Where Words Take Us – Minaret

The word minaret originated from the Arabic word, manār(a), which means lighthouse, and denotes a ‘slender tower, typically part of a mosque’.

White Mosque - Johannesburg, South Africa
Houghton Mosque – Johannesburg, South Africa

The minaret has one or more balconies from which the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer five times a day. The devotion and logistics of that practice boggle my mind if contrasted with the Christian faith in which I grew up. The Afrikaans Dutch‑Reformed church bells rang out on Sunday mornings and evenings from steeples all over South Africa – from the biggest cities to the smallest villages. Sometimes on a Saturday for a wedding, and sometimes on a Wednesday for a funeral.

The book cover of Minaret, by Leila Aboulela
Ambiguity is its Middle Name

Just as puzzling is the way in which this word presented itself to me. Usually, words appear in odd and serendipitous ways, unexpected and out of the blue. Then they take me to the places where they have rooted themselves in the world. But minaret has been roosting in my mind for approximately fifteen years.

The Novel

I bought Leila Aboulela’s novel with that name way back in 2006, intrigued by the eyes of the woman on the cover and the title. We moved countries three times and went through a year of lockdown with two start-stop attempts, starting other books in between and putting them down too, before I realised I probably wouldn’t succeed in reading anything else unless I read this book from start to finish, come hell or high water.

In May this year, then, it became the first book I’d finished in three years, and there, on the cover page, was Minaret, right on time for my next column. But the writing became a laborious, six-month-long battle. I had to finish the article, though, because I knew the book would haunt me and keep me from other writing until it was done.

Grant Snider Cartoon depicting his thoughts in 9 blocks from where they first appear to where he finally makes sense of the complexities he's discovered in what seemed simple and straightforward
Map of my Thoughts

We follow Najwa’s strangely reversed coming-of-age journey from being a privileged, rich child in Sudan, growing up with servants in the secular home of her politician father, to being such a servant in the household of a family in London – or rather, serving two student children of a family in the same position Najwa grew up in. The story of her life doesn’t unfold chronologically but becomes two stories unfolding alternately, side by side, deepening the contrast between the Najwa of then and the Najwa of now who finds solace in Islam and the life of the women at the mosque where everybody is equal.


The book rendered too many complex themes to write 700 odd words on, one being the idea that all Muslim women do not feel oppressed. The other, a comparison between Najwa’s living her faith and my navigating mine in an environment that toppled over long before I consciously processed it. I read the book twice but my thoughts kept on pulling Grant Sniders on me. So, I have to connect the dots to make sense of the fractured and nonsensical streams of thought that this book spurred on.

There were too many beautiful parts, too many thought-provoking and too many tragic ones to pin them all down for you to help me with this fractured whole, but two of them resonated with me and came to fruition in the form of two pins that I put up on social media over the last months.

Quote about buried desires from Leila Aboulela's book Minaret and my own conclusion about it, set in yellow type on black background with photograph of the book cover.
The Incomprehensible Combination of Happiness and Buried Desires

Perhaps this is my own bias, though, because the home that my husband and I have created for ourselves – the little haven we enter from underneath the tree arch of privilege, closed in by the green gate that protects us from the violent crime in our country, where we share life’s joy, conquer its challenges and cry over its tragedies on equal footing – makes up for all the holidays we cannot afford and allows us to appreciate the ones we can even more.

Two paragraphs of text, quoted from Laila Abouolela's book Minaret set on a black background with a pictuure of the book cover.
The True Meaning of Country Stability

The two quotes about the stability that some countries afford their citizens didn’t mean anything to me personally, and there weren’t any dots to be connected between the pin about happiness and this one until the unrest in July saw parts of our country shattered to pieces and going up in flames and smoke like offerings, paying a price for something too deep and intertwined and screwed-up to even name. Something that didn’t only cause general instability but also shook and disturbed our small, safe haven. Something that brought home in no uncertain terms the fact that our stable and solidly structured life is fragile.

Where the Two Ends Meet

Why this messy discomfort? Why did I bother with it for such a long time? Goodness knows but it kept me hostage and I couldn’t move on. Last night, a sage friend said: I think what you’re struggling with is whether to write about the novel and its significance for the Muslim community or about what this book did for you (to you might be more accurate). One thing I know: I can’t talk about the novel, its themes or its significance for the Muslim community because I am not Muslim, and it would be presumptuous, arrogant and plain stupid to pretend I can begin to understand the complex relationships between men and women who are.

And perhaps I’d better deal with the discomfort presented to me by the female side of the Muslim world because I may get a glimpse of the discomfort that my own, western world projects onto their normality.

Sincere thanks to

the author, Ms Leila Aboulela. Najwa left me richer and more in tune with my own world if not hers.

cartoonist Grant Snider, for understanding my thought processes even before I do.

photographer Hush Naidoo for shooting the mosque especially for this article, and then waiting six months to finally see it published.

my editor, Alexis Grewan, for her ability to be the sage friend, the hard hat and the red pen all at once.

Read more of my articles here, or come and say hello on Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin, and Twitter.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


13 Responses

  1. What a fascinating journey, Helene. Such depth of reflection. Compelling reading. Looking forward to reading the book.

  2. This is a wonderful unpacking of what you experienced in reading this book, Helene. It speaks to the importance of literature and how it opens the world to us and also helps us to see the world through the eyes of others.

  3. After reading this article I am so aware of the influence words have on us. Literature educates us, but so often changes and shifts us. It is often consciously but can be so subtle we’re hardly aware of it.
    Thank you for sharing your journey, it will be in my thoughts and mind for a while as I often dwell on how our various faiths flavor our lives and behavior with each of us interpreting it differently.

  4. I can only imagine the intensity of your thinking, reading and writing process for this one. It is wonderful how literature can challenge and delight in equal parts – just like your post. Always a pleasure to read it.

  5. Thank you for sharing your journey and capturing your thoughts so well, Helene. This article certainly unlocked the door to some of my reflections. Your writing style is captivating. Do continue sharing your reflections.

  6. Have only read Lyrics Alley by this author. The ‘stable lands’ quote made me think of author Elif Shafak’s talks about ‘liquid lands’ and how the belief that there are ‘safe countries’ is completely an illusion.

    1. Thank you, Khalida. I think I agree, but I think people have to feel that in their bones to believe it. And not many people have the opportunity to live in different countries. Thanks so much for the comment on Instagram as well. I will paste it here for my readers’ reference, too. I can’t wait to get my hands on that book:
      ‘Love the books that haunt. Had the same experience with Yasmina Khadra’s The Sirens of Baghdad.
      A library book that I couldn’t start reading, but kept renewing for more than 6 months.
      Was it worth it? Hell YES!!!’

  7. What a delightful read Heléne.
    “Fascinated by why we become what we become and the interaction between who we are and what language we use”
    Loved reading your article.

    1. Dankie, Rozaan. Dis so ‘n verrassing om van jou te hoor, en weer op my blog. Jy was destyds, toe ons nog in Pole was, ook die eerste mens wat my blog gelees en kommentaar gelewer het. Dis somehow ‘n stewige band – sonder dat ons mekaar ooit ontmoet het.
      Thank you, Rozaan. It’s such a surprise to find you here, and again, on my blog. You were my first reader who commented on my blog yonks ago while we were still in Poland. It feels like a strong bond – even though we’ve never met.

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