I have now read three novels by Leila Aboulela and enjoyed them all, her historical fiction has taken me into parts of history that I’ve known nothing about and she brings a fresh, unique perspective, thanks to her cross-cultural life experience, at the intersection of being a Muslim woman of Sudanese origin living in Scotland.
I was very much looking forward to this latest novel as she returns within it to her country of origin and tells us a story that begins in a village and moves to the city of Khartoum, Sudan, intertwining the crossover histories of two occupying Empires against a uprising local population, at the very place where two grand rivers meet.
Grandiose Empires and A False Prophet
River Spirit is a unique work of historical fiction set in 1890’s Sudan, at a turning point in the country’s history, as its population began to mount a challenge against the ruling Ottoman Empire, only the people were not united, due to the opposition leadership coming from a self-proclaimed “Mahdi” – a religious figure that many Muslims believe will appear at the end of time to spread justice and peace.
The appearance of ‘the Mahdi’ or ‘the false Mahdi’ created a division in the population and provided a gateway for the British to further a desire to expand their own Empire, under the guise of ousting this false prophet. However for a brief period, this charismatic leader would unite many who had felt repressed by their circumstances, inspiring them to oust their foreign occupiers by whatever means necessary, even if it also set them against their own brothers and kinsmen.
Orphans, A Merchant, A Promise
Against this background, Leila Aboulela tells the story of orphan siblings, Akuany and Bol, and their young merchant friend Yaseen, a friend of their father; their parents were killed in a slave raid on the village, the merchant made a promise to protect these two youngsters, forever connecting them to his life.
The story is told through multiple perspectives, mostly in the third person perspective, from Akuany (who becomes enslaved to both an Ottoman officer and a Scottish painter at various points and is renamed Zamzam) and Yaseen’s point of view, as well as one of the fighters of the Mahdi, Musa.
The change in perspective and the lack of a first person narrative keeps the characters at a slight distance to the reader as we follow the trials of Zamzam’s life and her dedication to being a part of Yaseen’s life. Like other readers, I wished at times that the story was told in the first person from her point of view, but the story is too important to be limited to one perspective.
So the reader is taken on a journey through the shifting viewpoints of all parties implicated and affected by the approaching conflict, those of fervent belief, the skeptical, outsiders with ulterior motives, and the innocent, the women and children trying to live ordinary family lives amid the power struggles of patriarchal dominance and colonial selfishness.
Yaseen decides to become a scholar, a decision that changes his life and opportunities; he meets the Mahdi and is unconvinced, an opinion that will become dangerous and have repercussions for him and his family.
As the revolutionary Mahdi leader grew in popularity and his followers in confidence, Sudan began to slip from the grasp of Ottoman rule and everyone was forced to choose a side, whether for personal, political or religious reasons. The (religious) confusion created by the implication of accepting this new leader ,became a strategic opportunity for British colonial interests to gain access to natural resources and secure control of the Nile ahead of other European interests was well as protecting their interests in Egypt. The real threat for both the Ottoman and British Empires, was the potential for the creation of a new independent power, one that came from within Sudan. That, clearly, they were likely to undermine.
What has changed is that this is now a massive rebellion against a major power. The fake Mahdi has coalesced the nation’s sense of injustice.
Two Rivers Entwine, the Nile
Once Akuany and her brother leave the family village, most of the story takes place in Khartoum, a city that is at the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, two major rivers that join to become the Nile proper, the longest river in the world, that continues on through Egypt to the Mediterranean.
The river is part of Akuany’s story, part of her being and a symbol of her twin selves, one free, one enslaved, of twin occupying forces, the Ottoman and British Empires, of the many aspects in the story where twin forces clash, mix and become something new. It represents her devotion to her brother and to the merchant Yaseen, to a focus that drives her forward through the changing circumstances of her life. The two rivers arrive from different sources in a city that is full of many coming from elsewhere, where agendas often clash and local people get caught on the crossfire of inevitable conflict.
She was not one of them, but she was like them. She was also one of the lowly rising, one of the poor benefiting, one of the featherweight children of this land, thrust up by this shake-up, loosened and made free to stand up and grab what was there on offer, what she had always wanted.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the story, was the focus of the story coming from characters within the population, that we witness things from within, through the eyes of both a simple, loyal but marginalised, servant girl and through a young educated man, both of whom are from Sudan. They are living in turbulent times and are witness to the effect various powerful influences have on their city and in the case of ZamZam the effect on her person, treated as an object of ownership.
Cycles of Conflict, Khartoum Today
The novel was published on March 7th, 2023, a mere month before two Generals again plunged Sudan into armed conflict with devastating consequences for civilians and civilian infrastructure, especially in Khartoum and Darfur. At least 676 people have been killed and 5,576 injured, since the fighting began. (14 May, UN source)
Over 936,000 people have been newly displaced by the conflict since 15 April, including about 736,200 people displaced internally since the conflict began, and about 200,000 people who have crossed into neighbouring countries, including at least 450,000 children who have been forced to flee their homes.
“Fanatics can never draw out the good in people. They will go to war I predict. They will raise armies, invade, and pillage because it is only aggression that will keep their cause alive. Fighting an enemy is always easier than governing human complexity.”
New York Times: Amid Conflict and Cruelty, a Love Story That Endures by Megha Majumdar, March 7, 2023
Brittle Paper: A Compelling Tale of Love and Anti-Colonialism in 19th Century Sudan by Ainehi Adoro, May 16, 2023
The Scotsman, Book Review by Joyce McMillan
Brittle Paper, Interview: “We Need to Hear the Stories of Africa’s Encounter with Europe from Africans Themselves” | A Conversation with Leila Aboulela
Africa in Words (AiW) Interview: Review and Q&A: Leila Abouleila’s ‘River Spirit’ – Rewriting the Footnotes of Sudanese Colonial History by Ellen Addis
Leila Aboulela, Author
Leila Aboulela is a fiction writer, essayist, and playwright of Sudanese origin. Born in Cairo, she grew up in Khartoum and moved in her mid-twenties to Aberdeen, Scotland. Her work has received critical recognition and a high profile for its depiction of the interior lives of Muslim women and its distinctive exploration of identity, migration and Islamic spirituality.
She is the author of six novels: River Spirit (2023), Bird Summons (), Minaret (2005), The Translator (1999), a Muslim retelling of Jane Eyre, it was a New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year, The Kindness of Enemies (2015) and Lyrics Alley (2010), Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards. Leila Aboulela was the first winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing and her latest story collection, Elsewhere, Home (2018) won the Saltire Fiction Book of the Year Award.
Her work has been translated into fifteen languages and she was long-listed three times for the Orange Prize, (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction).
“We need to hear the stories of Africa’s encounter with Europe from Africans themselves. Mainstream colonial history has been viewed and written through the lens of Europe. This is insufficient for us in these contemporary times and as Africans we need to write our own history. ” Leila Aboulela, interview with Brittle Paper.