In the next few decades, the Ottoman Empire, a superpower in the Middle East and Africa, would show clear signs of decline. But for now, the Ottoman sultan still reigns as the “caliphate”– the universal sovereign of the Muslim world, a successor of Prophet Muhammad.
However, the decline of the empire is imminent, with nationalist movements, military defeat, corruption, and other factors contributing to its downfall. Though cracks in its foundation are already visible, the Ottoman Empire is still a formidable force. For now.
I am seated in the restaurant at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul, taking in the warmth of the February sun. The sunbeams filtering through the window are inviting. The view from my seat is one of serenity, the Bosporus tranquil with few boats in sight. The strip, though, is bustling with joggers and fishermen this afternoon. For a fleeting second, the shimmering sea makes me think it’s a summer’s day.
Having just spent several hours at the new exhibition, The Collection of the Arts of the Book and Calligraphy, I am still in awe. Comprised of over 200 samples, including various copies of the Quran, prayer books, and calligraphic compositions, all crafted by prominent Ottoman calligraphers, the works on display span from the late 14th century to the 20th century. I think about how, as I admired the collection, I felt a sense of pride when I encountered official documents featuring the imperial cipher of the Ottoman sultans. Years and years of studying Ottoman history, I think to myself, and this was actually the first time I ever closely examined each sultan’s unique signature.
Although nationalist ideology has never appealed to me, the sense of pride in Turkey’s Ottoman heritage is collective, and ingrained in our upbringing. An empire that existed for over 700 years, encompassing a vast geographical area from southeastern Europe to western Asia–no wonder the Ottoman Empire was the central focus of my history classes at school. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and I was lucky–I always held a strong interest in the arts, literature, and architecture of the Ottoman Empire. There is, however, one important point that was often omitted in my history classes: that the dominant narrative is inevitably biased and may erase significant fragments of history.
In Russia, Tsar Alexander II is assassinated. Across the Atlantic, US President James Garfield is shot. Back in Europe, Tunisia becomes a French protectorate. In Thessaloniki, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who would change the history of Turkey permanently, is born. Meanwhile, in Sudan, a man named Muhammad Ahmad declares himself as the Mahdi, the prophesied leader of the Muslim world, which leads to the outbreak of the Mahdi Revolt and the eventual separation of Sudan from the Ottoman Empire. Muhammad Ahmad envisions a revolution that would conquer Sudan, Egypt, Mecca, Syria, and Istanbul, but his claims are met with resistance from the Ottoman-Egyptian forces, leading to numerous battles in almost all of which the Mahdi forces would emerge victorious.
Set against this historical backdrop, Leila Aboulela’s upcoming novel River Spirit (March 2023) transports readers to a time of change and upheaval. The narrative travels across Sudan, Egypt, and Scotland, but at the heart of the novel is the story of Yaseen, a benevolent young merchant from Khartoum, and Akuany who is later named “Zamzam.” Following a raid on their village, Akuany and her brother Bol are tragically orphaned, and Yaseen who takes them in promises to care for them–his vow, a formidable bond that lasts a lifetime. Through its several characters’ trials and tribulations, the story delves into themes of loss, family, love, and faith, offering a unique perspective on a defining moment in history.
Aboulela presents a multi-faceted portrayal of the Mahdist revolution, the independence of Sudan from the Ottoman Empire, and its subsequent British invasion in the 19th century. Through a mix of fictional and real characters, the novel explores the intersecting lives of those affected by these historical events. Moving beyond what history textbooks narrate, Aboulela shifts the focus to the struggles and empowerment of women in a patriarchal and colonial society.
The novel begins with Rabiha, a female follower of the Mahdi, who embarks on a mission to save Muhammad Ahmad’s life, ultimately changing the course of the revolution. “A rebel, striving to become more than an obedient wife,” Rabiha’s determination and rebellious spirit set the tone for the rest of the novel.
Enslaved throughout the majority of the narrative, Akuany, like Rabiha, is more than a subservient woman. When Yaseen leaves for Egypt to study and become a scholar of Islam, Akuany is separated from her brother and sold into slavery. As her owners change and she is compelled to brave the dehumanizing aspects of slavery, Akuany remains unswerving, determined to reunite with Yaseen. And the Nile is there to remind her of who she really is, who she needs to be: “The river was a place to draw water and wash, to fish and set sail, and for her, it was more, the spirit of who she was.” The river serves as a symbol of her agency and that of other women, a constant reminder of their potential and strength. Through other women characters such as Salha, Yaseen’s wife, Fatimah, his mother, a successful merchant, and the other enslaved women with whom Akuany interacts, we are reminded that it is women who often bear the brunt of war and who must battle both colonial and patriarchal oppression. Aboulela underlines that women’s suffering in conflict extends far beyond the battlefield.
The novel’s success lies in its ability to weave together the political tensions of the time with the personal struggles of its characters; the personal is, indeed,
political colonial here.
