Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat


by Leila Aboulela

“Harbors something remarkable beneath commonplace trappings . . . Lit up by a highly unusual sensibility and world view, so rarefied and uncompromising that it is likely to throw the reader out of kilter. . . . Her delicacy of touch is to be complimented.” –Chandrahas Choudhury, San Francisco Chronicle

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date September 19, 2005
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-7014-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

Leila Aboulela has published two books in England that have been highly praised. Her work has been long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Orange Prize, and she was the first winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing. Her American debut is a provocative, timely, and engaging novel about a young Muslim woman–once privileged and secular in her native land and now impoverished in London–gradually embracing her orthodox faith. With her Muslim hijab and down-turned gaze, Najwa is invisible to most eyes, especially to the rich families whose houses she cleans in London. Twenty years ago, Najwa, then at university in Khartoum, would never have imagined that one day she would be a maid. An upper-class Westernized Sudanese, her dreams were to marry well and raise a family. But a coup forces the young woman and her family into political exile in London. Soon orphaned, and with her twin brother sent to jail on a drug charge, she finds solace and companionship within the Muslim community. Then Najwa meets Tamer, the intense, lonely younger brother of her employer. They find a common bond in faith and slowly, silently, begin to fall in love.

Written with directness and force, Minaret is a lyric and insightful novel about Islam and an alluring glimpse into a culture Westerners are only just beginning to understand.

Leila Aboulela on autobiographical elements in Minaret:

In both my parents’ lives, modernity and tradition existed side by side–in my father’s case his liberal education and his loyalty to his family, in my mother’s case her devotion to Islam and her career in the UN. This interplay between modernity and tradition would also become my own challenge and a feature of my life and writing. In my case it is my desire to live in Britain and become part of the UK literary scene while at the same time practicing my faith and reflecting it in my writing. My parents’ successful lives have given me a confidence and an optimism that, although it is neither easy nor comfortable, modernity and tradition can coexist.

Tags Literary


“Harbors something remarkable beneath commonplace trappings . . . Lit up by a highly unusual sensibility and world view, so rarefied and uncompromising that it is likely to throw the reader out of kilter. . . . Her delicacy of touch is to be complimented.” –Chandrahas Choudhury, San Francisco Chronicle

“Absorbing . . . Though her writing is simple, even bald, Aboulela has vivid descriptive powers.” –Ella Taylor, LA Weekly

‘she draws Najwa’s odyssey of exile, loss and found faith beautifully.” –Publishers Weekly

“This simple near-parable of a story successfully combines a tale of inexperience and cultural confusion with an insider’s view of the conflicts and complexities within the immigrant and Muslim communities. A low-key, affecting account of one bruised young woman’s search for wisdom and solace.” –Kirkus Reviews

“Clear and precise writing, sympathetic characters, and positive portrayals of Muslim religious practices lend this elegantly crafted novel broad appeal.” –Starr E.

Smith, Library Journal

“A novel that unpacks complex emotional baggage with deceptive sleight of hand.” –Emma Hagestadt, The Independent (UK)

“The novel deftly oscillates between past and present as Najwa struggles to gain a grip on her ‘real self”. Aboulela is finely attuned to the nuances of cultural difference and her prose glistens with details of those things that define or unmake identity. . . . Aboulela’s fidelity to her narrator’s voice, as she struggles to find a foothold in an unstable world, makes for a disconcerting portrayal of how rapidly the ground beneath one’s feet can slip away.” –Tania Kumari, Telegraph

“The narrative is tranquil and lyrical. . . . Aboulela describes the uncertainty and terror of the country’s westernized elite in the 80s, and assembles a persuasive description of why a fundamentalist politics emerged. . . . In a narrative of complex reversals, Aboulela takes a huge risk in describing her heroine’s religious conversion and spiritual dedication. She succeeds brilliantly. This is a beautiful, daring, challenging novel.” –Mike Phillips, Guardian

