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

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi tr. Tina Kover #WITMonth

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could end my review right there, those were the words I tweeted not long after I finished Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental while I was still in the moment of coming to the end of an excellent story of an immersive experience I wasn’t ready to be done with. It was a five star read for me, but I’ll share a little more of the experience to help you decide if it’s for you or not.

The novel is a dual narrative, set in the present and the past, where the protagonist – who for some time is nameless, with little said to explain how she came to be here – is sitting in a fertility clinic, waiting for her appointment. This immediately creates questions in the reader’s mind, as it is made clear there is something unusual about the situation, that she is taking a risk to even be there. This contemporary narrative, slowly builds the picture of who she is and the  circumstance she is in.

This interminable waiting creates an opening for her to reflect and remember, thus interspersed between what takes place in the present, is the story of her family, a long line of Sadr’s, beginning with her parents Sara and Darius, forced to flee Iran, who came to France when she and her two sisters were of school age.

The narrating of family stories, taking us back as far as her great-grandfather Montazemolmolk with his harem of 52 wives, serves to provide context and an explanation for why certain family members might have behaved or lived in the way they did, helping us understand their motives and actions.

The daughter Nour, born with unusual piercing blue eyes, her mother dying in childbirth, the man obsessed with making her his wife, her reluctance to go out being the object of unwanted attention, her children who desire to be free of restriction, the reading of the coffee cups, predicting the sex of the child of a pregnant woman; Uncle Number Two and his secret.

Darius, the timid elder son, sent to Cairo to study law, abandons his studies and pursues a doctorate in Philosophy at the Sorbonne. Eventually he returns to the family, changed by his studies and experiences and though quiet in person, wields a mighty sword through his journalistic pen and letters to a political regime he detests and chooses not to ignore.

It is a story that spans a changing, turbulent time in Iranian history, one that travels through highs and lows, for while the passionate intellectual is free to express their opinion and brings no harm, they continue to live within their culture, family and be an active part of their community and society. But when freedom of expression becomes a danger to the individual, the sacrifices that are made stifle and silence them, but don’t always make them safe. Life in exile, without the connections to friends, family, neighbours, reduces these adults to shadows of their former beings, unable to truly be themselves in a foreign culture.

I highlighted so many great passages in reading, but I’ve already passed the book on to someone else to read, so can not share them here yet. It is a reminder of another era, of people who had rich, cultural and intellectual lives, of families who fled persecution, not because of war, but because of their intellectual and philosophical activism and of how much is lost, when a new generation grows up within a culture no longer connected to their past, to their heritage and worse, in a country that has been subject to the propaganda of the media, and perceptions of that culture are tainted by the agenda of politicians and parties, and what they wish their populations to believe about foreign cultures.

I absolutely loved it, I liked the slow drip revelation of what this young woman’s life had become, having been severed from her country and community of origin and the colourful, abundant richness of the family history and culture, which while separate from her life today, existed somewhere deep in her psyche, in her genes, and in those non-genetic aspects we inherit from previous generations even without knowledge of what has passed.

It is as if she had a crystal ball to look back through the years, through lives she hadn’t personally experienced and discovered events from the past that created an aspect of who she was and would in turn, be passed on and live deep within the yet unborn child she desires to conceive.

Highly Recommended.

Buy a Copy of DisOriental via Book Depository

From Caucasia With Love by Danzy Senna

A Longish Intro on How I Came Across this Book

OreoDanzy Senna reviewed a book in the New Yorker in May 2015, a work she refers to as that hilarious, badass novel Oreo* by Fran Ross, an overlooked classic, a satire about race, originally published in 1974 without a stir, the novel everyone remembers from that time published two years later, had the title Roots.

Senna read Oreo in the late 1990’s, when she was living in a neighbourhood of what she called ‘Brooklyn’s dreadlocked élite‘ talented, up and coming, young black musicians, film-makers, artists said to be backed by the likes of Tracy Chapman and Alice Walker.

Though it had been written 20 years before, the book seemed to speak of their present and in her article she reflects on the narratives that had tended to gain traction and audience, those like Roots that looked back at slavery and oppression and then those that had been ignored, like Oreo, narratives that looked forward, that addressed modern issues, where no one is immune to criticism.

Sadly, Fran Ross died at a young age of cancer, little known in the literary world, this her only published work. It was republished in July 2015.

*To much of the public, an oreo is a black biscuit with white cream filling, in the African-American community however, it is a racial slur used to insult a black person who appears to act white.

You can read the article linked below, I hope to read the book soon, and all this to say how I came across the author Danzy Senna, who wrote From Caucasia, With Love, a novel about a mixed race family and the effect on their two daughters, when they separate, on account of the differing colour of their skin.

