"In you, Egypt, are the causes of injury. And in Sudan my burden and my solace." These lines come to Nur Abuzeid as he struggles to sleep in the summer heat of his family's compound. "He had written poems before, juvenilia, imitations of grand words striving awkwardly to rhyme. But now this, in his mother tongue… The words are from inside him, his flesh and blood, his own peculiar situation."
The year is 1952, the place Umdurman, Sudan. King Farouk has just been deposed, the British are keen to resolve the "Sudan problem" and members of the Sudanese parties have been invited to Egypt for talks. Meanwhile Nur Abuzeid is about to find his voice as a poet. In Leila Aboulela's third novel, the realms of family, politics and poetry collide and collude, reaching an accord in the last pages no less moving for its mutability.
Aboulela, who was born in Egypt, raised in Sudan, educated at the London School of Economics and shaped by a life spent in Scotland, Indonesia, Abu Dhabi and Qatar, where she now resides, is no stranger to collisions: the physical with the spiritual, tradition rubbing up against modernity, Islam versus western perceptions of Islam. "I write about what I find moving and disturbing," she wrote recently. "Culture-shock or how, again and again, the carpet gets pulled from under our feet."
In Lyrics Alley Aboulela pulls the carpet repeatedly from under her characters - a large ensemble comprising two families in Umdurman, one wealthy, one poor, both with strong roots in Egypt. In fact, the cast is so large that Aboulela includes a list of characters at the novel's start, plus a family tree. These aids are mostly unnecessary: Aboulela's near-perfect ear for dialogue and a gift for sinking deep into her characters' psyches enable each to come distinctly alive. There's Mahmoud Abuzeid, the leonine head of two families who has moved far beyond his merchant grandfather and public-servant father. As director of Abuzeid Trading, a private, limited-liability company, and a leader in the Sudanese private sector, Mahmoud wants to "stake a place in the new, independent country, whenever and whatever form this independence took". Nur, his 18-year-old son, is being groomed to take Abuzeid Trading to the next level.
Mahmoud, meanwhile, develops a mutually advantageous relationship with the British hierarchy. Because of the joint ruling authority, the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, "Sudan was not technically part of the British Empire. The Foreign Office, rather than the Colonial Office, ruled it, which resulted in a more graceful colonial experience." Besides, to Mahmoud's way of thinking, "it was so clear who needed whom".
Across town in a one-room house with no running water lives Mahmoud's older sons' Arabic tutor, Ustaz Badr. A teacher, husband, father to four small boys and a caretaker to his senile father, Badr barely has time to contemplate what he calls his "tumultuous, humdrum life. What was it all for, where was it heading?"
Yet it is through Badr that Aboulela most fully explores the theme of faith that runs through all her fiction. In visceral passages of Lyrics Alley, Aboulela takes us inside Badr's experience as he prays at the mosque. Upset after being rebuffed at the Abuzeid family's compound, where he has gone to request an apartment in their new building, "Badr felt himself slide into another dimension. It was unexpected and unasked for. A dip into an alternative state, where he was weightless and free, and his concerns, valid and pressing only minutes ago, slackened and moved away."
Badr's and Mahmoud's worlds naturally include women - wives, nieces, mothers and daughters pressing in with their own needs. Mahmoud has two wives - two too many it sometimes seems: Waheeba, older and Sudanese, and Nabilah, younger and Egyptian. The women barely tolerate one another. Then there are Mahmoud's motherless nieces, one married to his oldest, ne'er-do-well son; another, Soraya, engaged to be married to Nur, the family's great hope.
It is from under Nur that Aboulela yanks the carpet hardest. "On the last day that Soraya loved the sea, she was wearing her new blue dress," begins the chapter that reshapes the family's destiny. In a novel rich in understated lyricism - Ben Okri and JM Coetzee have applauded Aboulela's "quiet anger and restraint" in her previous books The Translator, Coloured Lights and Minaret - this episode is taut with foreboding. We watch Soraya watch Nur dive from a cliff above a Cairo beach. He strikes his head. Nur miraculously survives the accident but is paralysed for life. He will never walk, feed himself or lift a pen again. He will not be able to marry his cousin. "The wreck", Mahmoud, heartbroken, calls his son after two operations fail.
Aboulela loosely based Lyrics Alley on the life of her uncle, Hassan Awad Aboulela, a Sudanese poet. It is not an "accurate biography", she explains in an author's note, but a work of fiction. Interestingly, while Nur's bed-bound, love-lost existence is movingly rendered, his near-instant fame as a poet sometimes rings false. Hooking up easily with one of Sudan's foremost oud players and singers, Nur's lyrics are soon broadcast on Radio Umdurman. This seems a little too neat.
Still, if there is a character in Lyrics Alley whom Aboulela fully understands it is Nur. She reads his heart. When Nur's old school chum Tuf Tuf comes to Nur's bedside to tell him that he and Soraya are to be married, he presents it obliquely, not mentioning names, instead quoting a line from Nur's first hit poem, one inspired by his love for Soraya: "There is no fault in her. "It is a warning, and Nur turns to look away, as if to search for armour, to reach for shield."
Aboulela does not look away from even her minor characters: Badr's erratic father or Feria, Mahmoud's young daughter by his second wife, secretly circumcised against his wishes, or Qadriyyah, Nabilah's newly widowed mother in Cairo. Aboulela's compassion extends to them all.
This acute sensitivity makes reading Lyrics Alley a deep pleasure. While history is being forged in early-Fifties Khartoum, Suez, Alexandria and London, politics takes a backseat to the personal here. Aboulela never forgets her characters are living in interesting times. Yet the details of meals Nabilah shares with her mother in Cairo - she has fled the heat, dust and bad blood of Sudan - possess an immediacy that even the most significant political decisions lack: "Qadriyyah started to bake again: pies, sponge cakes and jam pastries. Tea and cakes hot from the oven, irresistible. So more tea and pastries, and peanuts and roasted watermelon seeds as they sat on the balcony. More Turkish coffee as they listened to plays on the radio and began to laugh again."
Aboulela also never lets us forget that the life of the spirit, faith in something greater than our small selves, is what gives meaning to our time here - that even in the dimmest moments, Allah is there. Jailed briefly for a theft he has not committed, Badr asks: "Why do bad things happen? … So that we can practice seeking refuge in Him and, when relief comes give thanks for His mercy. Darkness was created so that, like plants, we could yearn and turn to the light."
A light shines through Lyrics Alley, an optimism one doesn't often find in contemporary novels. There is nothing sentimental about this light. It exists alongside the dark and feeds off it. Each of Aboulelah's characters has an experience of this, from Nabilah who returns at the novel's end to Sudan and her husband - "Umdurman was not up to her standards, but Mahmoud was excellent" - to Nur, who finds new life and a measure of peace in his writing. "The winds don't blow in the direction the ships favour," reads a line from a poem Nur studied in school. And well that they don't, Aboulela seems to be saying.
Denise Roig is the author of two collections of short stories. She lives in Abu Dhabi.