“Her prose moves with the steady pace of someone who knows her faith, and knows she must not falter. . . . Often delicate and evocative.” –Jonathan Falla, Scotsman

“Aboulela ” writes poignantly of the exile’s diminished life in the West.” –Anderson Tepper, Vanity Fair

Praise for Colored Lights by Leila Aboulela:

‘moving, gentle, ironic, quietly angry and beautifully written.” –Ben Okri

“This is the modern female voice . . . fresh, diverse, challenging, uninhibited.” –Rachel Cusk

“A lyrical journey about exile, loss and love . . . poetry in motion.” –The Sunday Times

“The kind of writer British people need to hear . . . Aboulela conveys the sense of two worlds touching and creating a further world, a new place in which it is exciting to find such a gifted writer.” –The Daily Telegraph

“All Leila Aboulela’s Muslim characters . . . discover a sense of direction through religion, made stronger through the feelings of displacement.” –The New Statesman

“Original and immediate, Aboulela’s writing stands apart from the backwards-looking bores of recent years.” –The List

Praise for The Translator by Leila Aboulela:

“A story of love and faith all the more moving for the restraint with which it is written.” –J.M. Coetzee

‘she pulls you into her world as she refracts British life, its smells and sounds, its advertisements and turns of phrase, through the eyes of her devoutly Muslim narrator.” –The Independent

“A subtle investigation into the meaning of exile and home, doubt and faith, loss and love. Leila Aboulela’s writing is always beautifully observed, her voice one of restrained lyricism: she is a writer of rare and original talent.” –Duncan Mclean

“It is exactly what fiction ought to be!” –Todd McEwan

“The first halal novel written in English.” –Muslim News

“The difficult journey form sun to snow, from friends to strangers, is a central part of this gentle and melancholy novel . . . Aboulela is a wonderfully poetic writer: she has a way with little details . . . It is a pleasure to read a novel so full of feeling and yet so serene.” –The Guardian

“It is refreshing to read a novel that gives Muslims their due. For Aboulela, faith is not an ossified overbearing cross that crushes its followers . . . It is a liberating force. The Translator is an exceptionally well-crafted and beautifully written novel. In Sammar . . . she has created a personification of Islam that is as genuine as it is complex. . . Aboulela shows the rich possibilities of living in the West with different, non-Western, ways of knowing and thinking.” –The Sunday Herald


A Book Sense Selection
Longlisted for the 2006 Orange Prize



“Omar, are you awake?” I shook his arm that lay across his face, covering his eyes.


“Get up.” His room was wonderfully cool because he had the best air conditioner in the house.

“I can’t move.” He put his arm down and blinked at me. I moved my head back, wrinkling my nose at his bad breath.

“If you don’t get up, I’m going to take the car.”

‘seriously, I can’t ” can’t move.”

“Well, I’m going without you.” I walked to the far end of his room, past his cupboard and the poster of Michael Jackson. I switched the air conditioner off. It died down with an echo and heat surrounded the room, waiting to pounce into it.

“Why are doing this to me?”

I laughed and said with glee, “Now you’ll be forced to get up.

Downstairs I drank tea with Baba. He always looked so nice in the morning, fresh from his shower and smelling of aftershave.

“Where’s your brother?” he grumbled.

“Probably on his way down,” I said.

“Where’s your mother?”

“It’s Wednesday. She goes to Keep Fit.” It always amazed me how Baba deliberately forgot my mother’s schedule, how his eyes behind his glasses looked cautious and vague when he spoke of her. He had married above himself, to better himself. His life story was of how he moved from a humble background to become manager of the President’s office via marriage into an old wealthy family. I didn’t like him to tell it, it confused me. I was too much like my mother.

‘spoilt,” he now mumbled into his tea, “the three of you are spoilt.”

“I’ll tell Mama you said this about her!”

He made a face. ‘she’s too soft on your brother. It’s not good for him. When I was his age, I was working day and night; I had aspirations “”

“Oh no,” I thought, “not that again.” My feelings must have shown on my face because he said, “Of course you don’t want to listen to me “”

“Oh Baba, I’m sorry.” I hugged him and kissed his cheek. “Lovely perfume.”

