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A Review of “Lyrics Abbey” by Leila Aboulela Essay (Book Review)


This paper is aimed at reviewing the novel Lyrics Abbey written by Leila Aboulela. This book was published in 2011. To a great extent, the work reflects significant social and political changes within the Arab world. The author focuses on the life of a well-to-do Sudanese family and the way in which these people are affected by the political transformation of the society.

Moreover, Leila Aboulela explores the internal conflict within the family, in particular, the opposition between the older and younger wives of Mahmoud Abuzeid. Overall, this novel centers on the idea of change and tradition. It shows how individual can adjust to new norms, rules and conditions while remaining faithful to one’s culture and tradition. This is the main thesis that this review will elaborate and illustrate.

From the very start, Leila Aboulela gives the readers some insights into the structure of a Sudanese family. By looking at the family tree presented at the very beginning, one can clearly see that the Abuzeid is a patriarchic family which is headed by Mahmous Abuzeid (Aboulela 2011, p. 1).

However, the readers can also see that this family is not entirely secluded from the outside world. For instance, at the beginning, Mahmud talks about the Korean War and its impact on cotton prices (Aboulela, 2011, p. 2). This example shows that the members of this family may be devoted to the local community, but they are also aware about the outside forces that can influence them.

Thus, Leila Aboulela demonstrates in a very subtle way that the family is not oblivious of changes. However, the main issue is that they do not try to understand the causes of the political upheaval in the Sudanese society and their consequences.

It should be noted that the action on the eve of Sudanese independence from Great Britain and Egypt (Levy & Latif, 2007, p. 27). This independence could lead to the changes in political leadership, economy, and probably the status of the Abuzeid family. At that time, many people accepted colonial rule of Great Britain (Sidahmed, 1996, 11).

The Abuzeid family also did not oppose to this rule. The characters do not reflect very much about the causes of rebellion against the colonial government, for example, absence of political rights, lack of educational opportunities, and extreme poverty (Daly, 2003, p. 398). These issues are not discussed by the members of the Abuzeid family.

Furthermore, Nur’s tutor, who is imprisoned by the police on false accusation, does not mention the students and political activist who were arrested by the state. In fact, they are described as “archetypal villains” (Aboulela, 2011, p. 50). These were the people who suffered from political oppression (Ruay, 1994, p. 32).

Thus, the author enables us to look at the political struggles in Sudan through the eyes of people who did not support the struggles against colonial rule. The readers can know that in 1956 both Egypt and Britain accepted the independence of Sudan, and the family would eventually have to adjust to the new power relations within the society (Breidlid, 2011, p. 180).

On the whole, Leila Aboulela enables the readers to see how the forces of change begin to enter the ordered life of people. This is one of the major strengths of this novel.

To some degree, the opposition between modernity and tradition is also mirrored in the conflict between Waheeba, who is an old Sudanese wife of Mahmous Abuzeid, and Nabilah, the younger wife coming from Egypt.

Nabilah wishes to return to Egypt which seems to her more progressive than Sudan. In contrast, Waheeba is content with traditional way of life. These women represent different values, namely willingness to preserve traditions and customs and aspirations for modernity. This example is important because it shows that the position of women is not clearly defined in Muslim (Jawad, 1998, p. 7; Welchman, 2007, 10).

Moreover, this conflict illustrates that Muslim women may have various opinions on the status within the family (Camiller, 2005, p. 41). Leila Aboulela skillfully shows how the difference in worldviews can manifest themselves within a family. This aspect of the plot definitely makes the novel more interesting.

Yet, the conflict between progress and tradition has other manifestations in this novel. The readers can see the contrast between Sudan and Egypt. At that point, Sudanese society was trying to find its own way development. It had to be independent from both Egypt and Great Britain (Rothermund, 2006, p. 115).

Leila Aboulela shows how the main members of the Abuzeid family experience life in these different countries. One can see that the family is torn between the traditional values of Sudanese society and increasing influence of the Western world. Thus, this is another form of conflict between the old cultural norms and new ones. The Abuzeids have to make their choices and it is not easy for them to do it.

However, there is a certain unifying force which restores the family bonds. In particular, one can speak about Nur. He was supposed to become the head of the family and many hopes and expectations were set for him by his family. However, his injury put an end to many of his ambitions.

He turned to poetry in effort to cope with his experiences. In his poetry, he describes the internal conflict within the family. Moreover, other people find strength to set aside their prejudices against one another and feel empathy for Nur. Thus, by describing Nur’s experiences, Leila Aboulela creates a very powerful and reaffirming message, which urges people to remember that hardships can be overcome if the family ties are not broken.

One of the ideas that the author strives to illustrate is that family has to be basis of a person’s happiness. It should not be ruined by any internal or external forces. This is how the head of the family, Mahmoud Abuzeid expresses this argument, “We are a family business, Sir.

We do not want outsiders to come between us” (Aboulela, 2011, p. 75). Thus, family is supposed to help a person overcome various difficulties. Although, people can disagree with the values of Mahmoud Abuzeid, this patriarch also helps other family members to reunite.

Overall, this novel gives the reader an insight into the life of a family who struggles with internal conflict and approaching social changes. The conflict between modernity and tradition lies at the core of this work.

Leila Aboulela has been able to illustrate this conflict and its impact on every member of the family. This is the main strength of this novel. This book can be viewed as a great literary work and as a historical source for people who want to know more about the life Sudanese society in the early fifties.

Reference List

Aboulela, L. (2011). Lyrics Alley: A Novel. New York: Grove Press.

Breidlid. A. (2011). A Concise History of South Sudan. New York: African Books Collective.

Camiller, M. (2005). Islam And Liberty: The Historical Misunderstanding. Zed Books.

Daly, W. (2003). Imperial Sudan: The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium 1934-1956. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jawad, H. (1998). The Rights of Women in Islam: An Authentic Approach. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Levy, P. & Latif, Z. (2007). Sudan. London: Marshall Cavendish.

Rothermund, D. (2006). The Routledge Companion To Decolonization. London: Taylor & Francis.

Ruay, D. (1994). The Politics of Two Sudans: The South and the North, 1821-1969. Cairo: Nordic Africa Institute.

Sidahmed, A. (1996). Politics and Islam in Contemporary Sudan. Berkeley: Palgrave Macmillan.

Welchman, L. (2007). Women and Muslim Family Laws in Arab States: A Comparative Overview of Textual Development and Advocacy. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

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IvyPanda. "A Review of “Lyrics Abbey” by Leila Aboulela." April 9, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/a-review-of-lyrics-abbey-by-leila-aboulela/.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "A Review of “Lyrics Abbey” by Leila Aboulela." April 9, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/a-review-of-lyrics-abbey-by-leila-aboulela/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'A Review of “Lyrics Abbey” by Leila Aboulela'. 9 April.

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