Mari HowardJune 4, 2020

Bird Summons

by Leila Aboulela

The book I have just finished reading, Bird Summons, by Leila Aboulela, is unusual, deeply thoughtful, and obviously inspired by the author’s combined knowledge and interest in politics and faith. Aboulela is a practising Muslim, born in Cairo and raised in Khartoum. She now lives in Aberdeen, Scotland. She studied economics at the University of Khartoum, and later gained an MPhil at the London School of economics. But does this mean that she is a dry social & political scientist?

Well no, it doesn't. Aboulela’s interests extend to myth and folktale, and she’s an inspirationally different writer who subtly combines the ancient problems of being human and the equally ancient problem of belonging to a society which has religiously-based expectations and rules, especially for women. She is a practising Muslim. To quote from the Amazon review page “…she is so good with women's interiority and Muslim women's subjectivity… she gets beyond any cliche or type of the Muslim woman.” (Arifa Akbar, BBC Radio 4, Front Row). Captivated by her first book, The Translator, I have looked out from more and read her others, and also found her an inspiration for my writing – possibly because I also have studied social and political science and religion, and their relationship, combined in daily life and decision-making. Like her, I practise the religion in which I was raised, informed by my studies.

Bird Summons, Aboulela’s latest novel, published in 2019, is essentially a road trip tracing a week’s holiday in the Scottish highlands taken by three Muslim women born in the Middle  east and who now live in Scotland. Although Salma, who at the beginning seems to be the leader of the group, encourages her two friends to use  this trip to relax, it is also ostensibly a visit to the grave of an aristocratic Scot who while living the life expected of her – "hunting, shooting, and fishing" – had converted to Islam inspired by memories of her childhood nanny and kept the faith throughout her life. Salma, Moni, and Iman, each from a different Middle Eastern country, have reasons for dissatisfaction and self doubts. Away from familiar family based tasks, from husband, home and friends, each faces herself. As Aboulela begins to draw on myth, fairytale, poetry and folklore from both Islamic writings and Scottish tradition they are led – increasingly by a Hoopoe – through many bizarre trials which each woman faces first alone and later all three together. This is truly a journey of self discovery, and the writer takes us beyond any expected narrative, moving seamlessly from the domestic to the magical. She combines academically informed insight into social and political restrictions on the lives of women, especially those who live by the code of their faith, with knowledge from poetic sources including the writings of Rumi and a long mystical poem The Conference of the Birds by the Persian Sufi poet Attar (Farid un-Din Attar).

If I have one criticism of this book it is that it became a little bogged down (for me) in the middle part of the story, by the Hoopoe’s telling of several folktales in succession in one chapter, However that is possibly because I have not read magic realism before, and was still expecting to re-join ‘normal life’ . The tales are delightful, mysterious, and well told. It is definitely a thoughtful read and Aboulela’s attempts in all her books has enlightened my own telling of contemporary family-based stories which explore a similar landscape of faith and secular approaches to a largely capitalist and cynically profit-based world society. She has a light touch which might be called ‘beautiful writing’ though the beauty lies in the overall content rather than in poetry of language or attention mainly simply to words. it is that ‘interiority’ of women’s lives, the thoughtfulness which draws each as an individual, caught up by both her context anther personality, and what influences or events have formed her life.