He smiled, “Paco Rabanne.”

I laughed. He cared about his clothes and looks more than any father I knew.

“Well, time to be off,” he said and the ritual of his departure began. The houseboy appeared from the kitchen and carried his briefcase to the car. Musa, the driver, leapt out of nowhere and opened the car door for him.

I watched them drive off and there was only the Toyota Corolla left in the driveway. It used to be Mama’s car but last month it became mine and Omar’s. Mama had a new car now and Omar stopped using his motorcycle.

I looked at the garden and the road beyond. There were no bicycles on the road. I had an admirer who kept riding his bicycle past the front of our house. Sometimes he came past three or four times a day. He had hopeful eyes and I despised him. But, like now, when the road was empty, I felt disappointed.

“Omar!” I called from downstairs. We were going to be late for our lecture. At the beginning of the term, our very first in the university, we used to go well ahead of the time. Six weeks into the term, we discovered that the sophisticated thing was to appear at the last minute. All the lecturers turned up ten minutes past the hour, and swept grandly into halls full of expectant students.

I could not hear any sound from above so I ran upstairs. No, the bathroom was empty. I opened Omar’s bedroom and the room was, as I had expected, an oven. Yet there he was fast asleep, sprawled snoring. He had kicked the covers off and was drenched in sweat and listlessness.

“That’s it. I’m going to drive, I have nothing to do with you.”

He stirred a little. “What?”

I sounded angry but I was also afraid. Afraid of his sleepiness that did not stem from any illness; afraid of his lethargy that I could not talk to anyone about.

“Where are the keys?”


“Where are the car keys?” I yanked open his cupboard.

“No, in the pocket of my jeans ” behind the door.”

I pulled out the keys; coins fell to the floor, a box of Benson & Hedges.

‘see what will happen when Baba hears about this.”

“Put the air conditioner back on.”


“Please Nana.”

His use of my nickname softened me a little. The empathy of twins gripped me and for a moment I was the one who was hot and unbearably sleepy. I switched on the air conditioner and marched out of the room.

I rolled up the window of the car so that dust wouldn’t come in and the hot wind wouldn’t mess up my hair. I wished I could feel like an emancipated young student, driving her own car with confidence. Was I not an emancipated young woman driving her own car to university? In Khartoum only a minority of women drove cars and in university less than thirty per cent of students were girls – that should make me feel good about myself. But I preferred it when Omar was with me, when Omar was driving. I missed him.

I drove slowly and was careful to indicate and careful not to knock down anyone on a bicycle. At the Gamhouriya Street traffic light a little girl knocked on my window, begging with tilted head and unfocused eyes. Because I was alone I gave her a note. If Omar had been with me, I would have given her a coin – he hated beggars. She clutched the five pounds with slow disbelief and ran back to the pavement. When the light changed to green, I drove on. From the rear-view mirror, I could see her engulfed by other children and a few desperate adults. Dust and the start of a fight.

My hands were sweaty when I knocked on the door of lecture room 101. I was fifteen minutes late. I could hear Dr Basheer inside delivering another chapter on Accounting, my least favourite subject, but my father wanted Omar to study Business and, after years in a girls’ school, I wanted to be with Omar. I knocked again louder and gathered courage to turn the knob. It was locked. So Dr Basheer had been true to his announcement that no latecomers would be allowed in his lectures. I turned and walked to the cafeteria.

My favourite cafeteria was at the back of the university. It overlooked the Blue Nile but the water couldn’t be seen because of the dense trees. The morning shade and the smell of the mango trees began to soothe me. I sat at a table and pretended to read my notes. They meant nothing and filled me with emptiness. I could foresee the hours I would have to spend memorizing what I couldn’t understand. When I looked up I noticed that Anwar Al-Sir was sitting at the next table. He was in his last year and known for the straight As he got. Today he was alone with his cigarette and glass of tea. In a campus where most were scruffy, he always wore clean shirts, was clean-shaven and his hair was cut short even though longer hairstyles were in fashion. Omar had his hair just like Michael Jackson on the album cover of Off the Wall.

