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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

Leila Aboulela's The Translator: delicate and poignant

Annie Gagiano - 2007-10-31

Leila Aboulela: The Translator
Publisher: HEINEMANN
ISBN: 9780435912079
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 203
Click here to purchase your copy for Kalahari.net.

This delicate, poignant account of the growth of a difficult but irresistible love commitment – between a recently widowed Sudanese woman who works as a translator of Arabic texts and a twice-divorced Scottish man, an academic specialising in Middle-Eastern history and politics – is itself a brilliant work of translation. Not because it is presented as having been originally composed in Arabic, the narrator’s mother tongue, but because it interprets and vividly represents the experience of life in Britain – specifically, the city of Aberdeen in Scotland – as seen by a North African woman of the Muslim faith whose unintimidated and unprejudiced gaze reports on her own "season of migration to the north". Of course the latter expression evokes the title of Aboulela’s famous compatriot Tayeb Salih’s disconcerting, complex and challenging text, to which her own novel is in some ways a subtle response.

But Aboulela’s text is also an act of translation because of the quiet way in which it demonstrates a pure and strong Islamic faith – its sustaining power, clear guidance and inspiration directed to hope and fulfilment and the overcoming of barriers. At a time when Western representations of Islam as a fanatical, violence-inspiring belief system demeaning to women predominate in the English-language media, an African corrective to it such as Aboulela’s account (and those of other writers) is valuable, though the text is profoundly worthwhile in its own right rather than giving any impression of having an ideological purpose.

The theme of the novel might be said to be that of reconciliation – but it is reconciliation rather than compromise. In comparison with The Map of Love discussed in the previous African Library entry, Aboulela’s text shows a Western male figure converting to Islam primarily as a choice both of and for the faith, as he had not been a believer committed to the Christian faith in which he was brought up, but instead a rationalist doing intellectual battle for a fairer view (in the West) of Islamic political activity. As in the other novel, the decision to become a Muslim is also a tribute to the convert’s beloved, but here it occurs at a time when the new convert has little hope of (still) being accepted as the beloved’s spouse. Other contrasts are the primary timeframe (in Aboulela’s text, the recent present) and the fact that the protagonists of The Translator, despite the narrator’s profound affection for the city of Khartoum with all its vagaries, will live primarily in Scotland. The dialogue between the lovers in which this decision is reached occurs near the end of the novel:

"If I was someone else, someone strong and independent I would tell you now, I don’t want to go back with you, I don’t want to leave my family, I love my country too much." Her voice was teasing and sad.

He did not look taken aback. "You’re not someone else," he said.

A fly dived silently over the tray and perched on the rim of the empty glass. Sammar leaned and waved it away.

"It’s too late now," he said.

"I know." She had been given the chance and she had not been able to substitute her country for him, anything for him.

"Ours isn’t a religion of suffering," he said, "nor is it tied to a particular place." His words made her feel close to him, pulled in, closer than any time before because it was "ours" now, not hers alone. And because he understood. Not a religion of pathos, not a religion of redemption through sacrifice.

He said, "I found out at the end, that it didn’t have anything to do with how much I’ve read or how many facts I’ve learned about Islam. Knowledge is necessary, that’s true. But faith, it comes direct from Allah. (199)

Even though the considerably longer first part of the text is set in Scotland, The Translator is a distinctly (North) African text in that the narrator never relinquishes her sense of being Sudanese and a North African Muslim woman whose nostalgia for her country and her people both sorrows and sustains her even if eventually she will surrender her attachment to the native soil and to her family for the stronger pull of a second marriage, because this relationship will exist in the context of a shared faith.

The novel begins when the intensity of Sammar’s feeling for Rae Isles, the head of Department of Islamic Studies which employs her, has begun to manifest itself even in her dreams. Briefly, the trajectory of her life (much of which we learn about from Sammar’s conversations with Rae) runs as follows: she is born in the UK, where her father obtained his degree, and returns with her parents and younger brother to Khartoum. From the start she is fascinated by her charismatic older male cousin Tariq; she also loves his sister and their elegant mother, her aunt Mahasen. She attaches herself to their family and eventually, joyously, marries Tariq – with whom she moves to Scotland in order for Tariq to read medicine. They have a son, Amir, but when the boy is four, Tariq is killed in a car accident. Sammar returns to Khartoum with her son, who “would not let her sink like she wanted to sink, bent double with pain” (8). Bringing with her her young husband’s body in a casket, she begins to experience the bitterness that her beloved aunt and mother-in-law (Mahasen) now harbours against her. Intensely lonely, she considers a marriage proposal that would make her the third wife of a kindly, elderly family friend. Her aunt/mother-in-law denounces her so fiercely for even entertaining this idea that she decides to leave her son with this grandmother in Khartoum while she herself returns to Scotland and takes the translator’s post in Rae’s department.

Throughout the text Sammar is aware of Rae’s humane nature but rather austerely factual manner, his integrity and particularly his wide knowledge (as a non-Muslim) of the Middle East and the reasons for political choices by Muslim groups (which he attempts to explain on British television, gathering hate mail in the process). His interest in and evident caring for her becomes more evident, as do her feelings for him. It is because he recognises how much the opportunity to visit her family in the Sudan would mean to her that he encourages her to apply for a temporary posting as a translator in interviews with members of terrorist groups in Egypt, from where she could afford the flight to Khartoum.

