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Leila Aboulela's 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 ...
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Minaret: A Novel

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Leila Aboulela's 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, 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.
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Editorial Reviews

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Current events have opened the eyes of many Americans to the Muslim world, and fascinating novels featuring Muslim characters are increasingly gaining attention. But few are as effective as Minaret, a stark yet singing tale of how politics and religion play havoc with individual lives.

"I've come down in the world," declares Najwa, a Sudanese woman living in London, and readers soon realize how true this is. Once the educated daughter of a Sudanese official with hopes of marrying well, her fortunes change overnight when her country's government is overthrown. In exile, struggling to provide for herself, Najwa eventually takes a job as a housekeeper for another Muslim family. But as she becomes increasingly attracted to her employer's younger brother, her newfound world threatens to spin out of control.

Aboulela, a Sudanese woman who has lived in Britain, reveals a world where expectations and dreams are instantly diminished, if not extinguished completely. Destinies change with the rise and fall of political rivalries and individual identity holds little meaning. Najwa, her family, and the Muslims she meets in London all seem doomed to frustrated, confined, or at best, mildly contented lives. But perhaps most compelling in this first novel is the sanctuary that Islam provides for immigrants who have been stripped of their ambitions, with little hope for the future. (Holiday 2005 Selection)
Carolyn See
This is not particularly a "Sudanese" novel. Minaret addresses immigration, alienation, the fierce stripping of all our defenses of body and soul. In this melancholy tale told in a purposefully minor chord, Aboulela reminds us of the human heartbreak that adventuring governments bring down on their citizens, and how religion may offer those orphans of the storm an alternate, if sometimes jerry-built, family.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Aboulela's U.S. debut is written in the voice of Najwa, an upper-class Sudanese woman, and covers, episodically, 20 years of her life. A Khartoum teen, Najwa flees to London with her mother and brother when the coup of 1985 leads to her father's arrest and execution. With her mother soon dead and her brother in jail on drug charges, Najwa attempts to negotiate work, love and the ways they get twisted around emigr politics-and religion. An affair begun in Khartoum with devout, politically engaged, working-class fellow emigre Anwar is threaded in with a later one with Tamer, the contentiously devout, college-age son of the family for which Najwa works as a nanny when in her 30s. The denouements of the two relationships, though separated by more than 10 years, come one after the other; both lead, painfully, to a deepening of Najwa's religious faith. Aboulela was raised in Khartoum and now divides her time between Dubai and Aberdeen, Scotland; a novel (The Translator) and short story collection (Colored Lights) were previously published in the U.K. Aside from some stilted dialogue, she draws Najwa's odyssey of exile, loss and found faith beautifully. Agent, Stephanie Cabot at William Morris. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Few of her London employers would be able to imagine their unassuming, devout Muslim maid as either secular or elite, yet two decades earlier Najwa was a wealthy college girl in Khartoum with few interests beyond marrying well and shopping for Western-style outfits. When her Sudanese life is destroyed forever by political upheaval, family tragedy, and forced exile in England, Najwa slips dispiritedly into a lower social class. She finds comfort in a renewed interest in religion. Her faith unexpectedly leads to an intense romance with a much younger man, shattering her quiet life in a denouement both surprising and amusing. Award-winning author Aboulela (The Translator) grew up in Khartoum and lives in Britain; both are depicted with a strong sense of place as the action shifts deftly between 1980s and present-day England. Clear and precise writing, sympathetic characters, and positive portrayals of Muslim religious practices lend this elegantly crafted novel broad appeal. Recommended for most fiction collections.-Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-The daughter of a wealthy government official, Najwa grows up pampered and carefree in western Sudan during the 1980s. With her 19th birthday, though, comes the overthrow of the president and arrest of her father by the new government. Najwa; her twin brother, Omar; and their mother flee to London. Within a few years, she is completely alone: her father has been executed, her mother succumbs to a fatal illness, and Omar is in prison for an assault conviction stemming from his drug abuse. Once a fashionable university student in Khartoum, the young woman makes ends meet as a nanny to a wealthy Arab family. Clothed in traditional Muslim hijab, she has suddenly become invisible within the city, much as the Ethiopian servants used to blend into the background in her parents' household. Yet even as she comes to terms with this anonymity, a spark develops between her and the younger brother of her employer, and she is forced to confront the chasm between servant and master. Aboulela offers a captivating glimpse into one woman's journey through the various strata of society. The protagonist's experiences give her a deeper reliance on her faith and help her to recognize the shallowness of the life she left behind. This is the author's first work to be published in the U.S. Students will appreciate the story not only for its insights into Muslim faith and traditions, but also for the ways her compellingly real characters relate to one another.-Kim Dare, Fairfax County Public Library System, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A prize-winning Sudanese writer depicts the appeal of Islam. Following her lyrical first novel (The Translator, 1999), Aboulela narrates a sadder, starker story of one girl's fall from privilege to a life of exile and menial work in London. In Khartoum, Najwa was "an average Sudanese girl, not too religious and not too unconventional" who fasted at Ramadan but also danced with her westernized friends at the American Club. But her indulged life of servants, travel and shopping ended with the coup that forced her to flee with her mother and brother Omar while her father was arrested for corruption and later executed. In London, the grieving family loses its way: Najwa's mother falls ill and dies; Omar turns to drugs and is sentenced to 15 years in prison for dealing. Najwa herself-always passive, her opinions dominated by the men around her-falls back under the spell of manipulative Anwar, a politically active boyfriend from Khartoum who is now an exile too. Sex with Anwar intensifies Najwa's feelings of guilt and alienation, and when he refuses to get engaged, she is cast further adrift. Invited to attend classes at the mosque, she discovers a refuge and "a wash, a purge, a restoration of innocence." Najwa adopts the headscarf and covers her body. Through the mosque, she finds work as a nanny in affluent Muslim households, in one of which she meets Tamer, a student who disapproves of his secular family and wants to study Islam, not business. A relationship develops, which ends with Najwa's dismissal. The family offers her money to stay away, which she accepts on one condition. This simple near-parable of a story successfully combines a tale of inexperience and cultural confusion with aninsider'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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802170149
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/9/2005
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 423,712
  • Product dimensions: 5.48 (w) x 8.26 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Read an Excerpt