Anwar Al-Sir was a member of the Democratic Front, the students’ branch of the Communist Party. He probably hated me because I had heard him speaking in a nadwa with wit and scorn of the bourgeoisie. Landowning families, capitalists, the aristocracy; they were to blame, he said, for the mess our country was in. I talked to Omar about this but Omar said I was being too personal. Omar did not have time for the likes of Anwar; he had his own set of friends. They lent each other videos of Top of The Pops and they all intended to go to Britain one day. Omar believed we had been better off under the British and it was a shame that they left. I made sure that he didn’t write these ideas in any of his History or Economics essays. He would surely fail because all the books and lecturers said that colonialism was the cause of our underdevelopment.

It would have been childish to move from where I was sitting. But I felt uncomfortable sitting facing Anwar. He smiled at me and this took me aback. He kept looking at me. I felt that my blouse was too tight and my face too hot. I must have exhaled because he said, “It’s hot, isn’t it? And you’re used to air conditioners.” There was a teasing in his voice.

I laughed. When I spoke, my voice sounded strange to my ears, as if it were not me. “But I prefer the heat to the cold.”

“Why?” He threw the butt of his cigarette on the ground and, with his feet, covered it with sand. His movements were gentle.

“It’s more natural, isn’t it?” There were two tables between us and I wondered which one of us would make the first move, which one of us would get up and move over to the other table.

“It depends,” he said. ‘someone in Russia might regard the cold as natural.”

“We’re not Russians.”

He laughed in a nice way and fell silent. His silence disappointed me and I thought of different ways to revive the conversation again. I scrambled different sentences in my head, fast, “I heard you have a brother studying in Moscow”, “The air conditioner in my car broke down”, “You know, Dr Basheer wouldn’t let me in”. I discarded them all as foolish and unbecoming. The silence grew until I could hear my heart above the sound of the birds. I got up and left the cafeteria without a glance towards him or a goodbye. It was nearly ten o’clock and time for Macroeconomics. The lecturer passed the attendance sheet. I wrote my name, then changed pens, made my handwriting more upright and wrote Omar’s name.

I walked out of the Macro lecture room to find him waiting for me.

“Give me the car keys.”

“Here. Don’t forget we have History at twelve. Show your face, please.”

He frowned and hurried off. I worried about him. It was there, nagging at me. When I was young my mother said, “Look after Omar, you’re the girl, you’re the quiet, sensible one. Look after Omar.” And year in, year out, I covered for Omar. I sensed his weakness and looked out for Omar.


I took my wallet, notebook and pencil case out of my straw bag and left it on the shelf near the library door. Two girls from my class were leaving the library and we smiled at each other. I was not sure of their names. They both wore white tobes and one of them was very cute with deep dimples and sparkling eyes. They were provincial girls and I was a girl from the capital and that was the reason we were not friends. With them I felt, for the first time in my life, self-conscious of my clothes; my too short skirts and too tight blouses. Many girls dressed like me, so I was not unusual. Yet these provincial girls made me feel awkward. I was conscious of their modest grace, of the tobes that covered their slimness – pure white cotton covering their arms and hair.

In the basement of the library the air coolers blew heavily and the fans overhead twirled. I put my things on the table and looked at the shelves. Something Russian, to come close to him, to have something to say to him. Marxist theory, dialectics. No, I wouldn’t understand anything. At last I took a fat book off the shelf and sat down to read from a collection of translated poems.

I understood the line “I’ve lived to bury my desires’. But I did not know from where this understanding came. I had a happy life. My father and mother loved me and were always generous. In the summer we went for holidays in Alexandria, Geneva and London. There was nothing that I didn’t have, couldn’t have. No dreams corroded in rust, no buried desires. And yet, sometimes, I would remember pain like a wound that had healed, sadness like a forgotten dream.

