“The English word ‘homesick’ is a good one; we do not have exactly the same word in Arabic. In Arabic my state would have been described as ‘yearning for the homeland’ or the ‘sorrow of alienation’ and there is also truth in this. I was alienated from this place where darkness descended unnaturally at 4pm and people went about their business as if nothing had happened.” –Elsewhere, Home (2018)
“Travel away from home and the difficulties will be a medicine for your ego’s badness, you will return softer and wiser.” –A Sufi saying
In “Moving Away from Accuracy” (2002) published in Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, the acclaimed author Leila Aboulela explores her positionality as a Sudanese-Egyptian-British-Muslim woman writer. Aboulela’s interrogation of the complexities of her identity in the article anticipates some of the common themes that run through her novels. She writes:
In the greyness of culture shock and bad weather, the writing was there, warm and glowing, a new hope, an opportunity, a way of contact with my past. Walking in Aberdeen, stirring words about another place. Why not? Put homesickness into words, make sense of it, make stories of it, show the people around me that an African city, in one of the poorest countries in the world, is as atmos-pheric as London, livelier than Brighton, more beautiful than Edinburgh.
Born in Egypt in 1964 to an Egyptian mother and a Sudanese father, Aboulela grew up in Khartoum and didn’t start writing fiction until she had moved to Scotland. You can read more about Aboulela and her writing on her personal website here.
Aboulela has penned two collections of short stories, The Colored Lights (2001) and Elsewhere, Home (2018) and five novels, The Translator (1999), Minaret (2005), Lyrics Alley (2010), The Kindness of Enemies (2015), and her latest work Bird Summons (2019).
Aboulela’s writing transgresses not only national and territorial boundaries but also racial, religious and cultural boundaries. Her characters, from a young Sudanese woman in exile in Britain, a poet in Sudan in the 1950s to the Sufi Muslim leader Imam Shamil in the nineteenth century, are diverse and unique, but they have one important thing in common. They grapple with the feeling of longing for a point of origin– a place they used to call home whose meaning, they realize, is in a constant state of flux.
And Khartoum, that African city, which is as exquisite as London, Edinburgh, and Brighton as Aboulela discusses in her article, is often at the heart of the stories that her characters narrate.
Although Sudan has been in the limelight recently, it has long been labeled as a nation haunted by violence and conflict: civil wars, international terrorism, and corruption. However, Aboulela emphasizes the importance of countering such stereotypes that construct a monolithic image of Sudan and its peoples. She states that as a writer she wishes:
“…to express, to show that [Sudan] is a valid place, a valid way of life beyond the stereotypical images of famine and war, not a backward place to be written off” (204).
Her collection of short stories Elsewhere, Home (2018) reveals the persistence of the entrenched stereotypes that cast African and Middle Eastern countries, specifically Sudan, and its peoples as ‘backward,’ ‘oppressed,’ and ‘violent.’ Writing from the perspective of the marginalized- Muslim, African, woman, immigrant, and so forth- is crucial for Aboulela because, as she explains in an interview:
“The status quo will always assert that western, white and secular is the norm and that everything else always has to explain itself.”
She defies the status quo by putting her own experiences into words rather than conforming to the demands of the literary marketplace. She states in another interview:
” I write focusing on what I know rather than on the issues that grab the headlines.”
There is no doubt that Aboulela successfully resists the hegemonic discourse in her writing. However, her magic as a writer lies in her ability to deconstruct the long-established clichés about African and Middle Eastern countries and its peoples while exploring the emotional complexities of immigration.
And Elsewhere, Home (2018) attests to her extraordinary success (and her alchemy) as a writer.
The thirteen stories in Elsewhere, Home (2018) follow disparate characters who straddle two different cultures, two different worlds. “The Museum,” for instance, tells the doomed relationship between Shadia, a wealthy Sudanese international student in Scotland, and Bryan, an intelligent yet provincial Scottish classmate. In “Souvenirs,” Yassir, a Sudanese immigrant in Britain, hunts for paintings in Khartoum for his wife, Emma. “The Ostrich” narrates the story of Samra, a young Sudanese woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage. It is one of the many stories in the collection that challenge the master narrative about immigration from the so called “Third World” to the Global North: that one should be grateful for making it to the West, that one should learn to dismiss the hostile rhetoric/behavior that awaits them, and so forth.
