Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela: A triumph of magical realism
Bird Summons is an outstanding novel that throws the reader off balance by unexpectedly inviting them on a spiritual journey. The story is set in Scotland and follows three Muslim women of Arab and African origins who, while belonging to the same local Arabic-speaking Muslim group and having a more or less similar cultural and religious background, are their own persons and have their own unique traits and share of concerns. The novel centres on Muslim women - whether the main characters or in the backdrop of the story.
The novel opens with Salma, a massage therapist who could have been a doctor in Egypt, who suggests to the ladies of the group to visit the grave of Lady Evelyn Cobbold located in Glencarron estate, 50 miles of Inverness.
Lady Evelyn Zainab Cobbold was a Muslim Scottish woman and the first Muslim British woman to have performed Hajj, an experience recounted in her book Pilgrimage to Mecca. This same book is present all throughout the novel, the shadow of Lady Evelyn, a presence that offers the three Muslim women what they need at specifics moments of their lives.
Through this pilgrimage-like journey, Leila Aboulela brilliantly addresses a range of topics both specific to the characters as individuals but also shared by regular Muslim people of the West
When the group refuses to embark on the journey, Salma tries to convince them: "Lady Evelyn was a woman like us, a wife and a grandmother. She worshipped as we worshipped, though she kept her own culture, wore Edwardian fashion, shot deer and left instructions for bagpipes to be played at her funeral. She is the mother of Scottish Islam and we need her as our role model."
Still, despite the doubts that deterred the group from going on a one night trip to her grave, Salma was supported by her two friends Moni and Iman. The one night trip then turned into a week-long break that brought unexpected adventures to the main characters.
Through this pilgrimage-like journey, Leila Aboulela brilliantly addresses a range of topics both specific to the characters as individuals but also shared by regular Muslim people of the West. To do so, she naturally summons a magical world through the Hoopoe.
The latter is a symbolic bird in Islamic history and tradition mentioned twice in the Quran as the messenger of Prophet Solomon, but it is also a major figure in the Persian poem The Conference of the Birds by the Sufi Farid Din Attar – the title being itself a direct reference to the Quran 27:16. One should also note that the use of the Hoopoe in Bird Summons is far from being orientalist. The Hoopoe is a bird that migrates from Africa to Northern Europe and has been spotted in North East Scotland which happens to be where Inverness is located.
The Hoopoe is therefore not foreign to the West and neither is Islam or the presence of Muslim people. Consequently, through Aboulela’s skilful writing style and story-telling, the Hoopoe tells Iman stories that are both rooted in Islamic tradition such as Isra’iliyat, and Celtic folktales such as that of the Selkie, reuniting Islam and the West.
But Aboulela takes it a step further through the use of the mise en abyme. Not only is the author telling us the story of Salma, Iman and Moni, but the Hoopoe also tells Iman and the readers many stories among which that of Nathan who goes on a Pilgrimage to Jerusalem to atone for his sin and during which he gets to narrate and is narrated to Celtic folktales.
Every story is embedded in another and through these transpires a unity when it comes to religion and land. In Birds Summons, Islam and Scotland are not two separate entities, but ones that are intricately linked to each other.
With Salma, Moni and Iman, Leila Aboulela approaches the different struggles that Muslim women face in the West, none of them tackled in a problematic or cliché way, therefore providing the readers with an accurate and true to life representation of Muslims today
In that sense, Lady Evelyn Cobbold can be viewed as 'the mother of Scottish Islam', grounding Islam and normalising it in the West for the future Muslim generations that would feel estranged and foreign to that land.
Salma for instance who feels more and more estranged from her children who, to her, seem more British and less Egyptian by the day, draws extreme strength from the connection that Lady Evelyn establishes between Scotland and Islam. Salma belongs to Scotland as much as her children and Lady Evelyn.
Similarly, the loch where the three friends are staying, a resort on the grounds of a converted monastery, has been a place where spirituality was at the forefront, where people who believed in God prayed God and devoted their lives to the Almighty. Maybe it isn’t a coincidence that Muslims were summoned to this place that had been void of spirituality for so many years.
So through the Hoopoe, Aboulela smoothly introduces the readers to a different realm that resembles magical realism with hints of Islamic surrealism. But the Hoopoe appears only to Iman, the young Syrian already widowed and divorced twice to cater to her needs and concerns.
Moni is a mother devoted to her disabled son to the point of jeopardising her career and marriage with Murtada who refuses to accept his son Adam the way he is. During the stay at the loch, Moni seems to be blessed with a miracle: her encounter with a little boy named Adam whom nobody at the loch seems to know. It’s a blessing until it’s not anymore. For Salma and Moni who have different concerns, magical realism or spirituality presents itself in a different form.
Salma’s share of magical realism happens much later in the story, with the ghost-like appearance of Amir, her former fiancé whom she reconnected with during her trip through social media.
Ultimately what begins as a break grounded in reality for Salma, Moni, and Iman turns into a journey that tests the characters’ limits, their friendship. It’s a journey that calls for a completely different dimension to help the characters confront their doubts and issues, to appease the tensions going on in their lives and bring reassurance as well as confidence in themselves and their faith. With Salma, Moni and Iman, Leila Aboulela approaches the different struggles that Muslim women face in the West, none of them tackled in a problematic or cliché way, therefore providing the readers with an accurate and true to life representation of Muslims today.
With Bird Summons, Leila Aboulela offers the readers an experience that is quite uncommon yet one can identify with it on a spiritual level. It is a novel that doesn’t deliver what the reader might expect from the back cover but goes beyond expectations and leaves the reader pondering on many aspects of their own life.
Assia Belgacem is a French-Algerian book reviewer with a focus on Muslim and Arab literature
Follow her on Instagram: @shereadsox