“I like Russian writers,” I said to Anwar next time, for there was a next time, a second chance that was not as accidental as the first. We walked together, past the post office and the university bookshop.


“Pushkin,” I said. He was not impressed with my reply.

“Look,” he said, “if I gave you some leaflets, would you help me pass them out?”

“I can’t. I promised my father I wouldn’t get involved in student politics.”

He shrugged and raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Why am I not surprised?”

“What are your own political views?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t have any.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?”

“Everyone seems to blame everyone else.”

“Well, someone has to take the blame for what’s happening.”


‘so that they can pay the price.”

I didn’t like him saying that. Pay the price.

“Your father is close to the President?”

“Yes. They’re friends too.”

“Have you met him?”

“Of course. He telephones my father at home and I answer the phone.”

“Just like that.” He smiled.

“Yes, it’s nothing. Once, years ago, when I was in primary school, he phoned and when I answered I said “hello’ in a very English way.” I held an imaginary receiver in my ear, mimicked myself saying, “Hello, 44959.” I liked the way Anwar was watching me, the amusement in his eyes. “Then,” I continued, “the President got angry and he said, ‘speak properly, girl! Speak to me in Arabic”.”

Anwar burst out laughing. I was pleased that I had made him laugh.

“I like talking to you,” he said, slowly.

“Why?” That was the way to hear nice things. Ask why.

Years later, when I looked back, trying to remember the signs of hidden tension, looking behind the serenity, I think of the fights that I took for granted. The smell of dust and sewers fought against the smell of jasmine and guava and neither side won. The Blue Nile poured from the Highlands of Ethiopia and the Sahara encroached but neither was able to conquer the other. Omar wanted to leave. All the time Omar wanted to leave and I, his twin, wanted to stay.

“Why Samir and not me?” he asked Baba as we ate lunch. We ate from china and silver. We wiped our mouths with napkins that were washed and ironed every day.

“Because Samir didn’t get good enough grades,” Mama said. She had just come back from the hairdresser and her hair curled over her shoulder. I could smell her hairspray and cigarettes. I wished I were as glamorous as her, open and generous, always saying the right things, laughing at the right time. One day I would be.

‘so, is it fair,” I said, in support of Omar, “that the one who gets the poor grades gets to go abroad and the one who gets the good grades stays here?” Samir was our cousin, the son of Uncle Saleh, Mama’s brother. Samir was now in Atlantic College in Wales doing the IB, which was like A levels.

“You too?” Baba glared at me.

“No, I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to stay here with you.” I smiled at Mama and she smiled back. We were too close for me to leave her and go study abroad.

“Najwa is very patriotic,” Omar said sarcastically.

“As you should be,” said Baba.

“Eat and argue later,” said Mama but they ignored her.

“I want to go to London. I hate studying here.” Omar meant it. I could tell from his voice that he meant it.

“It’s good for you,” Baba said. “Roughen you up a bit. All this private schooling you’ve had has spoilt you. In university you’re seeing how the other side lives. You’ll understand the reality of your country and the kind of work environment you’ll be facing one day. When I was your age “”

Omar groaned. I began to fear a scene. I swallowed, afraid of Baba shouting and Omar storming out of the house. I would have to spend the rest of the day phoning round searching for him.

I stood alone at the bottom of the garden. My admirer passed by on his bicycle. His clothes were awful and his haircut was terrible. It wasn’t flattering to be admired by someone like him. I felt the familiar anger rise in me. But it was fun to be angry with him. I frowned at him, knowing well that any response would only encourage him. He grinned hopefully and pedalled away. I actually knew nothing about him.

“Come with me, Najwa”, Mama said. She was wearing her plain blue tobe and her black high-heeled sandals. They made a tapping noise on the marble of the front terrace. She carried a plastic bag full of lollipops and sweets.

Musa, the driver, came round with the car, gravel churning in the stillness of the afternoon. He opened the car door for her and went to bring out from the house more plastic bags bulging with old clothes and two pails of homemade biscuits. I recognized Omar’s old Coca-Cola T-shirt and a pink dress that I’d stopped wearing because it was out of fashion.