Sammar’s concern for Rae is also sparked by her sense of his loneliness and need, his sensitive though strong nature and his occasional physical collapses (he is an asthmatic). We discover that these feelings in Sammar are a slow revival after the terrible period of emotional collapse following the death of her beloved husband and the subsequent break with family and homeland. During this period her single room is a “hospital” in which she skulks for days on end, unable to face the alien climate and the social isolation. One friendship that (also) helps her out of what she calls her “hibernation” is with one of Rae’s departmental secretaries – a feisty, married fellow-Muslim woman who soon senses (although she is very sceptical about) Sammar’s tender feelings for Rae (as a non-Muslim). Sammar and Rae begin to meet outside of working hours, in the city’s Winter Gardens – a glass-enclosed space evoking the climate and vegetation of her home country. Rae has never visited the Sudan, but spent years in Morocco, where he was briefly and unsuitably married to a half-Spanish woman, as always honourably obliging when this “girl-friend” fell pregnant. Their baby was stillborn; his first wife’s mother urged a divorce. His second marriage came later, to a compatriot – a definite “career woman” working for the UN, mainly Geneva-based. In this relationship, too (although they have a teenage daughter), location preferences feature importantly. Rae’s second wife resents the years they lived in Cairo for Rae to pursue his research, whereas he cannot bear the idea of relocating to Geneva where she is based, and a divorce after bitter quarrels is the inevitable outcome.

Although Sammar, using a culinary metaphor, refers to the time behind and its bitterness and sorrow as the “ugly froth” that must boil up from the depths of her mind as if to clear a soup, the fact that Rae, too, has this kind of past and that in exposing their vulnerabilities and losses to each other they are putting out emotional tendrils towards each other, slowly entwining, is made evident to the reader. Both are mature and both are people who conduct themselves with unusual candour – as well as being deeply appreciative of each other – and Aboulela shows convincingly that they are a well-matched couple who might, by means of sufficient courage, enterprise and determination, work out a way of overcoming the cultural and religious factors separating them at this stage.

As the time for Sammar’s intended temporary return to the Sudan comes closer, a sense of increasing urgency, a felt need to consolidate their relationship, builds up in both of them. Rae visits Sammar in her office and professes his love for her. The more daring step, however, is taken by Sammar, who begins to feel that she cannot bear to leave Rae; she goes to him and asks him to convert to Islam so that they can be married. Although he is not an unbeliever, he informs her honestly that he is an agnostic and is uncertain whether he can sincerely accept the Islamic faith. Having risked emotional humiliation and rejection (which she mistakenly and temporarily believes Rae’s words to convey), Sammar (seemingly) burns her boats by speaking her own explicit and cruel rejection of Rae – upon which, unbearably hurt, he tells her to go away.

It is on this note that Sammar returns to and relishes the familiar Sudanese surroundings and circumstances, withstanding the inconveniences of a very unevenly modernised city and in addition the emotional jabs that her aunt constantly directs at her. Sammar’s aunt eventually spews out her anguish-induced resentment at the loss of her only son by telling Sammar that she considers her responsible for Tariq’s death (a cruelly unjust belief, as the younger woman knows). But Sammar hears no word from Rae and has fitted herself back into the family home and life with her aunt, her son, her sister-in-law and the latter’s husband and four children, whom she helps to mother. Her brother (now married, but still childless) lives nearby. Visiting this brother soon after she was supposed to return to her position in Aberdeen, she writes two letters of resignation despite his disapproval. To him and many other Sudanese, including her aunt, it seems insane for Sammar to give up the opportunity of life in a more advanced society.

Eventually, after Sammar has spent almost a year in the Sudan, a letter arrives from a mutual friend of hers and Rae's, a Palestinian academic, informing Sammar that Rae had converted to Islam four months earlier and that if she is still willing to marry him, he wants to come to the Sudan for the marriage to be contracted there. Once again Sammar writes two letters, but they are letters of acceptance, not of resignation.

The intense conversations between Sammar and Rae upon and following his arrival are especially interesting and well achieved, for this is distinctly not a primarily "romantic" story. Rae acknowledges the difficult route he had to follow to get to the point of his conversion, sceptical as he had been and with the uncomfortable arrogance underlying his brave liberalism that he now acknowledges.

"What I regret most," he said, "is that I used to write things like 'Islam gives dignity to those who otherwise would not have dignity in their lives', as though I didn’t need dignity myself.” (200)

This beautifully composed text engages with anguishing and challenging issues of loss and drab grief, of transplants both geographical and spiritual – as much as emotional – and conveys a profound respect for both the main protagonists. It is a vivid and compelling evocation – a highly commendable achievement by its (at the time) young author, whose first novel-length text this was. In it, North Africa permeates the icy North in a gentle yet irresistible way and an honourable reconciliation is achieved. There is no need to be explicit about the profoundly symbolic resonances of this narrative, which every reader will sense.