Review of From Caucasia, With Love

CaucasiaBirdie and Cole are two sisters, so close, they have their own made up language they speak fluently, that no one else can understand. The rest of society judges them on appearance, for Birdie appears white and her older sister Cole appears to be black.

While their parents are together it is less of an issue, but when they separate and move away from each other, each daughter departing with one parent, they will discover how much their colour dictates other people’s perceptions of them. Cole leaves for Brazil with her father and Birdie is on the run with her white activist mother fleeing the authorities.

The story is narrated from the point of view of Birdie and although she feels just like her sister, there were already signs of their differences in the behaviour of those closest to them. Her white grandmothers favouritism, and her father’s new girlfriend who won’t look her in the eye,  favoured by one, rejected by the other.

Birdie travels with her mother, losing all contact with her sister and father and integrates into a new life and school as someone she is not, she accepts it, but the truth seethes beneath the surface of all her interactions, she becomes numb to the misconceptions about who she is, until she has had enough and decides to go looking for Cole and her father.

“Strange as it may sound, there was safety in this pantomime. The less I behaved like myself, the more I could believe that this was still a game. That my real self – Birdie Lee – was safely hidden beneath my beige flesh, and that when the right moment came, I would reveal her, preserved, frozen solid in the moment in which I had left her.”

Danzy Senna

Danzy Senna

It is a gripping coming of age story of a girl who must deal with so much more than growing up, being forced to subsume another identity, neither one thing nor the other, without a role model to guide her.

It is a courageous effort to place the reader in the mind of a character who is like a changeling, crossing racial and geographic boundaries, making choices that will ensure not just her survival, but that she gets the answers she is looking for.

Further Reading:

New Yorker Article – An Overlooked Classic About the Comedy of Race by Danzy Senna

 

The Happiness of Blond People – A Personal Meditation on the Dangers of Identity by Elif Shafak

011312_1324_TheTigersWi2.jpgBastard of IStanbulElif Shafak writes great stories and as this essay illustrates, she both lives and has already lived an interesting life between East and West; experiencing different cultures and absorbing the influence of a high achieving, single parent mother and her superstitious, story-telling grandmother in a untypical but enriching, matriarchal upbringing.

ElifShafak Ask EbruBilun Wiki

Elif Shafak, Publicity shot by Ebru Bilun – wikipedia

As a young pupil she learnt what it means to be on the receiving end of prejudiced comments, introducing her to the clichéd stereotypes cast about by those who might never have experienced but seemed “to know” what it meant to be Turkish, that false responsibility, those who leave will all take on, for the actions of government or other citizens, on behalf of their maternal country and people.

Elif Shafak has inherited and nurtured a healthy imagination and studied many of the great philosophers, with a particular interest in Rumi, sometimes witnessed through her novels and now combines her knowledge with first-hand observations of how cultural differences are perceived in this short book.

The title of the essay was inspired by a conversation overheard at the Rotterdam airport in the Netherlands between Turkish fathers, one despairing of the difficulty of living in proximity to his downstairs neighbour.  She developed a habit of calling the police each time his children made too much noise playing in the apartment, causing his family much stress and anxiety, because the police invariably arrived with sirens blazing – makes me wonder what story she told the police, and thankful that my neighbour isn’t so bad after all!

The man finishes by asking his friend in earnest, how it is that blond children are so quiet and well-disciplined, introducing us to Shafak’s reflections on identity, cultural difference and the inherent, almost unavoidable angst of first generation immigrants worldwide.

The immigrant must be prepared to swallow his share of humiliations every day. He has to accept that life will treat him with disrespect and that he’ll be smacked and jostled with undue familiarity.

Happiness of Blond PeopleShe discusses the perception that happiness can be found in the West, less likely to have to deal with war, warlords, tribal conflict, poverty, corruption, human-rights violations or major natural disasters and the equally ingrained counter-assumption that life in the East is more real and less degenerate than in the West: where society is so selfish and individualistic that communal and family ties have virtually disappeared, unable to support a person, especially the elderly, in a time of need.

A secondary-school student I met in Ankara during a literary event put this to me in a slightly different way. “If you are young, it is better to live in the West than in the East,” he said. “But if you are old, then it is better to be in the East than in the West, because we respect our elders, whereas they don’t. In Europe I have seen old ladies in supermarkets buying one courgette, one carrot, one tomato, one bunch of parsley. Have you ever seen a Muslim woman doing that? No! We always buy at least half a kilo, if not more, because we cook for the entire family.”