“Where are you going?” I guessed from Mama’s subdued clothes that it wasn’t anywhere fun.

“Cheshire Home,” she said, getting into the back of car. She said “Cheshire Home” gaily as if it were a treat. Only Mama could do that.

I hesitated a little. The thin twisted limbs of the children disturbed me and I preferred it when she took me to the school for the deaf. There the children, though they could not speak properly, were always running about carefree, with sharp intelligent eyes taking in what they couldn’t hear.

But I got in the car next to her and, when Musa started the car, she opened her bag and gave me a spearmint gum.

“If you could see the orphanage your Aunt took me to yesterday!” she said. “I”n comparison Cheshire is Paradise. Dirty, dirty, you wouldn’t believe it.”

I wrinkled my nose in disgust. I was relieved they had gone in the morning when I was in university and so had not been able to drag me along.

“And they have nothing,” she went on. “But is this an excuse not to keep the children clean?”
She did not expect a reply from me. Musa was smiling and nodding in the driver’s seat as if she was talking to him. That’s how she was. That’s how she talked. There were times when she was animated and other times when she would be low and quiet. And it was strange that often at parties and weddings she would be sober, preoccupied, yet in crises she had the strength to rise to whatever the situation demanded. I knew, listening to her talk about the orphanage, that she was not going to let it rest. She would pull every string, harass my father and harass His Excellency himself until she got what she wanted.

Cheshire Home was cool and shady, in a nice part of town with bungalows and old green gardens. I envied my mother’s ease, how she swept in with her bag of sweets and her biscuits, with Musa walking behind her carrying the rest of the things. The nurse, Salma, welcomed her like an old friend. Salma was very tall and dark, with high cheekbones and white dazzling teeth. Her drab white uniform did not hide her lovely figure: she looked dignified, with crinkles of white in her hair. “Congratulations,” she said to me, “you got into university.” She had not seen me for a long time.

“You keep this place very clean.” Mama started to praise Salma.

“Oh, Cheshire was even better in the past.”

“I know. But it’s still good. I went to this orphanage yesterday and it was dirty, dirty, you won’t believe it.”

“Which one was that?”

The room was large with a blackboard to one side, a few child-sized desks and stools. Cots lined the wall and a few balls and toys were scattered here and there. They looked familiar – maybe Mama had brought some of them in an earlier visit. There were a few posters on the wall about the importance of immunization, and a frightening picture of a baby with smallpox. Salma brought Mama and I chairs but she sat on one of the children’s stools. The children clambered towards us in zimmers and some dragged themselves on the floor. One Southern boy was very fast, able to move around the room freely with his arms and one leg.

“One by one and I give you your lollipops,” said Mama. A faint attempt at forming a queue was abandoned in a confused flurry of outstretched hands. Mama gave them a lollipop each.
“John!” Salma called to the Southern boy. ‘stop this roaming around and come and get a lollipop.”

He casually heaved himself towards us, grinning, his eyes bright.

“What colour would you like?” Mama asked him.

‘red.” His eyes darted here and there, like he was scanning everything or like he was thinking of something else.

“Here. A red one for you,” Mama said. “The last red one, all the rest are yellow.”

He took the lollipop and started to unwrap it. “Is this your car outside?” he asked.

“Yes,” Mama replied.

“What’s it to you!” Salma scolded him.

He ignored her and kept looking straight at Mama, “What kind of car is it?”

‘mercedes,” Mama smiled.

He nodded and sucked his lollipop. “I’m going to drive a big lorry.”

“Look at this silly boy,” Salma laughed, “How are you going to drive?”

“I will,” he said.

“With one leg?” Salma raised her eyebrows, sarcastic, amused.

Something changed in him, the look in his eyes. Salma went on, “You need two legs to drive a car.” He pivoted and dragged himself away.

