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