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African writers have rarely chronicled the lives of closely-knit extended families the way that many Western writers, particularly in the nineteen century, have. I can think of no examples that concentrate on such dynasties, except for some of the works by Egyptian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, which may be one reason he was awarded the prize. Perhaps this kind of scope in fiction depends upon a sense of history, the historical past, which until fairly recently (say a hundred years ago) was not the way that most Africans saw the world. There is an earlier novel by a Sudanese writer—Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (1966), one of the masterpieces of African fiction—which has this sense of history, but it is has no real sense of family. With Leila Aboulela’s Lyrics Alley, all this has changed.
The family is so important in Aboulela’s novel that she includes a genealogy of the principal characters at the beginning of her story. Mahmoud Abuzeid, the patriarch, has been enormously successful as a businessman, and his marriage to Hajjah Waheeba has led to two sons, Nassir and Nur, both young men. Nassir, the elder son and already married, has two children of his own, and although he works for his father, he’s turned into a slacker, much given to drink. Nur has thus become his father’s hope for the future and, as a consequence, he’s been provided with an education at Egypt’s preeminent English school and set his eyes on Oxford.
Nur is smart enough that he will probably be accepted. He’s also a bit of a budding poet, to the consternation of his father. Everyone expects that Nur will marry his cousin, Soraya, who is the daughter of Mahmoud’s younger brother, Idris. The two “lovers” are quite cosmopolitan, sometimes able to see one another unchapperoned. They spend their summer vacations in Egypt, in part because some years earlier Mahmoud took a second wife, Nabilah, who is not only much younger than Waheeba, his first wife, but also Egyptian. From the beginning, part of the tension in the family is because of Mahmoud’s distinctly different wives. Waheeba is illiterate and traditional; Nabilah is sophisticated and westernized. Although she doesn’t like the part of the year that she is expected to live in Umdurman, close to Khartoum, she agrees to the arrangement in order that their two young children can be with their farther.
The extended family is, thus, composed of two wives—different from one another in every way—and two pairs of children, the older young men from the union with Waheeba, and the much younger children from Mahmoud’s union with Nabilah. There are rich descriptions of the divided household in Umdurman, with the divisions for each wife and her own children. There’s even a fairly complicated sub-story involving the Egyptian tutor who Mahmoud has employed for his children, but mostly Nur—to supplement his formal education. The teacher, Ustaz Badr, has his own growing family—a wife and several children—and that family will find its own advancement linked to Mahmoud’s.
Then tragedy. Nur learned to swim at the British school. One day when he and Soraya are swimming in the Mediterranean near Alexandria, he is pulled under the water and hits a rock or the sand with such force that he is immobile. There’s a preliminary operation on his spine performed at a hospital in Egypt, and when that proves to be unsuccessful, Mahmoud takes him to England for a second. The time frame for all of these events is not contemporary, but shortly after World War II, 1950 to 1951. The second operation also fails, and Nur is left paralyzed from the neck down, so Mahmoud takes him back to Khartoum, and since the patriarch is rich, he is able to provide his son with all the care he needs in spite of his bedridden state.
Mahmoud’s plans for a lasting dynasty built on the successes of his more accomplished son have been abruptly terminated. There’s a further blow to his plans because Mahmoud had taken Nabilah, his second wife, with him to London for all the months involving Nur’s hospitalization. She’s the cultured wife, although not Nur’s mother. To retaliate, when Nabilah is away from the combined household for a brief time, Waheeba has the daughter of her husband’s second marriage circumcised—in spite of both Mahmoud and Nabilah’s objections to the procedure. The practice was common enough for Sudanese girls but not for Egyptians. Both of these events thwart Mahmoud’s plans for his children’s futures. Suddenly, it appears as if the lives of the moneyed elite are no more likely to be a guarantee of success and happiness than those of the poor.
There’s much more to this richly textured novel than I have mentioned. Throughout the story, Mahmoud is described as a decent person, much concerned with the community as a whole, not just his own immediate family. The portraits of Waheeba, Nabilah and Soraya are revelations—partially because of their differences but also because of their own strong-willed personalities. Initially, Soraya is young and innocent and unable to fathom the magnitude of Nur’s accident. Yet she grows into an accomplished young woman with a medical degree after overcoming the biggest obstacle in her life: Idris, her own father, who won’t let her wear glasses for fear that men will no longer see her beauty. Further, the rivalry of Waheeba and Nabilah is one of the successes of this majestic novel, always capable of surprising the reader and relating an archetypal story but in an environment few of us will ever observe with our own eyes.
But we have Leila Aboulela’s eyes instead, her strong vision of what can destroy the most powerful of families and then, if they are fortunate, bring them back together again. Lyrics Alley is in the same league with Naguib Mahfouz’s “palace” novels and Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North.
By Leila Aboulela
Grove Press, 310 pp., $24
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. His critical works include The Emergence of African Fiction.