“There are special cars in Europe,” I said, “for people without ” for disabled people.” It was the first time I had spoken since we arrived; my voice sounded stupid, everyone ignored me.

Suddenly John overturned a desk, dragged a stool round the room banging everything with it.
‘stop it, John, stop being rowdy!” Salma yelled.

He ignored her. He pushed the stool straight across the room. If it hadn’t collided with another stool, it would have hit Salma straight on.

“I’m going to call the the police.” Salma stood up. “They’ll come and beat you up.”

He must have believed her for he stopped and became very still. He leaned against the wall. His leg was sticking out at an awkward angle, his head against the wall, lollipop in his mouth. Suddenly still.

In the silence we heard her weeping. She might have been eleven or even twelve; she was very thin, with callipers on both legs and a pink dress that was too small for her. How would she get married, how would she work ” ? I must not ask these things, Mama always said, there is no point thinking these things, we just have to keep visiting.

“Why is she crying?” Mama asked Salma.

“I don’t know.”

“Come and have a lollipop.” Mama called out to the girl but the girl continued to cry.

“Get up now and come and have a lollipop,” Salma shouted at the girl.

“Leave her, Salma. In her own time.” When the girl didn’t move, Mama walked over to her and gave her sweets, patted her dishevelled hair. It didn’t make any difference. She remained whimpering, with the sweets on her lap, until the end of our visit. Only when we were getting up to go did I see her quieten and start to unwrap the lollipop. Hunched over, she squinted, mucus dribbling from her nose over her mouth. It was a struggle for her to unwrap the lollipop, aim it at her mouth. I had thought that her legs were the problem but there was something wrong with her hands too.

Copyright ” 2005 by Leila Aboulela. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.

Reading Group Guide

Readers’ Guide: MINARET by Leila Aboulela

1. What was Najwa’s life like in Khartoum? Her family? How were her parents’ origins different? Does anything disturb the idyll of her early years at home or abroad? What is the irony of her being exiled to London? How does St. John’s Wood trigger her memories of what once was? “The past tugs but it is not possessions that I miss. . . . Wish that not so many doors have closed in my face; the doors of taxis and education, beauty salons, travel agents to take me on Hajj” (p. 2).

2. Were there intimations of a future spiritual side to Najwa, even in Khartoum? Her family is not observant, after all. “Our house was a house where only the servants prayed” (p. 95). And yet, one night when Najwa returns with Omar, “the sound of the azan, the words and the way the words sounded went inside me . . .

passed through the fun I had had at the disco and it went to a place I didn’t know existed. A hollow place. A darkness that would suck me in and finish me. . . . From far away, I could hear another mosque echoing the words, tapping at the sluggishness in me, nudging at a hidden numbness, like when my feet went to sleep and I touched them” (p. 31). Discuss this nudging, as she calls it. Does Najwa take time off from her life as a child of privilege to pursue religious ideas? “As for me I dreamt dreams shaped by pop songs and American films’ (p. 35). Are there ways she sets herself apart from the pop culture and frivolity?

3. Even though she does not pray in Khartoum, how does Najwa feel drawn to the aesthetics of the observant girls? “All the girls wore white tobes in the mornings and coloured ones in the evening. . . . I gazed at all the tobes of the girls, the spread of colours, stirred by the occasional gust of wind. And when they bowed down there was the fall of polyester on the grass’ (p. 43). Do you think this kind of sideways attraction to ritual and costume happens in other religions?

4. “Arab society is hypocritical . . . with double standards for men and women,” says Anwar (p. 175). Is that idea borne out in this book? Are there signs of hope for something different in any of the characters? Does education seem to be a path to reform? How about working at a serious career?

5. How well does Najwa understand her father as a person . . . and politician? How does she–or any daughter–balance her love and gratitude against a growing awareness of a father’s frailties? Does Omar’s self-indulgence reflect his father’s behavior?

