Years ago, I read Minaret by Leila Aboulela in the original English. It has now recently been published in a German translation by Irma Wehrli, and it was a great pleasure to dive once again into the story of Nadschwa. Nadschwa, the protagonist of the novel, moves from Sudan to Great Britain – much like the author herself. However, Nadschwa is forced to flee as a result of a military coup in Sudan in 1985. Minaret tells the story of Nadschwa’s family: of drastic social decline, and of the support that religion can provide.
In Sudan, the family belonged to the upper class, had numerous domestic servants, and while it seems the father was involved in shady business, the mother was involved in community work with orphans, and distributing old clothing. The father, who worked for the government, is accused of corruption. He is hanged. Nadschwa, her twin brother and their mother are devastated. They flee to their vacation home in London, but after further tragic turns, Nadschwa is left completely on her own. She fights her way through as a nanny for rich families.
In the book, flashbacks alternate with scenes set in the present. At the beginning, it seems incongruous that the miniskirt-wearing, wealthy young Sudanese woman suddenly starts wearing a hijab in London, regularly goes to mosque, and demonstrates her understanding of the rules of servility as a maid. As the book progresses, step by step, the process that leads Nadschwa to her new self is revealed. It becomes clear how she slowly comes to terms with her losses – human losses, and the loss of status and standing. The protagonist experiences remorse and builds new hope, yet she also seems incredibly naïve throughout. Aboulela creates a character with whom I can sympathize, but whose decisions and behaviour seem at times contrary to my own worldview: The book has very little to do with the ideas of Western feminism. The strength of the book, as I see it, is that it questions concepts of modernity and tradition, and opens our eyes to the reasons for choosing certain ways of life. At its centre lies the search for values to point the way.