‘A yearning for a home that would be more than a physical space.’
By Leila Aboulela
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Is there a Great Scottish Road Trip? The North Coast 500 claims that crown and, in its wake, new routes are opening up Scotland’s landscape and beckoning travellers to all corners of the land. The South West Coastal 300 and the North East 250 seem especially designed to lure tourists to forgotten corners. Drove roads, Roman roads, roads to the isles have crisscrossed the country since the earliest times bringing trade and connection. Not a road but a path, the Fife Pilgrim Way opens in 2019, reminding us that spiritual journeys were the earliest form of tourism. Into the midst of this feverish waymarking comes Bird Summons, Leila Aboulela’s new novel, and it brings us an illuminating, fantastical, contemporary Scottish road trip filled with humour, humanity and the unexpected.
Three women set out from Dundee on a journey conceived as an official excursion of the Arabic Speaking Muslim Women’s Group. Salma, their leader, had devised it with a lofty purpose, as an educational exercise that would foster integration through a better understanding of the history of Islam in Britain. They are to visit the grave of Lady Evelyn Cobbold at Glencarron in Wester Ross. Cobbold, whose Arabic name was Zainab, was a daughter of an Earl of Dunmore brought up in Cairo and Algiers in the late nineteenth century. She declared herself a Muslim during, of all things, a private audience with the Pope and, in 1933, she became the first British woman to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. At her burial in 1963, a piper played a lament and an Imam from Woking officiated because there were none close at hand.
While Zainab’s story will come to mean something to Aboulela’s characters, there is a fatal flaw in Salma’s scheme. The grave with its Arabic inscription has been defaced, and the women in the group chalk it up as yet another example of hostility and drop out. Salma adheres stubbornly to her plan, turning it into a holiday for her friends Moni and Iman. Her didactic impulses never fully subside, though, and the idea of pilgrimage as a spiritual quest and a time for reflection underpins the book.
The first third of their pilgrimage, which takes place primarily in the confined space of Salma’s car, is a brilliant reel of three, weaving between the women’s minds. They talk, sing, and inadvertently ruffle each other’s feathers. Each is preoccupied: Moni with the worry of leaving her son Adam for the first time; Iman with a dream of disappearing; and Salma with the giddy heat of a clandestine online correspondence with Amir, a former boyfriend in Egypt. Aboulela captures these conflicting moods deftly, with pathos and humour. Fired with naughtiness, Salma attempts to instigate a parlour game, asking everyone to name the sin they would choose to commit in a world with no consequences drops like a stone because both consequences and the desire to sin seem all too close.
As immigrants, each woman has a ‘before’ life and identity that hasn’t fully translated into the ‘now’ version of herself. Moni had been a business woman, bold and successful before becoming mother to her disabled son. Her life has been subsumed by her love for him and the perpetual work of being his carer, and her relationship with her husband has broken down. Salma had trained as a doctor in Cairo but, finding her qualifications useless in Britain, works as a masseuse at the hospital. She has four children with her Scottish husband but worries that they see her foremost as a funny foreigner rather than their mother. In both the before and after, Iman’s beauty defines her life, both a blessing and a curse. In war torn Syria it was her way out and in Britain it earns her keep, but it has never fulfilled its promise by bringing her a child in any of her three marriages.
Their journey exists as a pause from life, a chance to reflect on the struggle for self, to answer a summons that comes from within and from the world. As the trio travels further from their everyday lives and moves into a cottage in the grounds of a converted monastery, the women begin individual adventures, moving into a new reality fuelled by magical thinking. The Highland retreat is suffused with magical possibility, especially in the wild earthiness of the forest and in the thick atmosphere of the religious site. In abandoning the realism of the early chapters for a realm of myth, Aboulela opens a world of possibility and freedom.
Wild, wonderful, and terrifying things happen in the forest. The wisest of birds, the hoopoe, appears to Iman, to tell her stories about suffering, sacrifice, and redemption. A bird with a range across Europe and Africa, hoopoes are extremely rare in Scotland, though they have been spotted when their migration has strayed off course. They carry a large amount of mythical baggage from the cultures of the places that make up their territory. The hoopoe occupies a privileged place in the Qu’ran posing a question to Solomon; it is the leader of the eponymous conference of the birds in Attar’s Sufi masterpiece; its jazzy black, white, and orange be-quiffed shape is taken by a king in Aristophanes’s Birds. Aboulela plays with the hoopoe’s wisdom by adding a wealth of Scottish tales to his repertoire.
These stories, which are the bird’s summons, are allegories, beast fables, tales with morals or warnings that can guide or challenge. One of the messages of the book is that a landscape and a nation accommodates a plurality of stories, the story of the selkie wife or the life of Zainab Cobbold for instance, that makes a common cultural inheritance. Salma, Moni and Iman are not on a blink-and-you-miss-it road trip of instagrammable highlights, although mobile phones and a commemorative selfie are still part of this quest novel’s contemporary fabric. The connections here are real, and Aboulela has brilliantly shown the performative power of storytelling. This journey, her great Scottish road trip, fulfils the desire expressed in Iman’s song, “A yearning for a home that would be more than a physical space.”
Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £16.99