erasing clouds

Book Review: Leila Aboulela's The Translator

by anna battista

Sammar, a young Sudanese widow, is working as an Arabic translator at the University of Aberdeen. Away from her home town of Khartoum, alone with the memories of her dead husband Tarig and her estranged son who’s living with her aunt and mother-in-law in Sudan, Sammar lives a grey existence, longing for the colours of her country, for warm temperatures and starry nights. Comfort arrives in her life when she falls in love with Rae, an Orientalist teaching in the same department where Sammar works. Rae is Sammar’s antithesis: he is Scottish, twice divorced, and, though is interested in Islam, he’s practically an agnostic. Realising there is no future for them if Rae doesn’t convert to Islam, Sammar starts wishing and praying he will convert: “If you just say the shahada it would be enough,” she confesses to Rae, “We could get married. If you just say the words…”. The two characters will be separated for a while when Sammar goes back to Sudan, and they will meet again, slightly older and wiser and perhaps finally able to understand each other.

The Translator is set in two contrasting cities, Aberdeen and Khartoum, both reflecting the states of mind of the main character: the cold of the Scottish city makes her feel hibernated inside; the hot weather in Sudan makes Sammar feel alive, putting a bit of warmth in her heart full of sorrow. The contrasts between the two cities also symbolise the contrasts in religion and culture between the two main characters.

The novel is a great page turner: Aboulela’s style is concise and lyrical and her descriptions read like short poems. There is a part in the book which can only be understood by people who, for one reason or another, don’t live anymore in their home country or haven’t lived there for a long time: Sammar sees a light, a shadow and thinks she is in her home country, but she’s still in Aberdeen and suddenly feels lost in a sort of hallucination, a vision that is blurring the reality she lives in: “Outside Sammar stepped into a hallucination in which the world had swung around. Home had come here. Its dimly lit streets, its sky and the feel of home had come here and balanced just for her. She saw the sky cloudless with too many stars, imagined the night warm, warmer than indoors. She smelled dust and heard barking of stray dogs among street’s rubble and pot-holes. A bicycle bell tinkled, frogs croaked, the muezzin coughed into the microphone and began the azan for the Isha prayer. But this was Scotland and the reality left her dulled, unsure of herself. This had happened before but not for so long, not so deeply. Sometimes the shadows in a dark room would remind her of the power cuts at home or she would mistake the gurgle of the central-heating pipes for a distant azan. But she had never stepped into a vision before, home had never come here before. It took time to take in the perfect neatness of the buildings and the gleaming road. It took time for the heating in Yasmin’s car to clear the mist of their breath on the window panes.”

Through the pages of the book, the reader is also introduced to Islam: Sammar prays and fasts, ponders on how to wear the veil, talks to Rae about the significance of Islamic doctrines. Even though The Translator was first published in 1995 (and was recently reprinted in paperback by Polygon), it is a very relevant book for our times. Sammar and Rae extensively talk about a terrorist group based in Egypt, while before going back to Sudan, Sammar briefly works as interpreter in Egypt interviewing young men from a terrorist group, only to discover they are as disillusioned as her (“She looked as weary as the young men she put the questions to everyday, thin and disillusioned, their fingers dripping cigarettes, bravado and dreams. She put to them questions made up by others, then turned their answer into English words…’I worked as a helper in a beauty salon, the usual things, sweeping hair from off the floor, washing towels…’ ‘My brother served time and when he came out…’, ‘My father worked in Baghdad and lost his job when the war broke out…’ ‘We live ten, one room…’”).

The Translator is a love story, a nostalgic and tender novel, but also a book with a moral and with lots of different feelings and emotions, in a nutshell, it’s an essential book.


this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds