A fascinating insight

2011-03-23 00:00

SET in 1950s Sudan on the outskirts of Khartoum, this novel has much to intrigue and delight. It gives an inside view into the daily lives of a wealthy Muslim Sudanese family with close links to Egypt and the progressive westernisation it represents, thus effectively setting up the themes of tradition, transition and modernisation. These themes are further played out in the political reality of the time as Sudan gains its independence from Britain and avoids becoming a subordinate province of Egypt.

The story moves between Umdurman, across the Nile from Khartoum, Cairo and Alexandria, evoking these different settings effectively in the contrast between rural traditional life, the sophistication of Cairo and the relaxed seaside atmosphere of Alexandria. Despite the political background which provides a poignant perspective on recent events in the region in terms of political changes, both in Sudan and Egypt, the focus is predominantly personal and the complex layers of connections within the extended Abuzeid family give a fascinating insight into how nuanced Islamic culture is. Both its gracious, aspirational gentleness and its harsh, restrictive cruelty are played out in this story of a family facing the rewards and reversals of the reality they inhabit.

Interesting juxtapositions abound in the book from the commercial world of the market place to the private domestic settings of the home, from the strategic operations of politics and business to an intensely emotional expression through music and poetry of the overcoming of loss and disablement. The teacher of Arabic, Ustaz Badr, provides an outsider view of the Abuzeid family and an insight into the struggles of those less well-off. The writing is poetic and evocative and the structure works tellingly to contrast and comment on the various attitudes and aspirations of the characters, making for a thoroughly satisfying read. 

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