Leila Aboulela

Portrait Leila Aboulela
© Hartwig Klappert

Leila Aboulela was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1964 and grew up in Khartoum, Sudan. She studied Economics and Statistics at the University of Khartoum and at the London School of Economics. In 1990, she moved to Scotland to work as a lecturer and research assistant in Aberdeen. In this time, she began to write. Identity, religion, and cultural differences are the main themes of her works. She herself grew up in an intercultural family, with an Egyptian mother and a Sudanese father. The experience of life between two cultures and between modernity and tradition has molded her since childhood. In Britain, she encountered little understanding for Islam and her home country, which ultimately inspired her to take up precisely these themes in her stories.Her first novel, »The Translator«, appeared in 1999. The protagonist, Sammar, a young widow from Sudan, works as a translator at the University of Aberdeen. She, too, is caught up in the conflict between the Islamic and the Western world when she begins a relationship with a Scottish man. She asks him to marry her and to convert to Islam. Despite the differences between their cultures, she works to cultivate and transpose their cultural values, thereby also becoming a private translator between two worlds. In 2001, Aboulela’s volume of short stories »Colored Lights« appeared. Here, too, the author takes as her theme different cultures’ unfamiliarity with each other, seen from the standpoints of young women. The book contains the short story »The Museum«, for which Leila Aboulela won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000. Her second novel, »Minaret« (2005), is about a young woman from the Sudanese upper class. After a coup, she and her family are exiled to London. Torn from her familiar surroundings, the protagonist takes recourse to her faith, which becomes very important to her. The central message of the book is that a woman’s need for spiritual development is as urgent and as valid as her need for family, love and a career. Her third novel, »Lyrics Alley« (2010), was inspired by the life of her uncle, the poet Hassan Awad Aboulela. In this book, Leila Aboulela narrates the story of an influential family in Sudan in the 1950s and draws a detailed portrait of her home country’s society at that time. Aboulela won the Scottish Book of the Year Award in 2011 for »Lyrics Alley«. In her new novel »The Kindness of Enemies« (2015) an academic in Scotland researches the life of the 19th Century warrior, Imam Shamil who united the tribes of the Caucasus to fight against Russian invasion. The novel’s themes are jihad and Sufism, competing loyalites and double identies.Leila Aboulela lived for awhile in Jakarta, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. Today she resides in Aberdeen, Scotland.