I nominated this for one of my reading groups as I’d been tempted by it for quite a long time. The Khartoum, Sudan and Egypt as the setting is what intrigued me. I was somewhat disappointed at first as it seemed like a romance but as I stuck it out and got more into it, my interest picked up. Aboulela is no Mahfouz but her writing is good and the story interesting. I think as far as themes go she outstretched her talents but there is a piece there. The characters are full and vibrant and I cared about them – which I don’t need to do but is a really nice change from what I’ve been reading.
by Leila Aboulela
2010 / 304 pages
read by Parisa Johnston – 11h 49m
rating: 8 / historical fiction
The story is set between 1950-1956 or so, in Khartoum – just prior to Sudan’s independence from Britain. There are also scenes in Cairo and Alexandria Egypt as well as in London.
Mahmoud Abuzeid is a wealthy Sudanese businessman and the patriarch of his family with two wives and two sons.
His first wife, Waheeba, is traditional Sudanese woman, older and rather shriveled, she’s the mother of Mahmoud’s two boys. She lives in her rooms at the back of the main house where she does things the in traditional Sudanese ways and grows somewhat bitter.
Nabilah is Mahmoud’s young, beautiful and relatively sophisticated second wife who is from Cairo, Egypt. She has her own problems with being seen as too beautiful, but she’s also the second wife. She has two girls by Mahmoud.
Waheeba pretty much represents the old world and its traditional ways which are tied to Egypt and Britain, while Nabilah represents the new ways of love, freedom and modernity. There is tension between the two women with Nabilah being so unhappy in the situation she has started to want a divorce. The tensions and difficulties of the family tend to mirror those of the country.
Muhamoud’s eldest son, Nasir, is a general wastrel who is married to the plain Fatma who is the daughter of Idris, Muhamoud’s brother. Nur is the younger son who is smart and generally well behaved but who wants to be a writer, not a businessman. He’s engaged to the beautiful young Soraya also the daughter of Idris and whose sister is Fatima. Soraya and Nur are very much in love.
Muhamoud is opposed to the marriage between Soraya and Nur because his own plans for Nur include his going to school in Alexandria and returning to take over the business. Nur finally agrees to the plan. Nasir is not going to be allowed to take over the company.
Muhamoud needs a loan to expand his business and he’s going through the bank because he fears outsiders and is investing in lots of things. Nahilah is very helpful in these international negotiations but she does not enjoy it.
Then it happens – the boys have been on vacation near Alexandria and gone swimming . There was a diving accident in which Nur was injured to the point of being paralyzed and it looks like there is no hope. They try all that money can buy including a stay in London but there is no hope. Nur will have quadriplegia for the rest of his life. Nabilah stays. with Muhamoud.
Meanwhile, a man named Badr, an old friend and ex-tutor to Nur, finds out about the accident. Badr is now a priest and married with children and his own worries but he is a devout Muslim and also cares for Nur.
The novel shows the family and the culture in times of great transition. The old ways are paternalistic, misogynist, concerned with money above all. But new ways are coming.
The book is a lot better than I thought it might be. I’m glad I read it.