115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Cities of Translation: Ways of Envisioning the East-West Spaces in Leila Aboulela’s Literary Works

Michael Moreno, Green River College

This paper explores how Leila Aboulela’s novels The Translator and Minaret interpret urban spaces—both public and private, visible and veiled, sacred and secular—as cultural nodes and contact zones that translate and transform the post-colonial fragmentation between Islamic principles and a British ethos into an East-West discourse.

Proposal: 

Over the last several decades, the waves of immigration sweeping across the European continent have been reimagining and re-envisioning the identities of its cities and spaces. This cross-culturalization is particularly visible in the growing Muslim communities and their varied receptions by European cities. The United Kingdom has especially been reshaped by the émigrés, refugees, and immigrants coming from Islamic nations, many of them former colonies of the British Empire. In a number of British cities, it is not unusual to behold minarets visible from English parks, veiled women and bearded men moving meticulously in the open market spaces, halal butcheries and restaurants inscribed with Arabic signage, or the centuries old adhan echoing through cobblestone streets and subway stations. Simultaneously, public manifestations of Islamophobia have become hallmarks to a contested intermingling of East-West experiences and epistemologies throughout the United Kingdom. In these urban contact zones, literary spaces can best demonstrate the public and private tensions and concurrences transforming the 21st century British multi-identity, as clearly illustrated in Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela’s novels The Translator (1999) and Minaret (2005).

 This paper explores how Aboulela’s novels interpret urban spaces—both public and private, visible and veiled, sacred and secular—as cultural nodes and contact zones that translate and transform the post-colonial fragmentation between Islamic principles and a British ethos into an East-West discourse. A devout Muslim, Aboulela interweaves her spirituality throughout her writing, imbuing her female protagonists with the struggles involved in being a racial and religious minority in the United Kingdom and European continent. The Translator demonstrates how a widowed Sudanese immigrant working as an Arabic translator for a Scottish professor of Middle Eastern Studies grapples with her Islamic spirituality as it is challenged by a growing love for the non-Muslim professor and a grave sense of loneliness, exile, and estrangement from the city of Aberdeen. Minaret charts the journey of a once-privileged young Sudanese woman, forced to flee with her family after a coup, and live in London now as a maid for a wealthy Arab family. In both novels, the cityscapes respectively overlap with the protagonists’ Islamic sensibilities forcing them to translate the experience of an East-West identity for which they are not wholly prepared. In turn, they learn to cultivate different ways of envisioning Islamic spirituality alongside British tenets of capitalism and individualism within the interstices of their East-West realms.

 Utilizing the theories of Mary Louise Pratt, Waïl Hassan, and Eisa Nefertari Ulen, this paper further examines Aboulela’s production of a counter-narrative of Islamic identity and culture, one digressing from Western stereotypes of exoticism and terrorism. Aboulela effectively translates the East into the West and the West into the East, modeling “linguistic complexity [that] reflects language as both the site of power struggle, and the crucible of cultural and literary creativity” (Gilmour, 2012). Hers is a unique take on the post-colonial narrative as she employs the concept of translation and transmission to articulate Islam’s compatibility, albeit a complex one, with Western traditions and secularism. My analysis of these novels underscores how spatial theory becomes a lens through which East-West discourses can articulate greater ways of seeing socio-cultural interactions and reconfigurations.