Leila Aboulela

Through its intersecting story lines, Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela portrays the Abuzeid dynasty in 1950s Sudan. Set against the backdrop of turbulent political times, Mahmoud Bey, the patriarch, navigates between clashing forces both in his public and private life: the indigenous population’s collision with British rule as it strives for independence; Waheeba, his Sudanese first wife steeped in the traditions of her culture versus his second wife Nabilah, a younger and more progressive Egyptian woman; his brother and business partner, Idris, who displays a staunch opposition to his daughter’s intellectual growth; his oldest son, Nassir, who has shown little aptitude for carrying on the family business while his second son and more promising heir, Nur, is unable to fulfill the promise because a swimming accident renders him paralyzed from the neck down. Nur eventually fulfills his dream of becoming a successful poet, his character inspired by the life of the author’s uncle Hassan Awad Aboulela.   

This is a novel about transitions—about the growing pains involved in moving from a traditional culture to one that is more progressive, especially as it pertains to the lives of young girls and women. It is also about love: Nur’s love for his cousin Soraya and his ultimate recognition he has to release her to live her life; Waheeba’s unconditional love for her son, Nur; the devout Ustaz Badr’s love for his family; Nassir’s love for his brother; and Mahmoud Bey trying to do right by everyone.  

The characters are movingly portrayed, especially Nur’s frustration as he struggles to come to terms with his disability and his distaste at being totally dependent on others for his personal hygiene; the gentle compassion with which Ustaz Badr treats his father; and Soraya’s struggle as she tries to define herself and her role in the new Sudan. 

Leila Aboulela’s development as a novelist is evident as Lyrics Alley is not as strong as her later novel, The Kindness of Enemies. It is, nevertheless, an engaging read and highly recommended.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review