The Translator by Leila Aboulela

16 Jul
I just finished this book twenty minutes ago and I feel like I need to immediately write up my thoughts on it, as it’s one of those ephemeral, unusual books that I might lose the details of as time goes on. It took me a little longer than usual to get into this book, I think because the themes of exile and alienation worked a little too well on me at first. The book seemed, well…..sad and a little grim. That’s okay, but it’s not necessarily something I jump to pick up, you know what I mean? But given time, the book opened right up for me – the characters are so human and real and relatable, and I LOVED the exploration of loneliness, doubt, and faith, both in yourself and religion.

Sammar is a widow from Sudan living in Aberdeen, Scotland and working as an Arabic translator at the university. When the book begins, Sammar has been living within a numbing bubble of grief for her husband Tarig, who was killed in a car accident four years earlier in Scotland. Unable to function, Sammar left their son with relatives in Sudan and returned to Scotland after a horrendous fight with her aunt (also Tarig’s mother). She is alone and content to be so – interactions with others are kept purely surface, as not only can Sammar barely manage to interact with others but she also is locked into an alienation from her surrounding European culture. The only person who seems to crack her shell is her employer, Professor Rae Isles, a noted Muslim scholar. Though he is Scottish, he seems to understand Sammar in a way that no one else does in gray and misty Aberdeen. Though they connect, they are still separated by layers of cultural difference and Sammar’s unyielding faith in Islam.

This book reminded me a lot of some other “quiet” books and authors that I adore – Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News comes immediately to mind. There’s something about books that are subdued, that take the time to let events unfold realistically – I think it’s a break for me from some of my genre favorites, like fantasy or romance. What I really identify with is that sense of being “other,” being outside the norm, of not feeling like you know what to do next. Sammar is incredibly strong and capable, but she doesn’t know it. She’s been brought very, very low, but continues with her quiet life because she has no idea what else to do. I just like that steady, no-fuss minimalism of life when you get knocked down and have no idea how to get back up again.

Another thing I adored about this book, and I’m hoping Leila Aboulela’s writing in general, is the window into everyday Muslim life. There wasn’t much talk about the hot-button issues I usually hear when people talk about Islam; terrorism is mentioned but it’s periphery and not at all connected with the mundane Muslim life Sammar and her family know. Descriptions of the food, the rhythms of family life, the daily call to prayer – these were so interesting to me and really peaceful and beautiful. I love learning another facet of Middle Eastern life, and can’t wait to read Minaret, which I’ve heard is just fantastic. The Translator is short – only 202 pages – so I encourage anyone to give it a try and see how it feels. I found it really, really rewarding.

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