The Translatorby Leila Aboulela
“Abouela has a talent for expressing the simple wonders of unbroken faith. Just as deftly, she uncovers the intricacies of how such faith can be challenged–suddenly, subtly.” – Kaiama L. Glover, The New York Times
From the author of the acclaimed Minaret comes Leila Aboulela’s debut novel, now being published in North America for the first time.
American readers were introduced to the award-winning Sudanese author Leila Aboulela with Minaret, a delicate tale of a privileged young African Muslim woman adjusting to her new life as a maid in London. Now, in The Translator, Aboulela’s first novel, we step back to her extraordinarily assured debut about a widowed Muslim mother living in Aberdeen who falls in love with a Scottish secular academic.
Sammar is a Sudanese widow working as an Arabic translator at a Scottish university. Since the sudden death of her husband, her young son has gone to live with family in Khartoum, leaving Sammar alone in cold, gray Aberdeen, grieving and isolated. But when she begins to translate for Rae, a Scottish Islamic scholar, the two develop a deep friendship that awakens in Sammar all the longing for life she has repressed. As Rae and Sammar fall in love, she knows they will have to address his lack of faith in all that Sammar holds sacred. An exquisitely crafted meditation on love, both human and divine, The Translator is ultimately the story of one woman’s courage to stay true to her beliefs, herself, and her newfound love.
“Aboulela’s lovely, brief story encompasses worlds of melancholy and gulfs between cultures… A miraculous ending… A strikingly poised, cherishable novel.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Abouela has a talent for expressing the simple wonders of unbroken faith. Just as deftly, she uncovers the intricacies of how such faith can be challenged–suddenly, subtly.” – Kaiama L. Glover, The New York Times
“With authentic detail and insight into both cultures, Aboulela painstakingly constructs a truly transformative denouement.” –Publishers Weekly
“Beautiful passages on Islam’s essential purity and poetry… A sensitive portrayal of love and faith.” –Kaiama L. Glover, The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)
“Aboulela’s refined descriptions reveal intense emotion with staggering restraint, our attention assured with her first words.” –Christine Thomas, Chicago Tribune
“Her writing is restrained and evocative, subtle and graceful.” –Jenn B. Stidham, Library Journal
“Above all, the book offers the uncluttered pleasure of a story that feels simultaneously reduced to its essence and full to the brim.” –Elsbeth Lindner, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Aboulela’s prose is amazing. She handles intense emotions in a contained yet powerful way, lending their expressions directness and originality, and skillfully capturing the discrete sensory impressions that compound to form a mood.” – San Francisco Chronicle
“A story of love and faith all the more moving for the restraint with which it is written.” –J. M. Coetzee
“A subtle investigation into the meaning of exile and home, doubt and faith, loss and love. Aboulela’s writing is always beautifully observed, her voice one of restrained lyricism: She is a writer of rare and original talent.” –Duncan McLean
“In Sammar . . . [Aboulela] has created a personification of Islam that is as genuine as it is complex. . . . 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. . . . Aboulela shows the rich possibilities of living in the West with different, non-Western ways of knowing and thinking.” –The Sunday Herald (Glasgow)
“Aboulela is a wonderfully poetic writer. . . . It is a pleasure to read a novel so full of feeling and yet so serene.” –The Guardian
“An enveloping story of the tentative possibilities between a man and a woman, and between faiths: two people, and perhaps people, between nations. It is an apt, resonant caution filled with love and poignant understanding of the world. It is exactly what fiction ought to be.” –Todd McEwen
“A lyrical journey about exile, loss, and love . . . poetry in motion.” –The Sunday Times (London)
Praise for Minaret:
“Harbors something remarkable beneath commonplace trappings . . . Lit up by a highly unusual sensibility and worldview, so rarefied and uncompromising that it is likely to throw the reader out of kilter . . . Her delicacy of touch is to be complimented.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“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. [An] affecting account of one bruised young woman’s search for wisdom and solace.” –Kirkus Reviews
Selected as one of The New York Times Book Review 100 Notable Books of the Year
But I say what comes to me
From my inner thoughts
Denying my eyes.
