Missing Out

Published in Granta 111: Going Back

In this moving story of love, cultural identity and a longing for home, Leila Aboulela questions tradition and modernity with insight and clarity

In his first term at college in London, Majdy wrote letters home announcing that he would not make it, threatening that he would give up and return. To call him on the phone, his mother made several trips to the Central Post Office in Khartoum, sat for hours on the low wooden bench, fanning her face with the edge of her tobe in the stifling heat, shooing away the barefooted children who passed by with loaded trays trying to sell her chewing gum, hairpins and matches. ‘Get away from my face,’ she snapped at the girl who had edged by her side and was almost leaning onto her lap. ‘Didn’t I just tell you I don’t want your stuff?’ on the third day she got through, wedged herself into a cubicle but did not close the glass door behind her. Majdy’s throat tightened when he heard her voice. In the cool corridor of the hostel he held the receiver and leaned his head against the wall, hiding his face in the crook of his arm. The students who passed him walked a little bit quicker, felt a little bit awkward hearing his voice heavy with tears, unnaturally loud, foreign words they could not understand echoing and hanging around the walls.

Read More…

Doctor on the Nile

Published in The Virginia Quarterly Review

In this special issue on Northern Africa, Leila Aboulela writes from the point of view of a British colonial in Sudan.


1st October, 1950

My dearest Marion,

No doubt the young gentleman delivering this letter will introduce himself. I met Meccawi Ismail today on a house visit to Mahmoud Abuzeid, who is recovering from an attack of diabetes. I was examining my patient in a room full of guests as is their custom. He kindly asked after you and pointing to Meccawi said that the young man was heading to London tomorrow to start a diploma at the School of Oriental and African Studies. “If you want to send anything to your daughter, Meccawi can take it for you,” he said. I, of course, jumped at the opportunity to send you this letter. With the rail strike going on indefinitely, the post is sure to be slow and unreliable.

Read More…

The Ostrich

Published in Intangible.org

Author’s Note: “ This is  one of my favourite short stories; it is dear to me in a very personal way.  When Intangible.org first published it, the Internet was a recent development and I was excited to be part of such a new venture. The illustration is a painting by the wonderful artist Grizelda Al Tayeb and I actually have the original painting. It shows the library of The University of Khartoum and brings back many memories.”

You look like something fresh out of the Third World’, he said and I let myself feel hurt, glancing downwards so that he would not see the look in my eyes. I didn’t answer his taunting smile flippantly like he expected me to, didn’t say, ‘And where do you come from, or have you forgotten?’ I let him put his arm around me by way of greeting and gave him the trolley with my suitcases to push.

He must have seen me first, I thought, while I was scanning the faces of the people who were waiting at the terminal, he must have been watching me all the time. And I suddenly felt ashamed not only for myself but for everyone else who arrived with me on that aeroplane. Our shabby luggage, our stammering in front of the immigration officer, our clothes that seemed natural a few hours back, now crumpled and out of place.

So I didn’t tell him about the baby though I imagined I would tell him right away in the airport as soon as we met. Nor did I confess that at times I longed not to return, that in Khartoum I felt everything was real and our life in London a hibernation.

Read More…

Days Rotate

Published in Intangible.org

Author’s Note: “I wanted to write something completely different than my other stories, detached from time and place.  This story is heavily influenced by Sufism.  It can also be read as science fiction. ”

I said, ‘Carry me’. He said, ‘No’.

I said, ‘Carry me’. He said, ‘No’.

So I bit his hand that gripped mine, was leading me. I bit hard until I cried. His eyes changed from hazel to blue but he didn’t let go. We kept on climbing.

I said, ‘Carry me’. He said, ‘No’.

I stopped climbing, I stopped moving. Our arms stretched and the distance lengthened between our eyes. I said, ‘This level is fine for me. I can’t go further.’

He said, ‘Empty yourself’, and looked away.

I gave up jewelry, a pretty bauble. It smashed on the rocks below. We kept on climbing.

Cars once drove up this steep mountain path. It is said they had tires that gripped the road. Before the Great War there were lights at night that were neither fire nor the moon. There were escalators in shopping malls. Astronauts were sent to space. The earth was a tight, frustrated place. Some died of hunger, some paid money to lose weight. People were locked up…. He remembered the old days, passports and insurance companies, but I was born in 2115.

He started to sing. I held his voice.

The blows of love play tricks on men

And destroy them stage by stage.

I asked: am I acceptable?

The elders said, Make yourself empty.

Read More…

Hotel Chatter

Published in The Shallow Tales Review

Dahlia and Farah sat at a table which overlooked the garden. Their placemats had pictures of zebras and paper napkins in leopard prints. There was no one else in the dining room although some of the other tables showed signs that people had finished their breakfasts and gone.

Farah said that the jam was poor quality and so was the toast. She showed Dahlia what she had found in her porridge. Something beige, crescent shaped and hard. “I think it’s Julie’s fingernail,” she whispered. Julie, the proprietor, was a slim woman in her sixties, with a sharp haircut and a smile more optimistic than the profit she was probably making from her business. Last night she had welcomed the two women as if they had popped out of her television set.

Read More…