So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ (re-read)

Date re-Read: 2011 & (re-read) April 22nd 2021

Published: 1979

Publisher: Heinemann Educational Books

Pages: 90

The Blurb

Written by award-winning African novelist Mariama Ba and translated from the original French, So Long a Letter has been recognized as one of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. The brief narrative, written as an extended letter, is a sequence of reminiscences—some wistful, some bitter—recounted by recently widowed Senegalese schoolteacher Ramatoulaye Fall. Addressed to a lifelong friend, Aissatou, it is a record of Ramatoulaye’s emotional struggle for survival after her husband betrayed their marriage by taking a second wife. This semi-autobiographical account is a perceptive testimony to the plight of educated and articulate Muslim women. Angered by the traditions that allow polygyny, they inhabit a social milieu dominated by attitudes and values that deny them status equal to men. Ramatoulaye hopes for a world where the best of old customs and new freedom can be combined.

Considered a classic of contemporary African women’s literature, So Long a Letter is a must-read for anyone interested in African literature and the passage from colonialism to modernism in a Muslim country.

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Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

Everybody and their grandma has read So Long A Letter. The first time I read this classic, it was assigned reading for an Anthropology class I took when I was a junior in college, back in 2011. I recently re-read this classic 10 years later and I still give the book the same rating this time around, because of the poignant writing.

Senegalese patriarchy, Islam, the male ego, mid-life crisis, greed, loneliness, mother-daughter relationships, feminism, sisterhood, courage vs cowardice, poverty, modernity vs tradition, colonialism, death, misogyny and family customs, all take center stage in So Long a Letter.

I looooved how Ramatoulaye’s mother judged her daughter’s suitors by their teeth! According to Ramatoulaye’s mother, the wide gap between Modou’s [who she ended up marrying] upper incisors was a sign of ‘the primacy of sensuality in the individual’; Closely set teeth (of Daouda, one of Ramatoulaye’s suitors) won her mother’s confidence. As a Dentist, these peculiarities in teeth alignment being equivalent to promiscuity and character of potential suitors was hilarious and fascinating to me!


After re-reading this classic, I’ve been over-thinking the friendship Ramatoulaye and Aissatou shared. They were best friends/basically sisters. They shared the same plight, but each dealt with the fragmenting of their family units differently – Ramatoulaye stayed and endured, while Aissatou moved towards complete independence and advanced in her career. I really wish Bâ gave Aissatou more of a voice in the novel – besides her brilliant, fierce break-up letter to Mawdo, her ex-husband. I wanted to know if Aissatou was okay with Ramatoulaye recounting her (Aissatou’s) difficult situation with her ex-husband, Mawdo – I personally hate when friends rehash my plight when they complain about their own; I wanted to know if Aissatou was actually not bothered with Ramatoulaye still having a relationship with Mawdo – Aissatou’s ex-husband, as he was still Ramatoulaye’s family doctor and he was still a part of her family’s life; I wanted to know if Aissatou felt frustrated and/or disappointed at Ramatoulaye’s decision to stay with Modou, who turned out to be scum of the Earth once he stepped out of his marriage. I can’t help but wonder all these things because I often feel frustrated and disappointed when a friend complains to me about a man who treats her badly and she chooses to endure nonsense. While I know Ramatoulaye wrote the long letter to Aissatou while in isolation when she was mourning her late husband, I just wish Aissatou’s voice was heard with regards to everything Ramatoulaye divulged in the letter.

The only issue I had with this classic was Ramatoulaye’s slight misogynistic views on women’s sexuality and pleasure. I wasn’t super surprised with her conservative views, especially given this character’s overall way of life and the setting/timing of the story, but I couldn’t help but feel that those sentiments were Bâ’s as well. Some of the conservative views on women’s sexuality had me wondering why So Long A Letter has been hailed a beacon in African feminist text… However, I now understand that the conservative stances Ramatoulaye wrestled with really portrayed how women during that time were grappling with the challenges modernity brought – and this is especially evident in contrasting Ramatoulaye and Daba’s (her eldest daughter) realities, with respect to marriage and gender roles.

