“Many Muslims in Britain wished that no one knew they were Muslim. They would change their names if they could and dissolve into the mainstream, for it was not enough for them to openly condemn 9/11 and 7/7, not enough to walk against the wall, to raise a glass of champagne, to eat in the light of Ramadan and never step into a mosque or say the shahada or touch the Qur’an. All this was not enough, though most people were too polite to say it. All these actions somehow fell short of the complete irrevocable dissolution that was required. Yet children pick up vibes, they know more than they can express, they feel and understand before learning the words for a particular emotion or idea. Many of the young Muslims I taught throughout the years couldn’t wait to bury their dark, badly dressed immigrant parents who never understood what was happening around them or even took an interest, who walked down high streets as if they were still in a village who obsessed about halal meat and arranged marriages and were so impractical, so arrogant as to imagine that their children would stay loyal. Instead their children grew up as chameleons, not only shifting their colours at will, but able to focus on two opposing goals at the same time. They grew up reptiles plotting to silence their parents’ voices, to muffle their poor accents, their miseries, their shuffling feet, their lives of toil and bafflement, their dated ideas of the British Empire, their gratitude because they remembered all too clearly the dead-ends they had left behind.”
Sudanese author Leila Aboulela writes fluidly, moving between two parallel realities – contemporary Scotland and 1850s Russia – in which religious conflict and the multigenerational struggles of immigration and cultural assimilation inform every aspect of life.
In modern day Scotland lives Natasha, a professor of history caught up in her own complicated history and in the troubled history between Islam and the West. Obsessed with history and the safety of its distance, Natasha directly narrates the contemporary portions of the novel, in which her professional life is in peril, her estranged father is dying, and her star student faces charges of radicalization. The 19th century portions explore the experiences of Imam Shamil, leader among the “Asiatic” Muslims fighting for autonomy from Russian rule, and Anna, granddaughter of the deposed King of Georgia. Though narrated in omniscient third-person, Natasha’s voice is heavily implied; these passages feel personal and complete, as though told by an historian transported and transfixed. In many ways, the passages set centuries ago are even more captivating, smoother and deeper than those set in modern times.
Natasha’s passion for the historical narrative, in particular, is deeply revealing. It, like her own, is a story of the push and pull, the undying conflict between the “white” world (Russia and the U.K. in both instances) and the Arab world (Chechen Muslims in the past, Natasha’s Sudanese father and her Muslim students in the present).
“The two sides of me that were slammed together against their will, that refused to mix. I was a failed hybrid, made up of unalloyed selves. My Russian mother who regretted marrying my Sudanese father. My African father who came to hate his white wife. My atheist mother who blotted out my Muslim heritage. My Arab father who gave me up to Europe without a fight. I was the freak. I had been told so and I had been taught so and I had chewed on this verdict to the extent that, no matter what, I could never purge myself of it entirely. My intellect could rebel and I was well-read on the historical roots and taboos against miscegenation (the word itself hardly ever used now), but revulsion and self-loathing still slithered through my body in minute doses.”
Leila Aboulela’s prose is fluid and striking; it flows like a veil in the wind, constantly changing shape and subtly changing tone. Though there are no true transitions between one time and the other, the harmony of the parallel stories makes the novel flow beautifully and effortlessly. Aboulela brings a perspective that is simultaneously intimately personal and timelessly global.