Leila Aboulela

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Leila Aboulela (2010)

Leila Fuad Aboulela FRSL ( born 1964) is a fiction writer, essayist, and playwright of Sudanese origin based in Aberdeen, Scotland.[1] She grew up in Khartoum, Sudan, and moved to Scotland in 1990 where she began her literary career. Until 2023, Aboulela has published six novels and several short stories, which have been translated into fifteen languages.


  • “The Mercy of Allah is an Ocean, Our sins are a lump of clay clenched between the beak of a pigeon. The pigeon is perched on the branch of a tree at the edge of that ocean.It only has to open it's beak”[1]
  • “I'm not middle-class; I do not have a degree. I am upper-class without money.”[2]
  • “And why is it that so many years later it is so easy to distinguish the bullies from their prey? Adult bodies surrounding the children of long ago. The years have changed nothing.”[3]
  • “Perhaps we half and halfs should always make a choice, one nationality instead of the other, one language instead of the other. We should nourish one identity and starve the other so that it would atrophy and drop off. Then we could relax and become like everyone else, we could snuggle up to the majority and fit in.”[4]
  • “In the distant past, Muslim doctors advised nervous people to look up at the sky. Forget the tight earth. Imagine that the sky, all of it, belonged to them alone. Crescent, low moon, more stars than the eyes looking up at them. But the sky was free, without any price, no one I knew spoke of it, no one competed for it. Instead, one by one those who could afford it began to sleep indoors in cool air-conditioned rooms, away from the mosquitoes and the flies...”[5]
  • “I like talking to you,' he said, slowly.

'Why?' That was the way to hear nice things. Ask why.”[6]

  • “What ages you faster, suffering or experience?”[7]
  • “The sweetest things in life were not necessarily what one strove for and grabbed. Instead, many many times the All-Merciful, the All-Generous would give His servants without being petitioned, without waiting to be asked.”[8]
  • “I wanted to be good but I wasn't sure if I was prepared”[9]
  • “The blow, inevitable in itself, comes straight from the source without any intermediaries.”[10]
  • “Why do bad things happen? For pedagogical reasons, so that we can experience the power of Allah, catch a glimpse of Hell and fear it, so that we can practice seeking refuge in Him and, when relief comes give thanks to His mercy. Darkness was created so that, like plants, we could yearn and turn to the light.”[11]
  • “Allah tests our patience and our fortitude. He tests out strength of faith. be patient and there will endless rewards for you, insha'Allah" - Utaz Badr”[12]
  • “Control yourself, it is not worth it. You will regret your rudeness afterwards, your sensitive nature will be troubled”[13]
  • “I've come down in the world. I've slid to a place where the ceiling is low and there isn't much room for me to move.Most of the time I'm good. I accepted my sentence and do not brood or look back. But sometimes a shift makes me remember. Routine is ruffled and a new start makes me suddenly conscious of what I've become -”[14]
  • “This is the enemy, what is irreversible, what has already reached the farthest of places. There is no going back. They can bomb bus-loads of tourists, burn the American flag, but they are not shooting the enemy. It is already with them, inside them, what makes them resentful, defensive, what makes them no longer confident of their vision of the world.”[15]
  • “Can I aske forgiveness for someone else, someone whose already dead?" "Yes, you can. Of course you can. And you can give charity in their name and you can recite the Qur'an for their sake. All these things will reach them, your prayers will ease the hardship and loneliness of their grave or it will reach them in bright, beautiful gifts. Gifts to unwrap and enjoy and they will know that this gift is from you.”[16]
  • Who would care if I became pregnant, who would be scandalized?[17]
  • “So much darkness made her uneasy. There was definitely a weight pushing down on the world. Misfortune was always hovering close around people’s shoulders. But she would fight it off, and keep fighting with all her might. Otherwise she would be annihilated by this nameless, all-reaching gloom which she couldn’t figure out or map.”[18]
  • I find myself excited about reading African historical fiction more than other genres because it feels to me that this is actually new and exciting.
  • I just want people to say to me, these are real characters. Then I’m happy. It doesn’t matter whether it’s sympathetic or not.
  • if you want to produce art, you want it to be more than defensive – you want it to be more than a response, it must be structured in such a way that it is self-supporting.