I've come down in the world. I've slid to a place where the ceiling is low and there isn't much room to move. Most of the time I'm used to it. Most of the time I'm good. I accept my sentence and do not brood or look back. But sometimes a shift makes me remember. Routine is ruffled and a new start makes me suddenly conscious of what I've become, standing in a street covered with autumn leaves. The trees in the park across the road are scrubbed silver and brass. I look up and see the minaret of Regent's Park mosque visible above the trees. I have never seen it so early in the morning in this vulnerable light.

My breath comes out like smoke. I wait to ring the bell of a flat; the number is written down in my notebook. She said eight. I cough and worry that I will cough in front of my new employer, implant in her the anxiety that I will pass germs on to her child. But she might not be the anxious type. I do not know her yet. The only time I saw her was last week when she came to the mosque searching for a servant. She had an aura of haste and grooming about her. Her silk scarf was rolled casually around her head and neck and, when it slipped and showed her hair, she didn't bother to tug it back on again. A certain type of Arab woman-rich student, late twenties, making the most of the West . . . But I still did not know her. She was not herself when she spoke to me. Few people are themselves in mosques. They are subdued, taken over by a fragile, neglected part of themselves.

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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions from the Publisher
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?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2015

    I am really surprised how much I really was bored by this book.

    I am really surprised how much I really was bored by this book. I expected to like it as I am interested in other lifestyles but it just really was hard to enjoy for me. I found myself looking at the page numbers hoping to finish it asap. I really cant recommend it as it jumps around a lot and isn't interesting enough to keep my attention.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2006

    A healthy perspective of Muslim women.

    This book gives and honest and wholesome view into the life of Muslim women. It is a very interesting book that will teach the reader a lot of about Islam, Sudan, and the life of immigrants. I would highly recommend this book. I hope she writes more books in the near future. It was refreshing to read a healthy perspective of Muslim women.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 15, 2005

    Very Nice

    Minaret is a well written story that really gives meaning to life and family wheather one is Muslim, Chirstian or Jew. It is a story that makes one reaware of how truely special mothers and father are. It is a beautifully written book to show the goodness of a real muslims life and the humbleness it saturates. With few differences, it brings Christianity, Judiasm and Islam to one and shows that with good morals and values we all live with one goal, to please God.

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