One fun thing about my book club is that every member gets their chance to choose a book for the members to read, and this one was my choice. I grew up in a multi-religious town and we lived right next to the mosque for a number of years. In choosing this book I hoped to share with the book club members just how human Muslim people are, how African their experience is, and how many more similarities rather than differences there are between us as Africans. I wanted to invite them to take on a new perspective and explore what it feels like to look on this big wide world through the lens of Islam. I couldn’t have chosen a better writer than Leila Aboulela to fulfill this mission.
Leila, who was born in Egypt to a Sudanese father and an Egyptian mother, lives in the United Kingdom and writes in English. “Elsewhere, Home” is a collection of thirteen short stories – we needed a break in my book club from long narratives at this point in our existence – which she wrote between the 1990s and 2018 when it was published by Telegram in the United Kingdom. It is set in a variety of backgrounds – the heat of summer in Khartoum, the wintery streets of London, the concrete high rises of the gulf and the blustery coast of Aberdeen. It was the winner of the 2018 Saltire Fiction Book of the Year Award.
The common theme to all the stories is that of longing and exile, and our constant search for home in our dynamic world. Her characters all leave their home and take up the immigrant life with its attendant loneliness, hardships, homesickness and culture shocks. In “Circle line” the character expresses herself thus, “But a girl can sob her heart out in London’s streets and no one will stop, no one will raise an eyebrow, no one will ask why.” In Souvenirs, Yassir expresses it differently, “… gathered around him what he would take back with him, the things he could not deliver. Not the beads, not the paintings, but other things. Things devoid of the sense of their own worth.” In addition to the experience of being away from home, Leila also explores the conflicting feeling of becoming a foreigner in your own home after spending time away. In “Summer Maze” Nadia experiences it in Cairo, “… she was a stranger, but a stranger who went unnoticed, who was not tricked into paying extra for taxi rides and souvenirs. The effect was like a disguise, a role she was playing in an overworld which did not demand from her much skill or strategy. She could not really think of herself as Egyptian, nor did she want to.” Both are feelings experienced by many young Africans, who move either within their countries, and/or beyond their national borders in search of opportunities and in pursuit of their dreams.
Also common to all the stories is the theme of religion – specifically Islam. In “The Museum” a young privileged Sudanese student in Scotland says she yearns for things she didn’t think she would miss, such as the azaan; and in “the Ostrich” the woman thinks to herself “So I must walk unclothed, imagining cotton on my hair, lifting my hand to adjust an imaginary tobe.” In “the boy from the Kebab shop” a young couple, he – the son of a Scottish mother and Moroccan father, and she – the daughter of an Egyptian mother and Scottish father, struggle to find the place of Islam in their nascent relationship. In the modern day when multiculturalism is being challenged, when the extreme right is on the rise, and Muslims around the world are painted black, it was refreshing to read stories where the Muslims were not protagonists in a religious battle with the rest of the world.
In some stories Leila explores the theme of relationships between couples – she probes relationships in both single race and inter-racial marriages. The tensions that arise in these relationships are evident in “Something Old, Something New” where a white Muslim convert from Edinburgh visits his fiancée in Khartoum for the first time and finds his desire for her entangled with his suspicions of the ‘foreigners’ in whose land he now feels stranded. The challenges of inter-racial marriages present to familial relationships are exposed in “Souvenirs” where Yassir finds himself at the receiving end of his mother’s disapproval for marrying a white woman: “But, ‘Your wife – what’s her name?’ was how his mother referred to Emma. She would not say Emma’s name. She would not ‘remember’ it. It would have been the same if Emma had been Jane, Alison or Susan, any woman from ‘outside’. Outside that large pool of names his mother knew and could relate to. That was his punishment – nothing more, nothing less. He accepted it as the nomad bears the times of drought which come to starve his cattle, biding time, waiting for the tightness to run its course and the rain that must eventually fall.” Single race couples also have discord when they migrate and this is explored in “the Ostrich” where the woman thinks to herself upon arrival at the airport in Heathrow, “So I didn’t tell him about the baby, though I imagined I would tell him right away in the airport as soon as we met. Nor did I confess that at times I longed not to return, that in Khartoum I felt everything was real and our life in London a hibernation.” Later her husband says, “I was afraid you wouldn’t come back,” and in expressing that lets the reader know that at some level he knows things between him and his wife are not alright.
Other stories explore the conflict between generations. In “Summer Maze” we see Nadia embarrassed by her mother’s dressing and speaking, while her mother is disappointed that her daughter will not marry her cousin. In “Farida’s eyes” we see her father refusing to take her to see an optician and blaming her increasingly failing grades on her ‘dumbness’.
Overall Leila presents her characters in a familiar way. She tells their stories in a way that makes you feel you have known the characters all your life. She expertly draws out your empathy as a reader, especially if you have had the experience of moving from home and settling in a new location. She is an exceptional short story writer and the collection deserves all the accolades it has received so far and more.