Abu Nuwas (757–814)
She dreamt that it rained and she could not go out to meet him as planned. She could not walk through the hostile water, risk blurring the ink on the pages he had asked her to translate. And the anxiety that she was keeping him waiting pervaded the dream, gave it an urgency that was astringent to grief. She was afraid of rain, afraid of the fog and the snow which came to this country, afraid of the wind even. At such times she would stay indoors and wait, watching from her window people doing what she couldn’t do: children walking to school through the swirling leaves, the elderly smashing ice on the pavement with their walking sticks. They were superhuman, giants who would not let the elements stand in their way.
Last year when the city had been dark with fog, she hid indoors for four days, eating her way through the last packet of pasta in the cupboard, drinking tea without milk. On the fifth day when the fog lifted she went out famished, rummaging the shops for food, dizzy with the effort.
But Sammar’s dream was wrong. It wasn’t raining when she woke that morning, a grey October sky, Scottish grey with mist from the North Sea. And she did go out to meet Rae Isles as planned, clutching her blue folder with the translation of Al-Nidaa’s manifesto.
The door to the Winter Gardens (an extended greenhouse in Duthie Park) was covered with signs. Sorry, no prams or pushchairs allowed, sorry, no dogs allowed, opening hours 9.30 till dusk. In this country everything was labelled, everything had a name. She had got used to the explicitness, all the signs and polite rules. It was 9.30 now and when they went inside there was only a gardener pushing a wheel-barrow along the wet cracked slabs that separated the plants. Tropical plants cramped in the damp warmth and orange fish in running water. Whistling birds flying indoors, the grey sky irrelevant above the glass ceiling.
Benches. White curved metal, each and every one bore a placard, In Loving Memory of this person or that. As if people must die so that others can sit in the Winter Gardens. People must die” Her invisible mark shifted, breathed its existence. It was hidden from Rae, like her hair and the skin on her arms, it could only be imagined. Four years ago this mark had crystallised. Grief had formed, taken shape, a diamond shape, its four angles stapled on to her forehead, each shoulder, the top of her stomach. She knew it was translucent, she knew that it held a mercurial liquid which flowed up and down slowly when she moved. The diamond shape of grief made sense to her: her forehead – that was where it hurt when she cried, that space behind her eyes; her shoulders – because they curled to carry her heart. And the angle at the top of her stomach – that was where the pain was.
So that she was somewhat prepared, now that the liquid in the diamond moved carefully like oil and was not surprised when Rae asked her about Tarig. ‘my aunt’s son,” she replied, “but it was not until I was seven that I met him. I was born here as you know and my parents and I did not go back home until I was seven.”
They were sitting on a bench in a room full of cacti. The cacti were like rows of aliens in shades of green, of different heights, standing still, listening. They were surrounded by sand for the room was meant to give the impression of a desert. The light was different too, airier, more yellow.
“Not until I was seven.” These were her words, the word “until” as if she still could not reconcile herself to those first seven years of life without him. In better times she used to reinvent the beginnings of her life. Make believe that she was born at home in Sudan, Africa’s largest land, in the Sisters’ Maternity Hospital, delivered by a nun dressed in white. She liked to imagine that Tarig was waiting for her outside the delivery room, holding his mother’s hand, impatient for her, a little fidgety. Perhaps she would have been given a different name had she been born in Khartoum, a more common one. A name suggested by her aunt, for she was a woman who had an opinion on all things. Sammar was the only Sammar at school and at college. When people talked about her they never needed to use her last name. ‘do you pronounce it like the season, summer?” Rae asked the first time she had met him. “Yes, but it does not have the same meaning.” And because he wanted to know more she said, “It means conversations with friends, late at night. It’s what the desert nomads liked to do, talk leisurely by the light of the moon, when it was no longer so hot and the day’s work was over.”
