Leila Aboulela’s Minaret is the story of Najwa, a Sudanese woman who was raised in privilege in Khartoum, until a coup forces her to flee to London with her mother and her brother. The novel follows her life as she transitions from a Westernized teen in Sudan, to a devout Muslim woman working as a nanny/maid in London. This novel examines issues of class, religion, culture, and gender, all through one woman’s personal journey. Despite tackling all of these themes, the novel is an easy read, with a plot that jumps throughout Najwa’s life to demonstrate how she as an individual is able to handle her fall in class and loss of country by becoming more devout, and joining a religious community in London to replace her lost family.
It feels important to read this novel to gain a perspective on a culture and a background, with its own standards and ideals, that is different from my own. After initially reading the story, I felt disappointment for Najwa, because the life she is leading at the end of this novel, her goals for herself, and many other parts of her character are so different from what I would want for myself, or even what I would expect for this character from the beginning of the story. That said, just because I find it difficult to initially relate to this character does not mean that reading this story did not make me take the time to see that my own standards and ideas are not universal. Reading this story is a chance to experience a life completely different from my own.
Many of the issues I had with this novel revolve around the issue of gender. Much of Najwa’s identity as a woman, and how she is treated by those around her is defined by her clothing. Aboulela utilizes clothing to show Najwa’s transition from a Westernized teen to a devout Muslim woman. In Khartoum, Najwa wears tight pants, short skirts, and other clothing that brings attention to her body. Her first relationship with a man is with someone who disrespects her, her family, background, and ideas, but who was drawn to her because of her revealing clothing. The story seems to say that she was asking for this disrespect because of the type of clothing she wore (representative of larger cultural choices.) This relationship ends on the day she chooses to begin wearing a headscarf; this piece of clothing is shown to give her the confidence to end this relationship. It is only later in the novel, when she is wearing hijab and more shapeless clothing, that she feels comfortable, not so much because she is respected, but because she is hidden and anonymous. The only time her more devout and traditional clothing causes her a problem in the novel is when she is taunted and attacked by Londoners on a bus. Within her own community (Muslim ex-pats from a number of countries and cultures) her choice to wear a headscarf helps her fit in and feel accepted.
Najwa’s transition to a practicing Muslim (rather than the secular Islam of her youth) is reflected in the story through her relationships with two men- the first relationship which began in Khartoum and ended with her wearing the headscarf, to a relationship she begins with Tamer, the 19 year old son of her employer. He is much younger than her, yet he idealizes her as a devout, subservient woman. The fact that she is subservient because she is his employee does not change the fact that he views her as a better woman and Muslim because she is simple compared to his sister pursuing a PhD, or his successful mother who travels the world. Much as he idealizes Najwa, she pursues the relationship with him because she respects how devout he is at such a young age- she frequently compares Tamer’s desire to study Islamic history with her own youth in Khartoum spent in clubs, where she was only at college waiting to get married. Their differences in age, social standing, and family will prevent this relationship from lasting, but at the end of the novel we see Najwa preparing to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. She has no family or country left, her only community and identity is that of a Muslim.