NOT TO BE MISSED
"La Traductrice", a novel by Leila ABOULELA
Genève: Editions Zoë, 2003. (246p.).
Translated from English into French by Christian Surber. Original title: "The Translator"
Ce compte rendu en français
"My fictional worlds reflect Muslim logic but my characters do not necessarily behave as 'good' Muslims; they are not ideals or role models. They are flawed and complex, trying to practise their faith or make sense of Allah's will, in difficult circumstances", Sudanese author Leila Aboulela wrote on her website . Her novel The Translator fits well this delineation. It recounts the life of a thirty-something Sudanese woman, in Aberdeen and Khartoum, after her husband's demise, and it tells of her falling out with her family and platonic, yet passionate affair with the Scottish professor for whom she works as a translator in Scotland. Reserved, softly spoken and desperately lonely, she is nevertheless determined to remain true to herself, to her beliefs and sense of direction. Her genuine desire for happiness dominates the narration, but religious ordinance governs the dos and don'ts of matrimony and that complicates matters of relationships and love.
The story is poignant, the characters well-chosen, their complex nature, personality and aspirations skilfully revealed, and the issues addressed by the author will resonate with many readers, whatever their religious persuasion and wherever they live. Leila Aboulela was born in Cairo, brought up in Khartoum, awarded a MPhil in Statistics in London and lived at different times in Aberdeen, Jakarta, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha. That makes her genuinely cosmopolitan and gave her a rare insight into the difficulties confronting Muslim women leaving their family and friends. But, as it were, some of the issues she raises are also of concern to non-Muslim people as culture-shock, social and family pressure, religious exhortations, problems with integration, feelings of isolation and many other concerns are common everywhere, albeit under various guises.
After the death of her husband who was studying medicine in Scotland, Sammar begins to work as a translator at Aberdeen University and, one thing leading to another, she falls for a professor specialised in Islamic studies. As it soon becomes apparent, her feelings are reciprocated and neither age difference nor the dissimilar origins of the pair seem to matter. And as popular wisdom would have it, "Love conquers all", but there is still a big hurdle that frustrates their desire and puts their idyll in jeopardy: Sammar can only marry in her faith and Rae is not a Muslim. He is indeed an eminent scholar who knows much about Islam, but his pursuit of knowledge is analytical and his interest in religion academic. And while the distance he has maintained between his personal beliefs and his professional activities is a gauge of his credibility, in the eyes of an academic community built on a diet of critical thinking and secularism, it is prohibitive in matters of matrimony.
For Sammar, it is hard to understand, let alone admit, that someone who knows so much about Muslim faith, history and practices does not convert to Islam. The reasons for such a state of affairs suggested by Rae's secretary make no sense to her: "It would be professional suicide, Yasmine argues, [...] because no one would take him seriously after that. What would he be? Another ex-hippy gone off to join some weird cult. Worse than a weird cult, the religion of terrorists and fanatics. That's how it would be seen" (p.20); but such a divide between faith and professional endeavours is beyond her comprehension. She is therefore totally devastated when she not only realises that Rae does not really want to convert for the sake of marrying her, but also that the reasons that led him towards the Islamic faith were not religious but secular. She is shattered when she hears Rae say: "It's not in me to be religious. [...] I studied Islam for the politics of the Middle East. I did not study it for myself. I was not searching for something spiritual. Some people do. I had a friend who went to India and became a Buddhist. But I was not like that. I believed that the best I could do, what I owed a place and people who had deep meaning for me, was to be objective, detached. In the middle of all the prejudice and hypocrisy, I wanted to be one of the few who was saying what was reasonable and right" (p.114).
In Sammar's eyes, being a well informed observer of Islam, sympathetic to its culture and belief system, means little when one does not acknowledged that the verses of The Qur'an do not belong to the realm of literature but are "divine revelation, certain truth" (p.112). And there is no way she could entertain the idea of marrying a non-believer. Rae's withholding formal allegiance to God and His Prophet thus marks both the end of the relationship and Sammar's return to her family in Khartoum. While the decision to leave shows the young woman's strength and determination, it also highlights the perils of dogmatism and the limits of personal freedom in the face of unbending religious demands, in particular the prohibition for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim (whereas there is no such prohibition for Muslim men). That dashes the hope of happiness of well suited lovers but to Sammar, such an union would go "against the weight of the consensus" as well as against God's Will. Thus she would rather suffer a hundred deaths than consent to marrying an non-believer.
For his part, Rae had built a reputation of excellence in debunking the myths and fallacies about Islam propagated by Western media. But in spite of a busy academic life, he had felt terribly lonely until he met Sammar and began confiding and sharing memories with her. As his attachment to his young collaborator grows stronger, he also realises the untenability of his situation as, on the one hand, he knows full well that a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-believer and, on the other hand, his conscience and freedom of mind do not allow him to embrace a religion he respects but does not hold as the Mother of all truth.
