Thursday, 19 August 2010

Lyrics Alley, Leila Aboulela: (Lauren's Review)

Leila Aboulela uses the social and religious customs and day to day living of the wealthy Abuzeid family in Lyrics Alley to provide a privileged glimpse into Sudanese and Egyptian culture in the twentieth century. Sudan, governed by the British is on the brink of change and potential modernity as a union with Egypt looks set to take place. Amidst this political uncertainty Lyrics Alley explores the relationships between the stalwart patriarch Mahmoud, his two wives, their children and his brother and his family. As a foil for the wealthy Abuzeid’s, the novel also focuses on the children’s tutor, Badr, who struggles to make a living, only dreaming of earning enough to own a flat.  Each chapter skilfully describes events from a specific character’s point of view, allowing the reader to experience and empathise with each character in turn.  The main event of the novel sees Mahmoud’s brilliant son, Nur, cruelly crippled in an unfortunate accident and unable to continue his studies or marry his cousin Soraya. Nur and his family have to individually come to terms with Nur’s accident, determining its subsequent impact on their lives.  

Aboulela portrays the strong, patriarchal society of 1950s Sudan through Mahmoud, ‘...head of the family.’ It is he who dictates the destiny of his female relatives, marrying his niece Fatma to his son, moving Nabilah, his second wife, from her hometown of Egypt to Sudan and forcing each of his wives to tolerate the other.  Badr contemplates it is a husband’s duty to ‘discipline’ his wife rather than adhere to her or indeed treat her as an equal. Hence, Aboulela skilfully unites the modern day reader with Soraya who dares to dream of a life outside the traditional confines of patriarchal society.  She is criticised for both wearing spectacles and reading akin to a man.  Each of her subsequent victories in being allowed to wear the said spectacles, in continuing her education and in becoming a doctor are felt keenly by the reader who cheers her on.  It is poignant that Fatma is keen to imagine something different for Soraya as she looks ‘...into the future, a possibility...’ of Soraya breaking with tradition and perhaps having opportunities that she herself never had.

As the ‘backwards’ Sudan teeters on the brink of modernity with the potential of a union with Egypt Aboulela cleverly depicts the tension between the customs and cultures of the two countries through Mahmoud’s Sudanese and Egyptian wife.  The Egyptian Nabilah despairs of Sudan’s ‘dust, squalor, stupidity’ compared to the ‘...metropolitan centre...civilised life...’ of Egypt. Nabilah follows European fashions and has formal manners. She does not conform to the traditional semi outdoors life of the hoash or believe in witchcraft and female circumcision like Hajjah Waheeba who is described as ‘...African in features...’ with ‘...tribal scars.’  Whilst Mahmoud views Hajja Waheeba as ‘crude’ compared to the ‘sophistication’ and ‘glitter’ of Nabilah it is evident to the reader that Nabilah lacks warmth and tolerance.  ‘Too conscious’ of her status to mix with her husband’s other family, she feels her own children are ‘contaminated’ by their Sudanese blood. Nabilah later learns that her ‘prejudice’ prohibited her from any real influence on those around her.  Aboulela suggests that whilst progress and ‘modernity’ can be desirable they become superficial and hence superfluous if there are no values of worth behind them.

In contrast Mahmoud is shown to ‘...glide gracefully between these two worlds’ of Sudanese and Egyptian culture.   The reader warms to this man who encourages Soraya’s father to allow Soraya to wear spectacles, finish school and study to become a doctor. Nabilah acknowledges that her husband is ‘...magnanimous and fair despite the backward pull of tradition and blow of fate’ suggesting that he does his best within the social, political and religious climate he has been shaped by. It is unfair for Nabilah to demand he leaves Sudan when it is a part of him.  Ironically, perhaps Soraya would have found the same shortcomings in Nur who fostered by his traditional upbringing would have subjected Soraya to similarly traditional expectations had they married.

Aboulela portrays the social struggle for upward mobility and wealth through her characters.  Badr leaves Egypt to better himself as he can make significant savings in Sudan.  Similarly, Mahmoud’s family is shown to have risen in society as his grandfather was a merchant, his father the head of an agency and now he is a director of the family firm, Abuzeid Trading.  Aware of the sacrifices his family have made, he does not want their legacy to be diminished.   He urges his sponging son to think of the family’s‘...name and reputation. His voice almost broke...sentiments...from core.’ Mahmoud’s protectiveness of his family and their legacy is touching.  The reader is allowed to feel the sense of responsibility he places on himself and to witness the lengths he will go to act in what he sees as his family’s best interests. It is these reasons that make Mahmoud an extremely sympathetic character. He is the glue that holds the family together.

Aboulela employs beautiful, poetic language and vivid imagery to emphasise the importance of words and their meaning.  For instance, ‘their glittering future was here, here in the southern land where the potential was as huge and mysterious as the darkness of its nights.’  It is no wonder that Soraya finds words on the page ‘seductive’ and recalls the ‘thick enchantment’ of books. Similarly, Nur is obsessed with lyrics and the desire to create beautiful poetry.  It is his inability to hold a pen or turn the pages of a book that hurts him the most after his accident. He is joyful when he realises he can still read and create poetry.    ‘...people didn’t know Nur was an invalid.  For them all that mattered were his words.’  Nur’s hoash down the alley becomes a pulsating centre of literature as Nur creates and expounds his lyrics hence the title Lyrics Alley (Ohhhhhh, right - Mark).

Whilst Nur’s accident reveals the fragility of life, it also charts his journey from hope of a cure, to sadness and rage that this won’t happen, to acceptance and a form of hopefulness within the confines of his new reality.  Perhaps if he had not had his accident he would have currently been working for the family business unable to concentrate on his lyrics.  Instead he is the poet of ‘hope and love.’  This is extremely poignant as despite his lyrics of hope and love he has no hope of experiencing love with Soraya.  I cannot help but feel that the reader is left dissatisfied by this turn of events.  Soraya sacrifices her love of Nur for a husband who can actively provide her with the modernity she seeks.  Hence, whilst both achieve what they sought it is at the price of their love, leading Soraya to acknowledge that it is only within Nur’s lyrics that they can be ‘intimate.’  ‘These songs would be their story and these lyrics their homes.’

Lyrics Alley is out in December and currently available for preorder.

Lauren