Bird Summons (2019)

  • She had hired a coach, then when the women started pulling out after the anger over the photo, a minibus, then when the numbers fell still further, a people carrier, then when there was just the three of them, Salma decided to take her own car. She had fought a battle and lost. (first lines)
  • [she] did not want the flickering images of the past to be part of the garden. War should stay out of here. Shaking windows, wailing women, burnt skin, the terrifying gleam in the whites of a young man’s eyes. Blood that was not menstrual, softness that was damaged flesh, stillness that was not sleep but death. She wished she could wash her mind of all these things. She breathed in the smell of the garden, touched the flowers. This was the present, and she was here inside it. (Page 68)
  • One mother could look after twelve children and decades later these twelve adults would fidget and struggle to look after that one mother.
  • She was meant to learn from his stories, to become spiritually nourished, to tame her ego and strengthen her resolve. Instead, the pull of the other current was visceral and strong. The costumes more intimate than his stories; her anger louder than his voice. But still she wanted to listen to him, the wisdom of his words mesmerising if difficult to apply, comforting despite being cautionary. (p201)
  • Every holiday had a perfect length and then it turned into an indulgence, time sitting heavy on idle hands, the mind free to find fault with life left behind, too much friction between people, familiarity turning to contempt. Every holiday was a threat. (p213)
  • A snake might not remember the year before, the month before. That desire to know, to check, to measure against, was human. (p233)
  • 'He took my strength instead of my virtue...That's what happened. He dug inside and took my muscles.' (p246)
  • 'In every journey...there comes a point, around three quarters of the way through, when the traveller, without a guide, can go no further. But not everyone finds a guide. Not everyone accepts a guide. Not everyone is convinced. Many would rather keep fumbling on their own, trying and trying again. They would rather risk not completing the journey, they would rather risk getting lost or content themselves with the advance already made, than follow in trust.' (p259)

Interview with World Literature Today (2019)

  • In my mid-twenties, I moved from Sudan to Scotland. The trauma of that move was the catalyst that launched my journey as a writer. It was as if the person I always thought I would be (a university statistics professor like my mother, a privileged member of Khartoum society) died and a new person was born—someone who was marginalized due to race and religion, a writer without a creative writing degree. I was homesick and could not stop comparing my new home with the old one. These thoughts and emotions couldn’t find any outlet except that of fiction. I felt compelled to write. If you had asked me then if writing was “something I enjoyed and wanted to pursue,” I would have found this wording alien. I was never attracted to the idea of being a writer. My early writing caused me disturbance rather than enjoyment. I was like someone possessed.
  • In my fiction, I am looking for a place of compassion, a place in which the traveler can share the baggage they carried with them, a place to hum the yearning for home as well as push forward and claim a position in this new world, which might not be welcoming at first, but, hopefully, there are spots that can give way to the pressure of a stranger rather than resist. Because the immigrant experience is also often one of blunder and misunderstandings, I am also looking for a forgiving place where people can be given a second chance.
  • Fiction is fueled by love and anger—my love for my father and his own love for his family and country fueled Lyrics Alley.
  • Eurocentric literature is also Christian-centric no matter how much writers and readers regard it as secular or humanist. Every genre from crime to science fiction is heavy with Christian symbolism, while secular literary fiction, even if it is in opposition to Christianity, is also still engaged with its ethos. I write from a Muslim perspective, from within Islamic tradition. Not all my characters are practicing Muslims; many as you say are cultural Muslims, and I don’t find it difficult to write about them because they are people I know and am in contact with.
  • The role of art should be to bear witness to the truth no matter how complex or disturbing or dangerous.
  • I do sometimes think of my books as food that I am serving to readers. A dish full of flavor with a moody texture and the chance shock of pepper. My characters are flawed rather than “good,” and so different readers respond to them in different ways—sometimes with impatience and sometimes with empathy. Either way I hope that readers feel a mild jolt of consciousness.

Elsewhere, Home (2018)


short story collection

  • It was not her first time boarding the Egypt Air flight from Heathrow to Cairo. (first lines of "Summer Maze")
  • he had come to realise, with the sick bleakness that accompanies truth... ("Souvenirs")
  • our clothes that seemed natural a few hours back, now crumpled and out of place. ("Ostrich")
  • She told him that Mother Teresa had visited her in a dream. Adam braced himself for the consequences. 'She wants me to work in her orphanage in Calcutta.' The steam from Elaine's green tea shimmered between them. (first lines of "The Aromatherapist's Husband")
  • Cheese melts in London like nowhere else. Old mixes with new like nowhere else. The city is blessed. But a girl can sob her heart out in London's streets and no one will stop, no one will raise an eyebrow, no one will ask why. Oh, city of opportunities, career ladders and fame, you promised me I could start afresh, make my fortune. Rise and cruise up high. But I age and watch the chances fold in, the paths converge. I live the narrowing and the shutting down. (first lines of "The Circle Line")
  • I sank into the armchair, into myself and I took your story understanding every reference, getting every joke. I hummed the tunes of songs you mentioned, I saw maps of the streets you pointed out. I was your perfect reader and I was too rapt to even stop and think that I don't want this to end. This was the first time I recognised myself in fiction. Not my inner self, I was able to do that between the most unlikely covers, novels written by men from other centuries or set in places I didn't even know existed. But in your work I saw my country, my values and the social circles I grew up in. ("Pages of Fruit")

