Today we're taking part in the blog tour for Leila Aboulela's new collection of short stories - Elsewhere, Home. A prize-winning author of several novels and a previous story collection, Aboulela was born in Khartoum, and now lives in Aberdeen. She first came to my attention with The Kindness of Enemies, and I'm intrigued and impatient to read this latest volume of her work.
Meanwhile, here's an extract from one of the stories. I hope it whets your appetite for more ...
‘You look beautiful in blue,’ the Ostrich said, and when
I was cruel he said, ‘but I can be a judge of voices can
I not?’ I didn’t ask him what he thought of my voice. I
walked away. It must have been in the evening that I was
wearing blue. It was white tobes in the morning, coloured
ones for the evening. The evening lectures were special,
leisurely; there was time after lunch to shower, to have a
nap. To walk from the hostels in groups and pairs, past
the young boy selling peanuts, past the closed post office,
past the neem trees with the broken benches underneath.
Jangly earrings, teeth smacking chewing gum and kohl in
our eyes. The tobes slipping off our carefully combed hair,
lifting our hands, putting them back on again. Tightening
the material, holding it under our left arm. I miss these
gestures, already left behind. Majdy says, ‘If you cover your hair in London they’ll think I am forcing you to do
that. They won’t believe it is what you want.’ So I must
walk unclothed, imagining cotton on my hair, lifting my
hand to adjust an imaginary tobe.
The sunset prayers were a break in the middle of these
evening lectures. One communist lecturer, keen to assert
his atheism, ignored the rustling of the notebooks, the
shuffling of restless feet, the screech of the Ostrich’s alarm.
Only when someone called out, ‘A break for the prayers!’
did he stop teaching. I will always see the grass, patches
of dry yellow, the rugs of palm fibre laid out. They curl
at the edges and when I put my forehead on the ground I
can smell the grass underneath. Now that we have a break
we must hurry, for it is as if the birds have heard the azan
and started to pray before us. I can hear their praises, see
the branches bow down low to receive them as they dart
to the trees. We wash from a corner tap, taking turns. The
Ostrich squats and puts his whole head under the tap. He
shakes it backwards and drops of water balance on top of
his hair. I borrow a mug from the canteen and I am proud,
a little vain knowing that I can wash my hands, face, arms
and feet with only one mug. Sandals discarded, we line
up and the boy from the canteen joins us, his torn clothes
stained with tea. Another lecturer, not finding room on the
mat, spreads his handkerchief on the grass. If I was not
praying I would stand with my feet crunching the gravel
stones and watch the straight lines, the men in front, the
colourful tobes behind. I would know that I was part of this harmony, that I needed no permission to belong. Here
in London, the birds pray discreetly and I pray alone. A
printed booklet, not a muezzin, tells me the times. Here
in London, Majdy does not pray. ‘This country,’ he says,
‘chips away at your faith bit by bit.’
Elsewhere, Home is published by Telegram, an imprint of Saqi publishing, and is available on Kindle and in paperback.