There’s so much more that can be said about So Long A Letter! This classic is best enjoyed if you’re reading it for a class or book club, as there is so much that can be dissected and discussed. I had the privilege of re-reading it for a virtual book club discussion with The Harare Book Club, last month.

★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!

Purchase So Long A Letter on Amazon

Minaret by Leila Aboulela

Date Read: July 21st 2014

Published: 2005

Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Pages: 288

minaret

The Blurb

With her Muslim hijab and down-turned gaze, Najwa is invisible to most eyes, especially to the rich Arab families whose houses she cleans in London. Twenty years earlier, Najwa, then an aristocratic Westernized Sudanese, could have never imagined this new life. She was a student at the University of Khartoum but her focus in life was on fashionable clothes, pop music, and parties. When a political coup forces Najwa’s family into exile in London, she soon finds herself orphaned and completely alone. For the first time in her life, Najwa turns to the solace and companionship among the women at the mosque, and when she adopts the hijab, she begins to see the world anew. Then Najwa meets Tamer, the intense, lonely younger brother of her employer and they find a common bond in her newfound faith and slowly, silently, begin to fall in love. Written with directness, simplicity and force, Minaret is a stunning and insightful novel about one woman’s journey toward spiritual peace.

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 Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

I loved Leila Aboulela’s short story ‘Museum‘ which won the first Caine Prize in 2000. I read ‘Museum‘ from the anthology, Opening Spaces – Contemporary African Women’s Writing and I thoroughly enjoyed it, mainly because Aboulela is Sudanese and writes about Khartoum. We rarely read or hear about Sudan in the African literature scene, so Leila Aboulela’s writing excites me!

I preferred reading the beginning of Minaret: Najwa was born into an upper-class Muslim family where her father worked with the president of Sudan, and her mother came from a rich family. Najwa and her twin brother who are very secular compared to other Muslim youth went to the best private schools of Khartoum and the best university in the nation. The family had several luxurious cars, superfluous food,  partied with their rich friends regularly and enjoyed vacations in several countries, including London where they owned a townhouse. Life was great for Najwa’s family.

Since all was well for Najwa and her family, she was very oblivious to the fact that Sudan was a very poor nation with majority of the citizens under the poverty line and with a government- which her father was associated with, that was very corrupt. Things turned upside down for Najwa and her family when Sudan faced a coup d’etat, hence her family- excluding her father, were forced to escape to their townhouse in London. The storyline cuts through 10-15 years later and after a series of unfortunate events, Najwa who was once a rich, secular university student becomes a lonely, poor housemaid. As a housemaid, Najwa finally starts to take Islam seriously by wearing a hijab and going to the Mosque to pray daily.

The storyline towards the middle of Minaret gets a bit annoying. Najwa (now a housemaid), who is now about 40 years old falling in love with Tamer – her employer’s son, was a bit strange to me. Why is this 40 year old in love with a 19 year old university student? I found Tamer to be very judgmental as he felt he was a better Muslim than everyone. Towards the middle of the story, I realized Najwa was a little too naiive for my liking. Her fate was very sad as she was orphaned quite early due to political instability in Sudan, but I didn’t find Najwa to be a strong Muslim woman I could learn from. Surely, she had her strengths- she had a calm spirit, she was meek, she was very kind and regarded others’ feelings. Throughout the novel, she was trying to grow spiritually and was trying to become a better Muslim, but by the end of the novel I didn’t really see the depth of her growth. The conclusion of the novel seemed incomplete as well since Najwa’s character seemed stagnant. It was as though she was content being a housemaid and did not aspire to do anything better with her life or even go back to Sudan. I was quite disappointed that Najwa did not want more for herself.

Leila Aboulela is a great writer. I loved the calmness and simplicity of her writing in this novel. This book made me appreciate the Muslim culture and the importance of women wearing hijabs and tobes. I just wish the love story between Tamer (the 19 year old) and Najwa was more realistic and didn’t take up 3/5ths of the storyline. But I still look forward to reading more of Aboulela’s books!

★★★ (3 stars) – Good book. I recommend it, I guess.

Purchase Minaret on Amazon