What seems to be missing in the immigration experience is often lack of community, the lack of acceptance or gesture of kindness and therefore difficulty in integration, families are often not made to feel welcome (except among their own kind) which then encourages them to live separately and to maintain their own traditions and cultural perceptions and habits, rather than merging with the new country and culture. It can also breed resentment, particularly if it wasn’t a mutual decision to leave or even a choice, as in times of war.

It is often true that it must take at least one generation to normalise integration, but in more closed communities whose occupants themselves have little curiosity for the outsider or have not travelled and come to understand how and why things are done differently, with an altogether different logic elsewhere, this separation is at risk of continuing into multiple generations, especially where there are clear physical differences between people that can provoke prejudice, judgement or even worse, racism.

HonourFor me, most of the time I enjoy being confronted with those genuine mind-bending situations that require one to figure out how people came to see or do something in a way so different from our own – with the exception of violent or inhumane acts, but even behind those practices, there is a story to be told and a history to be understood, which doesn’t make it right, but can assist us to at least consider these practices in context, something Elif Shafak explores in her latest gripping novel ‘Honour‘.

An immigrant myself, I understand many of the isolating factors inherent in such a status, especially when it is necessary to learn a new language. Whilst it is not easy to participate in a traditional society with its many rituals and social codes, it is more likely that an immigrant will find success and contentment in creating a business or activity of their own, something unique that is or will be valued, than putting themselves up against their compatriots and being disappointed time after time, especially if living outside the larger multicultural cities.

This is a short read and a refreshing, open-minded perspective, from a woman who interacts with people in both the East and the West, always interesting to read and listen to.

In this life, if we are ever going to learn anything, we will be learning it from those who are different from us. It is in the crossroads of ideas, cultures, literatures, traditions, arts and cuisines that humanity has found fertile grounds for growth.

Second Person Singular

It is likely that there will be different perceptions of Sayed Kashua’s  ‘Second Person Singular’ not only due to the literary devices he uses, but on account of ‘where we are coming from’ and perhaps too, where we come from.

I am intrigued by the questions it raises, which require some discussion to make sense of, which may never be resolved or agreed upon because of that earlier dilemma, perspective. They concern how identity affects behaviour and opportunity, the interactions of and between people who possess subtle differences, some of which are merely perceived and not necessarily seen, a surname, religious preference, education.

The story concerns ‘the lawyer’, an educated and ambitious man regarded as one of the most successful Arab criminal attorneys in Jerusalem. One day he picks up a second-hand copy of Tolstoy’s novella ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’, recognising it as a volume his wife has mentioned in the past with enthusiasm, only to discover what he perceives as a love letter between its pages, in his wife’s handwriting. Discovering the name Yonatan on the inside cover, between bouts of violent and paranoid thoughts regarding his wife, he sets off to hunt the culprit down.

The unveiling of the truth behind the note, is revealed before the end and what follows is a dissection of the two male characters behaviours, as we await the final confrontation. The lawyer, whose name we never learn , lacks emotion and seems aloof, suited to his role, until the discovery of the letter when it is revealed just how delusional and extreme his emotions can be, left unchecked by reality. The culprit, in some ways is similarly deluded, but in a more intriguing and interesting way.

As a reader I found the characters of more interest through their observations of the city and society they worked within, the villages they lived in and the consequences of their identity. It is this that would generate an interesting discussion, particularly as the two characters the story follows represent different faces of that same society.

They are Arab-Israeli’s, non-Jewish Israeli citizens whose cultural and linguistic heritage is Arab. A matter of geography and politics, those who live in the Occupied Territories (otherwise known as the West Bank and Gaza) are of the same ethnic origin but refer to themselves as Palestinian, they of the same family as Arab-Israeli’s, they just carry a different legal status, which affects their education and employment opportunities and much more.

Creating strict country borders is a relatively modern idea and none more controversial than this ever-changing one, the enforcement of borders then gives rise to terms such as immigrant and refugee. The lawyer and other young educated men like him from villages in the North upon becoming doctors, lawyers and accountants in Jerusalem move to a suburban part of the city, where they were referred to by locals as immigrants, they are in fact the emerging middle class and we are given an interesting insight into what this means and how it manifests for this new generation of young people.

Perhaps it is a consequence of language and therefore thinking processes, but it reminds me that here in France the word for country ‘pays’ is the same word as region, so we can begin to understand how someone might be regarded as an immigrant in their own country.

Much of what this novel leaves me thinking about is how identity, borders and names can shape and influence opportunity and destiny, a universal dilemma for many or if we are fortunate, chances that we don’t even realise are so much more of an advantage than what some must confront by virtue of birth.

An interesting story and an exceptional insight into a world few really know or understand.

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.