6. Does Omar’s self-destructive path appear inevitable even from his early days? Do you think he evolves in any way? How does Tamer serve as a foil to Omar’s character? As his twin, Najwa follows a long pattern of worry and loyalty even though Omar tells her not to visit him in prison because it upsets her. “He has forgotten the fusion of duty, love and need. It is impossible for me not to visit him” (p. 194). Is this the essential Najwa? Is this a universal fusion or more particularly Muslim?

7. Changes in identity mark this book. Can you think of examples? For instance, when Najwa becomes a servant, she recalls ruefully how they had all treated servants in Khartoum as invisible people. Both Tamer and Najwa, eventually, find in London that they feel less Sudanese than just Muslim. How does their experience open a window into the lives of other Muslim immigrants? Tamer says at one point, “What bugs me . . . is that unless you’re political, people think you’re not a strong Muslim” (p. 117). What is Tamer’s idea of himself? His mother, Doctor Zeinab, said, “At times I worried that he was spending too much time at the mosque. Maybe, I thought, a terrorist group would mess up his mind and recruit him” (p. 264). Tamer’s identity is in flux, but what do you think saves him from such trouble at the mosque?

8. What do we learn about the London outside Najwa’s family and that of her employer? And what of the non-Muslim world? Does she seem to intersect that outside world? What is her initiation on the bus: “I start to recite Say: I seek refuge in the Lord of Daybreak. . . . I look up at the bus driver’s face in the mirror. His eyes flicker and he looks away. I stare out of the window but I see my reflection staring back at me” (p. 80)? How is what happens next a microcosm of racism and terrorism? Najwa notices of Tamer, “I sense the slight unease he inspires in the people around us. I turn and look at him through their eyes. Tall, young, Arab-looking, dark eyes and the beard, just like a terrorist” (p. 100). How does our awareness of terrorism in London and elsewhere influence our reading of the book–which is after all not about overt violence?

9. How does being in London give these characters a new freedom? Think of Najwa. “It wouldn’t be done in Khartoum for a woman to be alone in a restaurant. “I’m in London,” I told myself, “I can do what I like, no one can see me.” Fascinating. I could order a glass of wine. Who would stop me or even look surprised?” (p. 128). How did this new alleged freedom doom Omar?

10. How strong is the power of the past in the story? At one point, Najwa envies Shahinaz who, even with children, plans to go back to school for a degree. “I am touched by her life, how it moves forward. . . . I circle back, I regress; the past doesn’t let go. It might as well be a malfunction, a scene repeating itself, a scratched vinyl record, a stutter” (p. 216). Is this your sense of Najwa’s life?

11. “It was becoming clear that I had come down in the world” is a sentence that recurs several times in Najwa’s story. How many ways does she mean it? (See page 239.) When does she feel she has hit bottom? What is the result?

12. Describe Najwa’s ambivalence about taking on the outward signs of Islam, such as headscarves. In what ways is she comforted? What are her regrets? What are Anwar’s reactions? How does Najwa take the beauty magazine language of “exfoliation, clarifying, deep-pore cleanse” (p. 247) into her new life? Is her faith indeed a liberation?

13. How do the Muslim characters differ in their practice and attitudes to Islam? How does this affect their interaction and views of one another? Do you think this is the same in other religions? Tamer complains about Lamya: ” I don’t approve of her. She hardly prays. She doesn’t wear hijab. It’s wrong” (p. 115). When Anwar passes by a group of Arab women covered from head to toes, he makes a face and says, “It’s disgusting” (p. 167). Is Najwa a mediator between these opposing views? Is she a mediator between Tamer and his family? To what extent is her response to Doctor Zeinab–”I moved to sit beside her, to put my arm around her shoulder” (p. 263)–a sign of compassion?

14. What kinds of resolution has Najwa achieved by the end? What have been her sacrifices? What are her rewards? How deep do you think will become her immersion in Islam? Does she have real options?

Suggestions for further reading:


Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys; Second-Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta; In the Eye of the Sun by Ahdaf Soueif


Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Saleh; Brick Lane by Monica Ali; Only in London by Hanan Al-Shaykh