However, Samra wishes to return to Sudan.
Married to a Sudanese doctoral student in London, she has no strong ties to the city that hosts her, and she feels estranged. But Sudan, she is told again and again, is simply not a place one returns to. “There’s no future back there,” (90) her husband tells her repeatedly. Her mother, too, reproaches her:
“You are envied, Samra. You are envied for living abroad where it is so much more comfortable than here. Don’t complain, don’t be ungrateful” (87).
Unlike her husband who is dazzled by ” the good life of the West” (88) and who frequently underlines the ‘backwardness’ of Sudan, Samra is disheartened by the blatant display of racism and disrespect that she encounters:
Majdi points out the graffiti for me, ‘Black bastards’ on the wall of the mosque, ‘Paki go home’ on the newsagent’s door. ‘Do you know what it means, who wrote it?’ I breed a new fear of not knowing, never knowing who these enemies are. How would I recognise them while they can so easily recognise me? (93)
Frustrated by her husband who overlooks the fact that she is suffering from homesickness, she asks:
“What am I doing here? A stranger suddenly appearing on the stage with no part to play, no lines to read” (93).
Samra’s Khartoum is far from perfect. Queueing for bread and gas is the norm. She understands that people leave to survive, and perhaps she should be grateful too. But she longs for Khartoum nonetheless. She longs for the Nile and the scorching heat. She longs for the days when she would spend time with her first love reading the Andalusian poet Ibn Zaydun. She longs for sweet cinnamon tea and roasted watermelon seeds:
“Perhaps this is the essence of my country, what I miss most. Those every day miracles, the poise between normality and chaos. The awe and the breathtaking gratitude for simple things. A place where people say, ‘Allah alone is eternal'” (98).
Elsewhere, Home is filled with such reflective moments that challenge the unitary and ‘alien’ image of Sudan and its peoples. The stories remind us that the headlines about Sudan often omit the beauty that exists alongside the struggles in the country as well as its colonial history that has shaped the country’s contemporary politics. Like Samra, other characters in the collection seek to negotiate their identities and cultural values as immigrants and redefine what it means to be home. Despite extreme poverty, political strife, and social inequalities in Sudan, ‘home’ evokes warm memories of childhood, weddings, the Nile, Ramadan, the call to prayer, and a lot more.
And for a while, that is enough.
Migrant writer Aglaja Veteranyi once wrote that “[her] father says you remember the smell of your country no matter where you are but only recognize it when you’re far away.” Aboulela’s characters, too, learn the meaning of home when they are away. Britain’s chilly winter and the absence of the Nile and minarets, among other signifiers, become a constant reminder of what they have left behind. In other words, home for them comes to represent the safety of their soul. Aboulela discusses the concept of home in “Moving Away from Accuracy”:
Safe and predictable. That was home, loved and taken for granted. The earth was steady and flat under-neath me. Every day the sun rose from the east, set in the west. I lived life lulled and complacent until the carpet was pulled from under my feet; the balance tilted and things were no longer as they used to be.
As a Muslim I have always believed in Judgement Day. In Khartoum I read the description of it in the Qur’an and had goose pimples. This catastrophe was there ahead of me, as inevitable as death. I read and had faith but no sense. No sense of a transformation, the silent earth speaking, the sky splitting into paste, melting away like grease: the mountains reduced to smithereens. It took coming to Scotland to give me some feeling, a slight feel- ing of it. Everything around me so different, nothing looking the same or smelling the same. The end of the world as I had known it. (Travel Is Part of Faith, Wasafiri No.31, Spring 2000)
It is this interlocking of arrival with departure, home with ambivalence, fear with exhilaration that Aboulela masterfully captures in her writing. Her characters come to realize, following Baldwin’s David, that home may not be a place after all, “but simply an irrevocable condition” (92).
Sometimes, they show us, we need to leave home in order to find it.
More on Leila Aboulela:
“Moving Away from Accuracy.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics No. 22, “The Language of the Self: Autobiographies and Testimonies” / :لغة الذات السير الذاتية والشهادات (2002), pp. 198-207 (10 pages)