Rae knew the Sahara, knew that most Arabic names had familiar meanings. He was a Middle-East historian and a lecturer in Third World Politics. He had recently written a book called The Illusion of an Islamic Threat. When he appeared on TV or was quoted in a newspaper he was referred to as an Islamic expert, a label he disliked because, he told Sammar, there could be no such monolith. Sammar was the translator in Rae’s department. She worked on several projects at the same time, historical texts, newspaper articles in Arab newspapers, and now a political manifesto Rae had given her. Al-Nidaa were an extremist group in the south of Egypt. The document was handwritten, badly photocopied and full of spelling mistakes. It was stained with tea and what she guessed to be beans mashed with oil. Last night she had stayed up late transforming the Arabic rhetoric into English, imagining she could smell beans cooked in the way she had known long ago, with cumin and olive oil, all the time trying not to think too much about the meeting next day, not to make a big thing out of it.
Among the cacti, Rae had queried “Tariq?”, stressing the q. She answered, “Yes, it’s written with a qaf but we pronounce the qaf as a g back home.” He nodded, he knew the letters of the Arabic alphabet, he had lived in her part of the world. Rae looked like he could easily pass for a Turk or a Persian. He was dark enough. He had told her once that in Morocco he could walk as if disguised, none suspected he was Scottish as long as he did not speak and let his pronunciation give him away. Here with others, he looked to her to be out of place, not only because of his looks but his manners. The same manners which made her able to talk to him, made the world vivid for the first time in years. The last time she had met him she had gone home ill: eyelids heavy as coins, hammers beating her head, the smallest ray of light agony to her eyes. When she stumbled into unconsciousness and woke up feeling radiant, light, she thought she must have had something like an epileptic fit.
“Tarig’s mother, my aunt, is called Mahasen,” she went on, wondering which part of the narrative to soften, to omit. How much of the truth could he take, without a look of surprise crossing his eyes? She had never said anything that surprised him before. And she wanted it always to be like that. In this country, when she spoke to people, they seemed wary, on their guard as if any minute she would say something out of place, embarrassing. He was not like that. He seemed to understand, not in a modern, deliberately non-judgemental way but as if he was about to say, “This has happened to me too.”
When she boiled chicken, froth rose to the surface of the water and she removed it with a spoon. It was granulated dirt the colour of peanuts, scum from the chicken that was better not eaten. Inside Sammar there was froth like that, froth that could rise if she started to speak. Then he would see it and maybe go away, when what she wanted was for him to remove it so that she could be clear. It would be easy for him to make her clear, she thought, as easy as untying a ribbon.
Tell him, she told herself, tell him of Mahasen and Tarig and Hanan. Mother, son, daughter. Tell him how you shrugged off your own family and attached yourself to them, the three of them. Made a gift of yourself, a child to be moulded. Their house, where you imagined you would one day live, the empty square in front of it. When it rained, everything stood still and the square took the colour of the moon. Tarig’s bike, Tarig’s room, Tarig singing with imaginary microphones, imaginary guitars, imaginary drums. An obedient niece, letting Mahasen decide how you should dress, how you should fix your hair. You were happy with that, content, waiting for the day you would take her only son away from her. “Take care of Tarig,” she whispered in your ear when you said goodbye. And you brought him back to her shrouded in the belly of an airplane.
“My aunt is a strong woman,” Sammar said, “a leader really. She is looking after my son now. I haven’t seen them for four years.” She had given the child to Mahasen and it had not meant anything, nothing, as if he had not been once a piece of her, with her wherever she walked. She was unable to mother the child. The part of her that did the mothering had disappeared. Froth, ugly froth. She had said to her son, “I wish it was you instead. I hate you. I hate you.” In that same death-carrying airplane he had wanted to play, toddle up and down the aisles, all smiles, his father’s ease with strangers. He had wanted food, he was greedy for food. On her lap with the tray precarious before them, he had grabbed rolls of bread, smeared butter, poured the juice on her clothes. Full of life, they said of him, full of life. She pinched him hard when no one was looking. He kicked her back. In the bathroom she cleaned him while he wriggled, his hands reaching for the ashtray, the button that called the hostess. Stop it, stop it. The child would not let her be, would not let her sink like she wanted to sink, bend double with pain. He demanded her totally.