From Henry IV's conversion to Catholicism in order to ascend the throne of France, to the missionary zeal of various Churches in Africa proselytising, "bread and honey in one hand and a whip in the other" , and the meaningless conversion to Greek Orthodox faith by one of the main characters in the Canadian-American romp My Big Fat Greek Wedding, millions have been pushed into switching their religious allegiance: but that sorry state of affairs is of little comfort to individuals who have to do the same in our day and age. And in spite of Rae's elation at eventually seeing the light and being reunited with Sammar, his eventual conversion seems a sad retreat from the secular ideals of a man who was more preoccupied by men than gods, empathy than duty, freedom of the mind than precepts of the Scriptures. But to Sammar, Rae's conversion takes a different meaning: it is the best thing that could have happened, not only to her, but also for Rae's salvation. And one assuredly hears the author's voice behind Rae's profession of faith: "[In] the end, it didn't have anything to do with how much I've read or how many facts I have learned about Islam. Knowledge is necessary, that's true. But faith, it comes direct from Allah" (p.180).
Sammar's attitude is challenging because, to all intents and purposes, it shows that she is in charge of her destiny, even though she keeps reminding herself that, ultimately, it is Allah rather then her own volition that shapes her life. Rae's conversion is a case in point and her recollection of the circumstances that led her to Scotland is another: "It was because coming back to live in Britain was feasible that she had got on the plane after quarrelling with her aunt, sold her gold bracelets for the one way ticket. She had chosen Aberdeen for the tie with [her deceased husband] Tarig and because she had worked temporarily for the university, and there was a chance that they could give her work again. She had been lucky. There was a demand for translating Arabic into English: not much competition. Her fate was etched out by a law that gave her a British passport, a point in time when the demand for people to translate Arabic to English was bigger than the supply. 'No', she reminded herself, 'that is not the real truth. My fate is etched out by Allah Almighty, if and who I will marry, what I eat, the work I find, my health, the day I will die are as he alone wants them to be'. To think otherwise was to slip down, to feel the world narrowing, dreary and tight" (pp.64-65).
This tension between Sammar's submissiveness to religious expectation and her capacity to act of her own free will is fascinating. Life at the intersection of these two conflicting masters is never dull and readers are kept in suspense throughout the novel as they do not know how the heroine will react to her unexpected attraction to Rae, family dispute, limited work opportunity in her home country, the accusatory stand of her mother-in-law. No-one will doubt that ultimately providence will decide the heroine's fate, but by the same token every page of the novel reinforces the idea that this rather shy, somewhat depressed, softly-spoken and modestly dressed woman is also a strong-willed and determined individual who is not afraid to take the most difficult decisions when she has to.
Unlike her friend Yasmine who divides the world between 'we' and 'them', "'we' meaning the whole of the Third World and its people" (p.10) and 'them', the slave-drivers from the West, Sammar relates to others on the basis of their personalities and characters. That open approach to alterity allows the author to eschew caricatures while exploring the depth of her characters through evocative and complex depictions of their behaviour, both in Sudan and in Scotland.
An episode implicating Rae's outspoken PhD student Diane, who shares an office with Sammar, is, for example, astutely showing that the caring and sensitive man Sammar has modelled in the secret of her heart may not be the perfect gentleman she purports him to be. As Diane comes back from a meeting with Rae, arguing he was "not in the best of moods" (p.65), she complains both about his refusal to lend her some journal articles and the lecture he gave her about the library opening hours, before scolding her for giving the far too generous mark of fourteen to a poorly-referenced undergraduate assignment she had marked. In this case, as in others, it is clear that Rae did not measure up to expectations, thus Diane's crude and uncompromising appraisal of her boss: 'I want to encourage [the student]. Fourteen would have encouraged her but the bastard is just so finicky'" (p.65).
Diane's rude comments about Rae and Sammar's silent response to her office mate's accusation of bullying encapsulate the personality of both women. But more importantly, it alerts readers to the one-sided and somewhat biased portrayal of Rae proposed by Sammar: a vision tainted by admiration and love. In the same way, Sammar's attitude in the face of personal confusion reveals a woman who is not always the obedient and self-effacing woman she seems to be. Her burst of anger as Rae tells her he is not sure he can convert to Islam seems to be out of character, but from the beginning of the novel one can guess that beyond her unassuming guise, Sammar is a woman ready to resist the demands of her mother-in-law, to abandon her son, to marry a man of her choosing, and to take charge of her life.
The author's talent she was awarded the 2000 Caine Prize for African writing conjoined with a fine exploration of the characters' psychology, the interplay of conflicting cultural expectation, and the debunking of common clichés make this book a fascinating read. As Todd Mc Ewen aptly wrote: "Aboulela has an unmistakable style, full of poetry and very moving ... The Translator is exactly what fiction ought to be" . Very much worth reading.
1. Author's website. http://www.leila-aboulela.com/ [Sighted 29 May 2013].
2. http://www.scholarofthehouse.org/oninma.html [Sighted 25 May 2013].
3. Lucie Cousturier. "Mes inconnus chez eux". Paris, F. Rieder et Cie, 1925. p.69.
4. Back cover of the English edition. Leila Aboulela's other novels and short stories are also worth reading. Her short story "The Museum" that was also translated into French is highly recommended. Leila Aboulela. "Le Musée" Carouge-Genève: Editions Zoé, 2004, 48p. [Translation of "The Museum" published in "Coloured lights", 2001].
This review is based on the French translation of the novel but page numbers relate to the English original "The Translator" (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1999).
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities