Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela

The first book I have read by Leila Aboulela, an author I’ve wanted to read for some time, being someone who grew up in one culture and has experienced life in another, of the variety that interests me, the opposite of the colonial visitor.

There was a time when literary insights into other cultures came predominantly from male explorers of anglo-saxon cultures, now we are increasingly able to read stories of how it is to be a woman coming from an African or Eastern culture or country, living in the West, a blend of the richness in perspective of what they bring and the fresh insights of their encounter with the place and people they have arrived to be among.

Bird Summons was all the better, for telling a tale of three women. They share in common that they belong to the Arabic Speaking Muslim Women’s Group, although they’ve each grown up in different countries. Within their group and from that element they have in common, they challenge and learn from each other.

We witness how their attitudes shift and change as they transform, within this environment they’ve adapted to. One can not live elsewhere and stay fixed in the past and even when one adapts to a new present, it is necessary to continue changing and moving forward, no matter what challenges us from the outside.

Salma has organised a trip for the members of the group to visit the remote site of the grave of Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first British woman to perform the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, to educate themselves about the history of Islam in Britain, however rumours of its defacement cause some to have doubts, whittling their numbers to just three.

“The attempt of the women to visit Lady Evelyn’s grave is a way of connecting more closely to Britain. Because Lady Evelyn was a Muslim like them, they see her as one of them and it gives them a sense of belonging.

She was also more independent than they are, stronger, more confident, more able. She was a Scottish aristocrat and therefore vastly more entitled than they would ever be. She represents the figure of a leader which is something that they need.” Leila Aboulela

Sometimes adversity offers a gift and rather than an overnight visit, they decide to stay a week at the loch, a resort on the grounds of a converted monastery, from where they can leisurely make their way to the grave.

Each of the three women has a pressing life issue that over the week consumes them, that the other women become aware of, leading them to have a strange, hallucinatory, spiritual experience. As their journey unfolds, they explore how faith, family and culture determine their lives, decisions and futures.

As they travel we get to know their characters, their lives, how attached they are to the place they now call home and the pressures and influences on them that come from the cultures they have left behind. They live at the intersection of a past and present, of who they were and who they are becoming. This holiday will be transformational for all three of them.

“Salma, Moni and Iman are weighed down by their egos, though it might not be apparent to them at first. Like most of us, they see themselves as good people, justified in the positions and decisions they have taken.” Leila Aboulela

Salma was trained as a Doctor in Egypt, leaving her fiance, for David, a British convert who would bring her to Scotland, something her family approved of and she was excited to do, despite being unable to practice her profession. Though successful in her current job as a massage therapist, when Amir starts messaging her, she begins imagining the life she might have had, obsessively checking and replying to the messages.

Moni left a high flying career, her life now revolves around caring for her disabled son Adam, consuming her and pushing her away from her husband who wants them to join him in Saudi Arabia, something Moni rejects because of how she believes Adam will  be perceived, an outcast.

Iman is young, beautiful, unlucky in love and a poor judge of character, the men she has married were stunned by her beauty but possessive.

Surrounded by adulation and comfort, like a pet, she neither bristled nor rebelled. She did, though, see herself growing up, becoming more independent.

Hoopoe bird Bird Summons Leila Aboulela

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

And then there is the Hoopoe. The wonderful bird that’ll take some readers on a side journey to find out more. The bird comes to Iman in a dream, recounting fable-like stories.

It spoke a language that she could understand.  It knew her from long ago, it had travelled with her all those miles, never left her side, was always there but only here in this special place, could it make  itself known.

It is one of only three birds mentioned in the Quran, and symbolises tapping into ancient wisdom, probing one’s inner questions for the answers being sought.

The appearance of the Hoopoe late in the novel heralds a period of magic realism, that reminds me of the experience of reading The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. It comes as a surprise when the woman’s reality shifts, as they shape-shift and are tested within the experience. It is disconcerting for the reader as we too experience the women’s confusion, but I recognise it as part of the cultural experience, of an aspect of traditional storytelling bringing a mythical message-carrying bird into contemporary social relevance.