“Tarig was a student here,” she said. “We came here after we got married. He was a medical student and we lived near Foresterhill. On the day the car accident happened and he was taken to hospital, some of the doctors on duty there knew him. They were very good to me. They called the Ethnic Minority” ,” she stopped, “Worker or Coordinator,” she wasn’t sure what the woman’s title was. Rae shrugged, it didn’t matter. He wiped his face with the palm of his hand, down to his chin and up to press his fingers against his temples.
The coordinator was an energetic woman with curly hair. In the stark, white moments of disbelief, she took the roaming, exploring child, saddled him on her hips and bought him Maltesers from the snack machine. “This one is for you, Mama,” he said when he came back, teeth stained with melted brown. He lifted the sweet to her closed lips, made coaxing noises like the ones she made when she fed him. “No, not now, it is for you, all for you.” She could see the woman on the telephone, gesticulating with her hands. The child whined in anger, stamped his foot, pushed the chocolate against her lips. Against her will she bit into its hushed sweetness, honeycomb and tears. “That woman was the one who called the mosque and someone from there came to do’ to do the washing.”
A whole week passed before she got him under African soil. It had taken that long to arrange everything through the embassy in London: the quarantine, the flight. People helped her, took over. Strangers, women whom she kept calling by the wrong names, filled the flat, cooked for her and each other, watched the everwandering child so she could cry. They prayed, recited the Qur”an, spent the night on the couch and on the floor. They did not leave her alone, abandoned. She went between them dazed, thanking them, humbled by the awareness that they were stronger than her, more giving than her, though she thought of herself as more educated, better dressed. She covered her hair with Italian silk, her arms with tropical colours. She wanted to look as elegant as Benazir Bhutto, as mesmerising as the Afghan princess she had once seen on TV wearing hijab, the daughter of an exiled leader of the mujahideen. Now the presence of these women kept her sane, held her up. She went between them thanking them, humbled by the awareness that they were not doing this for her or for Tarig, but only because they believed it was the right thing to do.
Their children ran about, her son among them, delighted with the company, excited by the gathering of people. Poor orphan, not yet two, he can’t understand, the women said as he leapt past them with a toy car in each fist, trilling the names of his new friends. But it seemed to Sammar cruel and shocking that he would not stop or pause and that with the same undiminished zest he wanted to play and eat and be held so that he could sleep.
Tarig’s clothes clung wet with hers in the washing machine between the spin and dry cycle.
When they dried she put them with his other things in a black dustbin bag. Packing and giving things away. She filled black bag after black bag, an evacuation. Tearing letters, dropping magazines in the bin, a furious dismantling of the life they had lived, the home they made. Only Allah is eternal, only Allah is eternal. Photographs, books, towels, sheets. Strip and dump into a black bag. Temporary, this life is temporary, fleeting. Why is this lesson so hard to learn? Pens, boots, a torchlight, a comb. The index cards he used for studying. Could you please take these bags to the mosque, someone might need something” A pair of shoes, Tarig’s coat that was nearly new. The tape recorder, the little rug” Strip, give away, pack. We’re going home, we’re finished here, we’re going to Africa’s sand, to dissolve in Africa’s sand.
How did she bring herself to phone Mahasen? To be the bearer of the worst news? And Mahasen’s phone was not working. It had to be the neighbour’s and Mahasen running, breathless, a tobe flung over her nightdress, one roller perched at the top of her head like a purple crest. She was always like that at home, with this one purple roller in her hair. She even slept with it so that when she went out a fringe would peep becomingly from under her tobe.
“I love your mother more than you,” she had teased him, hugging her aunt, kissing her cheeks, putting her head on her shoulder. “Go away, Tarig, we want to talk,” she would say laughing. “We are going to gossip about you,” Mahasen would say to him, “in little pieces.” The word for “gossip” meant cutting, too.
