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Leila Aboulela won the Caine Prize for African Writing for her début novel The Translator and her excellent short story collection Coloured Lights; spare, beautifully observed tales of individuals cut loose from their roots and set adrift in an alien and often hostile world. Her new novel Minaret is the story of Najma, whose pampered upbringing in the Sudanese capital Khartoum is abruptly ended when there is a military coup and her father, a senior official of the previous government, is tried and hanged on corruption charges. Najma, her brother Omar and her mother flee to London as refugees and, at first, their expatriate lifestyle continues to be privileged and largely unchanged.

Eventually, though, the money runs out and Najma’s brother turns to drug dealing and she herself gradually ‘comes down in the world’. Her dreams of university and a settled family shattered, Najma is forced to take ever more menial jobs, ending as a maid to a wealthy Egyptian family. Here she falls in love with the devout young son of the family and, imperceptibly at first, turns to Islam, looking for a meaning in a life she thought had been shipwrecked by fate.

Minaret is an understated reflection on belief and belonging and an authentic and moving portrait of a Muslim woman trying to make her way in modern British society. Quietly and without didacticism, it speaks of the pressures class and race exert, especially on those acutely unsure of their present place and future direction in a world increasingly intolerant of anyone outside the ever-narrowing mainstream.

New Internationalist issue 381 magazine cover This article is from the August 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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