“The Hoopoe in classical Sufi literature is the figure of the spiritual/religious teacher who imparts wisdom and guidance. However, the Hoopoe’s powers are limited. The women must make their own choices.”

It is a wonderful book of three international women, their journey, which they believe to be a pilgrimage to an important site, which becomes an inner voyage of transformation.

Highly Recommended.

About the Author

Leila Aboulela was born in Cairo and brought up in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. She lived for some years in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Her novels include The Translator (1999), Minaret (2005) and Lyrics Alley (2010) all of which were longlisted for the Orange Prize — and The Kindness of Enemies (2015). Lyrics Alley also won Novel of the Year at the Scottish Book Awards and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

“When I write I experience relief and satisfaction that what occupies my mind, what fascinates and disturbs me, is made legitimate by the shape and tension of a story. I want to show the psychology, the state of mind and the emotions of a person who has faith. I am interested in going deep, not just looking at ‘Muslim’ as a cultural or political identity but something close to the centre, something that transcends but doesn’t deny gender, nationality, class and race. I write fiction that reflects Islamic logic; fictional worlds where cause and effect are governed by Muslim rationale. However, my characters do not necessarily behave as ‘good’ Muslims; they are not ideals or role models. They are, as I see them to be, flawed characters trying to practise their faith or make sense of God’s will, in difficult circumstances.”

Further Reading

the punch magazine: interview: Leila Aboulela, Elsewhere, Love

13 thoughts on “Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela

  1. This sounds excellent, Claire. I agree with you about reading stories of people whose lives cross cultures, outwith the traditional west-to-east direction. This has gone straight on my TBR list.

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  2. This sounds just like the kind of book I like to read. I’ve added it to my wishlist at Goodreads. (I’m resisting buying it for the Kindle because I tend to forget to read books that I have on my Kindle. But our bookshops aren’t taking orders for books published overseas because of the difficulty of delivery while airline flights are so compromised. I know I shouldn’t complain about this, but still…

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    • Oh, that’s so sad for the book industry and for readers and even authors, reading outside what is published in one’s own country is one of life’s previous gifts for a reader like me. I hope you have sufficient on your shelves to survive the literary drought. Fortunately you are well versed in finding the literary hems within your country.

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      • You’re right about that. I feel fairly confident that most Indie bookshops would already have good stocks of popular and well-known international titles to tide us over, and of course local publishers that have ties with global conglomerates (like Penguin &c) could print them here. But it’s the less well-known titles by small indie publishers that I would normally have to order in or buy from The Book Depository that are the problem.

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  3. Very good review, but I actually like her earlier books better. I understand that she wants to write more complex plots and characters, but the simplicity of her first novels had much more pwoer for me.

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    • Which of her earlier novels have you enjoyed? I’m looking forward to reading more. I realise that the delving into the element of the mystical is new territory for her and not everyone likes that, but I couldn’t believe how similar it felt to Shookofeh Azar’s similar intervention in ‘The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree’. When something like this happens and it begins to feel like a pattern, I feel as though I’ve connected to the aspect of storytelling that comes from outside my own culture, and that that is a moment of being in the presence of something other then the familiar. That could just be my imagination 🙂 but it’s how I explain it to myself, without needing to understand it totally.

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  4. What an interesting book. The characters sound lovely and cultured. It is refreshing to see books with different characters and tastes than the usual mass marketed material. Nice review.

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    • Thank you, it is an interesting and rewarding read, even the element that feels ‘otherworldly’, in a way many have been feeling that in their own lives, each person reacting to our changed circumstances, some feeling the element of the surreal. I loved the combination of their personal journey and transformation and the physical geography of going to a very real graveside of a little known Scottish pilgrim that I certainly didn’t know about before. I can well imaging there might be a few modern pilgrims and hikers seeking out her resting place now.

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