This was the Mahasen who now frowned when mentioning Sammar’s name. “That idiot girl.”
Readers’ Guide: The Translator, by Leila Aboulela
1. Did you find your understanding of Islam deepened by reading The Translator? Is Sammar’s faith a consistently driving force? When does she have to work to sustain it? Have you observed people of deep faith in other religions?
2. What is it about Islam that attracts Western converts? How difficult is it to become a Muslim? (Become an Orthodox Jew is a long, rigorous process that can take years.)
3. Does Sammar understand the world of Scotland? How much does she want to? To what degree is she tempted to assimilate? How do you think she will eventually raise her child? What will be his own chances of integration if he is raised as a strict Muslim? When Sammar’s aunt speaks of Amir’s chances of success in Europe, what is she talking about?
4. What is at the heart of the conflict between Sammar and her aunt, Mahasen? Is it competition? Chemistry? Conflict of values? “You should go back to England, work there and send us things,” says Mahasen (p. 169).
5. How do you judge Sammar as a mother? Do you sympathize with her protracted breakdown from grief? Is it sheer will to survive that keeps her in Scotland for four years? Does she need all her strength to do her translation work and forge a new independent self? How would you describe the eventual reunion of mother and child? How has the scene reversed as Sammar tries a second time to recover from loss, living in Sudan away from Rae? Discuss Sammar’s earlier fantasies about mothering Mhairi, Rae’s daughter (who, like Amir, is left to the kindness of relatives not his parents). In Sudan, how does Sammar find meaning in caring for other children? Does her tentative relationship with Amir bode well for the future?
6. Cold, rain, fog, and snow permeate Sammar’s Scottish life. How effective is the weather as a metaphor for Sammar’s interior state? Is the obverse true in Sudan? Does she feel healed by the sun and colors of Africa? How does such a climate determine life there? Think of sleeping outdoors, eating outside, open-air markets, easy visiting back and forth. Talk about the relative merits of life in both countries. What is meant by “Loneliness is Europe’s malaria” (p. 103) and ‘deprivation and abundance, side by side like a miracle” (p. 161)? Are these phrases, these paradoxes applicable to both countries?
7. Despite his interest in Arabic and the African continent, Rae’s own experience is far from salutary. On a boat ride shared with returning itinerant Moroccan workers, Rae spies North Africa. “They all looked in the same direction, at the lights and shadows of Tangiers under the low African sky. Rae stood with them, more in awe, more wretched than they. He felt stale and unclean, with his shirt torn and his hair covered in dust. His nose and chest burnt from the smell of the diesel. A pattern was set from that first time. In years to come every arrival to Africa was similarly accompanied by loss or pain, a blow to his pride. Baggage disappearing, nights spent in quarantine, stolen travellers’ cheques. As if from him the continent demanded a forfeit, a repayment of debts from the ghosts of the past” (p. 55). Are you surprised that Aboulela can make this imaginative leap and empathize with a European’s desolate experience in Africa? Are we able to make that kind of leap to understand the reactions of travelers and immigrants when they arrive in America, particularly since September 11, 2001?
8. Even today, would you say that, in African countries, progress in establishing order, civil liberties, and dependable infrastructure is fluctuating at best? Do you think it is poverty or disease or warring tribes and religions or venality of leaders that destroy stability? What is the role of individuals or nations in alleviating the suffering?
9. At one point Rae says about Scotland, “In this secular society, the speculation is that God is out playing golf. . . . Mankind is self-sufficient” (p. 42). What is the philosophical tradition Rae is alluding to?
10. When Sammar talks of changes in her Sudanese world, such as people no longer sleeping outside, no longer losing themselves in the sky and taking comfort, it is an elegy to the past in several ways. Rae responds, “This is the enemy, what is irreversible, what has already reached the farthest of places. There is no going back. They can bomb bus-loads of tourists, burn the American flag, but they are not shooting the enemy. It is already with them, inside them, what makes them resentful, defensive, what makes them no longer confident of their vision of the world” (p. 45). If this can be seen as a picture of Muslim extremists, do you have any hope that they or their victims can be saved? We think of terrorists as single-minded. How does Rae’s comment expand our view of them?
