While researching my novel, Lyrics Alley set in 1950s Sudan, I came across the story of a promising schoolgirl whose older brother refused to let her wear a much needed pair of glasses. No matter that being short-sighted would hamper her studies, in pre-Independent Sudan reading glasses were considered to be masculine and disfiguring. Being short-sighted myself, I warmed to this story. In the mid-seventies, at the age of ten, my English teacher had caught me squinting at the board and called my mother in.
When we reached the eye doctor, everyone was surprised by how poor my vision really was. I wore glasses until I turned sixteen and then switched to contact lenses. Unlike Soraya, the imaginary character in my novel who had to battle her father in order to excel in school and complete her higher education, I was saved by a perceptive teacher and supportive parents. Twenty years on, things had indeed improved for girls in Sudan and these positive changes extended beyond the right to a clear view of the blackboard.
My new novel, Lyrics Alley, was inspired by the life of my father’s cousin Hassan Awad Aboulela, a poet whose lyrics were set to music and became hugely popular songs. Focusing on a male character was a departure for me; both my previous novels, The Translator and Minaret, were about Sudanese women faced with the challenge of practising their faith in a modern-day, secular Britain. In Lyrics Alley I moved the setting to Sudan and chose an all-Muslim cast. Naturally, I lost the juxtaposition of East/West and the tensions between Muslim and non-Muslims that were prominent in my earlier works. The situation in Lyrics Alley shifts the focus onto Muslim cultures in a Muslim setting with characters of varying degrees of religious devotion. I wanted to show how the traditions that adversely affect Sudanese women and, by extension many Muslim women, were not tied to religious observance, but rather to cultural practices that had nothing to do whatsoever with Islam.
Around the true story of the birth of a poet orbit the lives of three imaginary women. His mother, the illiterate Waheeba, is bitter because her husband has taken a younger, more favored wife. The second wife Nabilah, sophisticated and articulate, who pines for her home city Cairo, is exasperated by what she sees as the ‘backwardness’ of Umdurman. And finally, there is the poet’s sweetheart, the short-sighted, beautiful Soraya who becomes his muse and his loss.
I enjoyed writing about the battle of the co-wives. A clash between modernity and tradition, between the insider and the outsider, the established and the pioneer. At first Waheeba and Nabilah avoid each other easily enough; each lives in her own section of the house, with her own household staff and her own social-life. But the young poet’s accident tips the balance and the two wives find themselves face to face. Nabilah can be chillingly polite, buoyed by her illusions of superiority and her belief that Waheeba is no competition. However Waheeba, as the mother of the newly invalid poet, has gained a new authority. The two wives are well-matched, and their conflict comes to a head over the decision to circumcise the younger girls of the family. Although the procedure is African rather than Islamic, and despite the fact that the head of the family is opposed to this custom, Waheeba still clings to tradition.
The Sudan was one of the first countries in Africa to outlaw female genital mutilation (FGM). However the law, passed by the British colonial administration, was neither enforced nor influential and the procedure continued unabated. It was only urban, educated families who distanced themselves from the practice. And, surprisingly, it was largely men rather than women who were keen for female genital mutilation to end. In Sudan, stories abound of wives who take advantage of their husband’s absence to force the procedure on their daughters. However with time, education and a growing movement of women empowerment, the frequency with which FGM is performed has dropped, as has the severity of the type of mutilation itself. In order to protect girls from the adverse physical side-effects of the procedure, Sudanese medical doctors developed clinically safe methods with less radical outcomes, and these innovations did find popular support, though they did not eradicate the practice altogether.
I intended to shock the reader with the detailed episode of FGM in Lyrics Alley. Nabilah’s view of the ‘backwards’ Sudan could be easily dismissed as prejudice and even racism. I wanted to bolster her position, and illustrate the challenge she faced from a traditional society’s perverse adherence to what was harmful and unnecessary.
In Lyrics Alley, tradition and modernity compete for legitimacy, and it is women who come to embody these conflicts and changes. Economically and politically, the 1950s was an optimistic time for a county such as Sudan on the brink of achieving independence. Decades of colonial rule were coming to an end, and self-determination was fought for and achieved. Parallel to this national struggle, the women of the time were pushing ahead in their own way – in fraught battles against FGM, in gaining fairer positions within polygamy, in acquiring a university education or just for the simple right to wear a much needed pair of prescription glasses.
Leila Aboulela is the first recipient of the Caine Prize for African Writing. She is the author of The Translator, one of The New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of the Year and Minaret – both long-listed for the Orange Prize. Hew latest novel, Lyrics Alley, is Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards. Leila grew up in Sudan, lived much of her adult life in Scotland, and now lives in Doha, Qatar.