The Kindness of Enemies (2015)

  • Allah was inscribed on the blade. Malak read the Arabic aloud to me. (first lines)
  • As if reading his mind, Jamal-al-Din said, 'To get what you love, you must first be patient with what you hate." (p61)
  • ‘Your naibs are greedy. They need to be taught a lesson. Money is like grass. It withers...but our deeds last forever.' (p233)

Lyrics Valley (2010)

  • The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, When Allah loves a people, He tries them.
  • Words on a page were seductive, free, inviting everyone, without distinction.
  • "Eid Crescent"
    I feed on bitterness and satiety never comes.
    Today sadness has renewed itself.
    Let me narrate the story of two souls,
    Whose love was struck by the evil eye,
    In a twist which Fate had hidden.
    Luck won’t smile and Time will scorch.
    Only the stars know what is wrong with me.
    I almost sense them craning to wipe my tears away.
  • The West believes that Islam oppresses women. But as a Muslim, descended from generations of Muslims, I have a different story to tell. It starts like this: You say, "The sea is salty." I say, "But it is blue and full of fish." I am not objective about Islam, and although I am considerably Westernized, I can never truly see it through Western eyes. I am in this religion. It is in me. And articulating the intimacy of faith and the experience of worship to a Western audience is a challenge and a discovery.
  • Yes, Islam restrains me, but restraint is not oppression, and boundaries can be comforting and nurturing. Freedom does not necessarily bring happiness, nor does an abundance of choices automatically mean that we will make the right one. I need guidance and wisdom; I need grace and forgiveness.
  • I appreciate the West. I love its literature, its transparency and its energy. I admire its work ethic and its fairness. I need its technology and its medicine, and I want my children to have a Western education. At the same time, I am fulfilled in my religion. Nothing can compete with the elegance, authority and details of the Koran.
  • I am not oppressed simply because I have, thank God, been spared the causes of oppression: poverty, war, destitution, abuse, illness and ignorance.
  • I think it is ridiculous that women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, deeply shameful that young girls are still circumcised in Sudan and criminal that women in any part of the Muslim world can be denied health care or education. Change and progress, though, are happening, slowly but steadily, as Muslim societies acknowledge that their unjust traditions are rooted in a culture that can evolve, rather than in timeless religious values. Neither Muslims nor Muslim societies are static; they move forward -- but they have their own trajectory. They cannot be replicas of the West.
  • Twenty years ago, when I was recently married and a graduate student at the London School of Economics, I, too, started to wear the hijab. I took this step with no pressure from my parents or my husband. It came after years of hesitation, years during which I held back out of fear that I would look ugly in a head scarf and that my progressive friends would make fun of me. But I had so often gazed with longing at the girls at university who covered their hair, and I wanted to be like them. To me they seemed romantic, feminine, wrapped in some kind of mystique. I liked the look, but it was more than that. I was persuaded by the religious argument for the veil, which stresses modesty. I wanted to take a step in the right direction.

Minaret (2005)

  • I've come down in the world. I've slid to a place where the ceiling is low and there isn't much room for me to move.Most of the time I'm good. I accepted my sentence and do not brood or look back. But sometimes a shift makes me remember. Routine is ruffled and a new start makes me suddenly conscious of what I've become, standing in a street covered with autumn leaves. (first lines)
  • There was no way of knowing if his deceased relative was a man or a woman. All through life there were distinctions - toilets for men, toilets for women; clothes for men, clothes for women - then, at the end, the graves are identical. (p158)
  • I wanted to speak to my mother but I didn’t feel she was there. I couldn’t imagine her under the ground though I was sure that she was. It was like I knew for sure that one day I too would die but I couldn’t imagine it. All my life I had been living. How to imagine any other state? What was my mother feeling now? Did she know I was here? (p158)
  • I stare down at my hands, my warped self and distorted desires. I would like to be his family’s concubine, like something out of The Arabian Nights, with life-long security and a sense of belonging. But I must settle for freedom in this modern time. (p215)
  • I am touched by her life, how it moves forward, pulses and springs. There is no fragmentation, nothing stunted or wedged. I circle back, I regress, the past doesn't let go. It might as well be a malfunction, a scene repeating itself, a scratched vinyl record, a stutter. (p216)
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