwhelmed by Christmas lights and in spring, the season of birth, there is always disappointment. Now it is at its best, now it is poised like a mature woman whose beauty is no longer fresh but surprisingly potent.
My breath comes out like smoke. I wait to ring the bell of a flat; the number is written down in my notebook. She said eight. I cough and worry that I will cough in front of my new employer, implant in her anxiety that I will pass germs on to her child. But she might not be the anxious type. I don not know her yet. The only time I saw her was last week when she came to the mosque searching for a servant. She had an aura of haste and grooming about her. Her silk scarf was rolled casually around her head and neck and, when it slipped and showed her hair she didn’t bother to tug it back on again. A certain type of Arab woman — rich student, late twenties, making the most of the West . . . But I still did not know her. She was not herself when she spoke to me. Few people are themselves in mosques. They are subdued, taken over by a fragile, neglected part of themselves.
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