Highlighting the diversity within the Muslim world, the narrative contextualizes Islam as a multifaceted religion that has been shaped by the historical and sociopolitical context in which it has been practiced. The tension between Yaseen, his school of thought, and the Mahdi becomes a case in point.
During his studies in Egypt, Yaseen sets out to cultivate a deeper understanding of Islamic teachings. He reads extensively and learns from scholars to make informed decisions that “minimize harm.” Yaseen, as he tells the reader, remains vigilant against corruption, all with the ultimate goal of upholding Allah’s religion and elevating his word above all else, for the benefit of his community. Yaseen’s humanist approach to Islam stands in stark contrast to the Mahdi principles as practiced by his followers: “if you are not a Mahdi follower, you are not a Muslim.” As one of his followers reflects on a battle with Ottoman-Egyptian soldiers: “the dead government soldiers were not true Muslims, even though they were fasting during Ramadan and praying. As long as they did not accept the Mahdi, all their worship was in vain.” Elsewhere, Yaseen reflects on the strict regulations enforced by the Mahdi: “Let him moralize. Let him flog those who smoke, drink, and fornicate–and keep flogging them. 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.”
The question of what makes a true Muslim, and its subjective nature is an important one in Aboulela’s oeuvre. River Spirit, too, recognizes the limitations and the political agenda behind the concept of “a true Muslim,” underlining the tension between Islam as a prescriptive/restrictive doctrine and Islam as a way of meaning-making. Yaseen and Salha, who also studies theology, raise critical points about the conflation of moralizing and fanatical ideologies with religious doctrines in the Mahdi movement as a tool to appeal to the masses. Salha, and others, acknowledge the revolution as a symbol of resistance against foreign rule, but they also observe that religion was used as a means to an end, simply to receive support, which undermines the sincerity of the religious beliefs held by those who followed the Mahdi.
But the novel remains true to its purpose–
as the chapters narrated by Musa, a devout follower of Muhammad Ahmad, shed a light on what renders radicalism appealing to some individuals. Through Musa’s perspective, we see how his lack of direction in life and ostracization from society lead him to the Mahdi whose influence Musa compares to the effects of a drug, both intoxicating and numbing. Musa, like most of the Mahdists, depicts him as a savior figure, divinely ordained, backed by angels, and sent by the Almighty. This rhetoric imbues Muhammad Ahmad with divine power and unquestionable authority, painting him as the only solution to the rule of the Ottomans. Musa’s chapters were difficult for me to get through, I’ll admit, but this discomfort also proves that his chapters are essential in providing a glimpse into the allure of extremist ideologies and the lengths to which some individuals may be willing to go in order to feel a sense of belonging and purpose.
And what is not to love about a postcolonial novel that complicates the concepts of “victory” and “heroism,” inviting questions about whose victory, whose hero, and whose version of events–
whose (hi)story is being told?
As I sit in the restaurant and reflect on the new exhibition at the Sabancı museum, I can’t help but think of Leila Aboulela’s River Spirit, which I finished reading a few days ago. This hefty novel tackles complex themes of postcolonial struggles, national identity, faith, and religion, challenging the neatly-packaged master narrative. And while the Ottoman Empire is often remembered for its glory, the novel also brings to light the reality of its subjects who were struggling due to high taxes and yearning for self-governance–the subjects that were never mentioned in my history textbooks, the subjects whom we rarely discussed in class.
As a reader and a scholar who greatly appreciates Aboulela’s writing, I believe that River Spirit may be her masterpiece. Its narrative is an intricate tapestry woven from the threads of history, politics, religion, and personal experience. Leila Aboulela’s prose is urgent, fluid, and evocative. Like her previous historical novel, The Kindness of Enemies (2015), River Spirit is a powerful work that showcases Aboulela’s mastery of language and imaginative empathy. If you like historical fiction and/or postcolonial literature, then River Spirit is a novel that you should not miss in 2023.
*If you are interested in The Kindness of Enemies (2015) (one of my favorite novels by Aboulela), you can read my reflection on a literary event about the novel held by UiT, The Arctic University of Norway, here.
**My thanks to Grove Atlantic for the ARC.
2 thoughts on “Decolonizing History & Reclaiming the Narrative: Leila Aboulela’s Latest Novel River Spirit”
Beautiful review bookended by your present day reflection on life and learning in Istanbul Neriman. I’m reading this at the moment and very much enjoying it, I keep on finding articles written about Sudanese history past and present to try and understand the historical context better, centeri g the Sudanese people’s experience. It’s wonderful that Leila Aboulela has immersed in this history and telling it from this important perspective.
This is definitely one of Aboulela’s best works–thanks for the note, Claire. And yes, it is crucial to read about the complex history of Sudan to try and understand what is going on there at the moment. It’s been a constant struggle.
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