11. Rae says at the end of the book, “It’s a lonely thing . . . you can’t avoid it. . . . The spiritual path. Everyone is on his own in this’ (p. 202). Do you agree? Is this paradoxical for Rae? Has he become a Muslim just to please and grow closer to Sammar? Or is it a logical outgrowth of his long study of Arabic? Does logic even pertain?
12. Earlier, Yasmin rejects Rae’s interest in Islam as merely academic: ” “It’s a modern thing. Something to do with not being Eurocentric. They take what each culture says about itself. So they could study all sorts of sacred texts and be detached. They could have their own religious views or be atheists.” . . . Sammar put the iron down. Never in her life had anyone she cared about been an unbeliever” (pp. 93–94). Is it her deep concern for Rae’s spiritual salvation that makes her want him to convert? If he had his own deep faith, would that have assuaged her? Or is it really for herself –and their future–that she prays for him to accept Allah? See page 175 for her own analysis.
13. “Go home and maybe you’ll meet someone normal, someone Sudanese like yourself. Mixed couples just don’t look right, they irritate everyone,” says Yasmin to Sammar (p. 93). Is this conventional wisdom? Is it an idea that is being subverted–or being exacerbated–by increasing immigration in Europe and the United States? What would you counsel your friend or your child?
14. What connects Rae and Sammar? Rae says often that Sammar makes him feel safe. What is it about Sammar that gives comfort and solidity to Rae? He, in turn, draws Sammar into his past experiences, makes her feel “connected to his stories in some way” (p. 66). Is this process particularly important to these two linguists? At one point, ‘sammar found herself nostalgic for her old job, the work itself, moulding Arabic into English, trying to be transparent like a pane of glass not obscuring the meaning of any word” (p. 165). Will her talents as a translator make her a better lover or wife? What is implied about the larger possibility of people’s reaching across cultures by learning others’ languages?
15. Would you say Sammur presents a face to the world as someone contained, disciplined, resigned? When, if ever, does she express anger? What about?
16. Dreams occur throughout The Translator. Talk about some of them. Do they represent alternate realities or some of the possibilities that infuse the novel? There are “the “ifs’ like snakes coiling, never still” (p. 116). Clearly Rae and Sammar are on voyages toward resolving their own internal dilemmas. How? Is there also some alternate reality, some possibility, some hope that Europeans and Africans, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, might understand each other better?
17. How does Sammar’s culture shock help us to see Western life through Muslim eyes? “Things that jarred–an earring on a man’s earlobe, a woman walking a dog big enough to swallow the infant she was at the same time pushing in a pram, the huge billboards on the roads: Wonderbra, cigarette ads that told people to smoke and not smoke at the same time, the Ministry of Sin nightclub housed in a former church” (p. 70). Eventually, Sammar grows inured to these discordances. Do we, too, grow numb to absurdities in our culture? Are they too numerous to react to anymore? Give examples.
18. Although Sammar is often isolated in Scotland, and she regularly prays alone, she also seeks out other Muslims for prayer in what serves as the university mosque, one room in an old building. “There was more reward praying in a group than praying alone. When she prayed with others, she found it easier to concentrate, her heart held steady by those who had faith like her. . . . All praise belongs to Allah, Lord of all the worlds, the Compassionate, the Merciful . . . and the certainty of the words brought unexpected tears, something deeper than happiness, all the splinters inside her coming together” (p. 74). What is the unity, the cohesion meant by “all the splinters coming together”? Is it this union with a single, preeminent God that is sought by Christians and Jews, as well?
19. Are Rae’s theories about “the link between Islam and anti-colonialism” (p. 109) persuasive? (See pages 108–110.) Do his studies help us approach an understanding of today’s conflicts in the world?
Suggestions for further reading:
Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih; Admiring Silence by Abdulrazak Gurnah; In the Eye of the Sun by Ahdaf Soueif