“You look like something from the Third World,” Leila Aboulela writes in the story The Ostrich, one of thirteen short-stories featured in her new book, Elsewhere, Home. The Ostrich is about a woman, Samra, moving to London to be with her husband, Majdy. Both are from Sudan. Majdy is studying for his PhD and has been well-integrated into British society, adopting its norms and customs. Throughout their journey of reunification, the couple reveals their conflicting visions about life in England and relationship to Sudan. The story is a meditation on how appearances can shape the thoughts of those in the West who feel and look different from the so-called norm.
Set against a primarily British backdrop, Aboulela’s short stories traverse immigrant, minority, and refugee experiences. Romance, hardship, and faith all take center stage in the collection, which compiles Aboulela’s writing from as early as the 1990s to the present. While disconnected, the stories have one theme in common –home.
Faith is also a prominent theme in much of Abouelela’s writing. Instead of treating religion, specifically Islam, as inherently incompatible with Western society, Aboulela’s characters embrace their faith, and rely on it in their quest for home and comfort. But their relationships with religion are also different from one another. Many of the protagonists feel lost without the azaan, or call to prayer; some feel like a spectacle, or token, for their non-Muslim peers; others struggle with outward displays of devotion. Whether the main characters stray from or are pulled toward their faith, Aboulela makes it clear that Islam is integral to the cultural and religious fabric of what it means to be an Arab Muslim in Britain.
Aboulela’s stories manage to capture even the most mundane experiences in a moving and resonant way. In Farida’s Eyes, the eyesight of a young Arab student is deteriorating so quickly that her grades start to falter. Farida’s family believes she is just lazy, but they also cannot afford an eye exam and glasses. Eventually, a teacher intervenes, explaining the free services available to help Farida purchase the glasses she needs. Through this story, even the most detached reader can see how minor inconveniences can have a profound impact on immigrant and minority communities.
Something Old, Something New is perhaps Aboulela’s most confrontational pieces. The story is written from the perspective of a white Scottish man, who converted to Islam and is traveling to Sudan to marry his fiancée. In this piece, Aboulela does not shy away from describing the concurrent feelings of discomfort and superiority among Westerners traveling to Africa or the Middle East.
Born in Cairo in 1964 to a Sudanese father and an Egyptian mother, Aboulela moved to Khartoum at a young age. She graduated from the University of Khartoum with a degree in economics, and later pursued her M.Sc. and MPhil degrees, both in statistics, from the London School of Economics. She has lived in Jakarta, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha. In 1990, Aboulela settled in Aberdeen, Scotland with her husband and children. The move is cited as inspiration for her first novel, The Translator, which deals with similar themes of immigration, love and struggle.
Elsewhere, Home has been longlisted for the People’s Book Prize 2018, an award voted on by the public, while The Translator was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2006. The author’s other novels have also received notable literary prizes, such as the first Caine Prize for African Writing and the Scottish Book Award. Two of her novels were longlisted for the Orange Prize, and one was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize and the MacMillan Silver PEN Award. Her work has been translated into fourteen languages.
Elsewhere, Home is consistent with Aboulela’s interest in identity exploration and migration, yet each piece still manages to encapsulate diverse and emotionally identifiable experiences. With stories spanning over two decades, the book also demonstrates how little things have changed when it comes to issues relating to Arabs and Arab immigrants in the West. As a whole, Elsewhere, Home shows how the search for identity affects all aspects of life and drives our attempts to find home.