Leila Aboulela's River Spirit animates human tenacity amid colonial turmoil

Leila Aboulela's River Spirit animates human tenacity amid colonial turmoil
Book Club: The turbulence, trauma and turmoil caused by the final days of colonial rule divide communities and pit loved ones against each other. In Leila Aboulela's latest novel, we are forced to come to terms with the complexities of motivation.
6 min read
08 February, 2023
River Spirit is about an embattled young woman’s coming of age during the Mahdist War in 19th century Sudan [Grove Press]

Leila Aboulela’s latest novel, River Spirit, opens with a prosaic and wistful scene of villagers by the Nile river.

Some are bathing, others washing clothes or leisurely soaking in the coolness of the Nile.

Among them is 11-year-old Akuany, who was innocently contemplating the munificence of nature and her love for the river seconds before her village and life went up in flames. So the story commences, encompassing the solemn peculiarities of a river; fluid, volatile, and cathartic.

With spellbinding prose, it is set in the late 1800s when Sudan remained under tenuous Ottoman rule. The novel oscillates between voices of ostensibly disparate characters, using the Mahdist Revolution of Sudan as a backdrop to explore a salient period in Sudanese history.

"As we learn about the history of Sudan’s struggle for freedom, we understand that what inspires people is far more convoluted than a conflict of good versus evil"

The Mahdist Revolution was an Islamic revolt against the Egyptian government in Sudan that manipulated the Islamic prophecy of a golden age under The Mahdi or Guided one.

While the revolution was misguided, bloody, and ultimately blasphemous, Aboulela adroitly demonstrates the complexities of human motive during desperate circumstances.

Under the oppressive shadow of multiple colonial powers and their own iron-fisted leaders, the people of Sudan struggled to define their freedom, identity, and faiths.

The many soliloquies and perspectives become tragically and inextricably linked as the novel progresses. There is Yaseen, the humble Islamic jurist, his mother Fatima; Robert, a widowed Scottish artist and engineer; Musa, a loyal and fiery supporter of the false Mahdi and; the inquisitive Akuany.

Of these voices, it is Akuany and Yaseen who are the central characters that incandescently unite these distinct narratives.

Their lives become intertwined when Akuany ’s village is raided, and she is orphaned. Yaseen vows to protect her and her toddler brother, taking them to his village near Khartoum. But he soon gives up his inheritance as a merchant to travel to Cairo and study at Al-Azhar university to become an Islamic jurist.

When he returns, the self-proclaimed and charismatic Mahdi is swiftly gaining followers. But Yaseen, who is learned and passionate about his religion, stands against this insidious movement, remaining steadfast towards righteousness and God.

Akuany is sold in and out of slavery as she grows into a young woman, never wavering in her love for Yaseen. Reunited and ripped asunder repeatedly, they unremittingly experience the bestiality of colonialism, war, and slavery.

Book Club
Live Story

When the zeal for power and control, and the fervent yearning for sovereignty and autonomy clash, the result is devastating. Aboulela exemplifies this by weaving several facets of Sudanese reality from the implications of colonialism, the hypocrisy of foreign interference, dehumanizing oriental tropes, and a nuanced representation of Islamic values and the silent victims of war, woman.

Akuany’s story is interspersed with several women who endure the most dreadful impacts of the revolution. From domestic violence, rape, servitude, and splintered families, the women are thrust into resilience. Even those privileged with status and education are not spared.

As violence upon violence is brought down upon them, the material concerns of the world are blurred. When an enslaved Akuany is beaten by her master, she befriends Touma, who tenderly heals her wounds.

Touma is known for running a harem and, thus, shunned from society. After Akuany is released, she is reproached by others for treating her amicably. Akuany ponders the rigidity of the right and wrong that society often pronounces. Touma, who nurses battered women during war and bloodshed, is declared an unsuitable companion. So through Akuany’s lens, it is evident that morality is not as linear as some would like to believe.

Book Club
Live Story

As she moves from childhood to womanhood, Akuany’s world continues to clash with this sentiment. Aboulela has tactfully delivered the perspectives of both the colonizer and the colonized.

The Mahdist revolution was a resistance towards Egyptian, Ottoman, and British imperial rule, and it became incendiary as people saw hope for liberation in this fallacious movement.

During this time, European nations tried to stake out pieces of Africa to colonize in what is known as the “scramble for Africa.” The real-life character of General Gordon and a fictitious Scottish engineer, Robert, reveal the subterfuge of British troops.

Arriving in Sudan as an aid to save them from the pillaging, all the while seeking to gain the upper hand over other countries to acquire territories with valuable resources, and to possess economically strategic rivers. Regrettably, Sudan and the Middle East continue to lament the implications of British and European duplicity.

This dehumanisation of the colonized also occurs subtly. Robert, an artist, visits the slave market to paint and buy humans. Unwillingly, they become his muse, and he believes he is the magnanimous master because of his craft.

This colonial entitlement transcends into modern times with those such as Sharbat Gula, the Afghan girl photographed and made a symbol of hope for refugees by photographer Steve McCurry.

He was lauded for his art, but with the price of exploiting an already vulnerable girl. Years later, she voiced her shame and anger, but she had already become entrenched in Western culture. Similarly, Robert hopes to take his paintings of Sudan back to Scotland to acquire fame, never once pausing to reflect on the humanity, misfortunes, and brilliance of the people and land he viewed only as subjects.

Book Club
Live Story

These are the characters that comprise this profound story that exposes the multifaceted nature of humankind. It is a reminder that despite war and plunder, family, honesty, and faith continue to radiate. 

As we learn about the history of Sudan’s struggle for freedom, we understand that what inspires people is far more convoluted than a conflict of good versus evil. Many popular narratives discuss Islam only when it is manipulated to bolster avaricious and violent leaders, such as the false Mahdi.

However, in River Spirit, Islam is also threaded into the fabric of society, animating the people towards justice and harmony. Aboulela has gifted us with a powerful book, exhibiting mastery of the written word and wisdom of the human psyche.

River Spirit and Yaseen’s rumination on the state of his country leaves us with much to contemplate, capturing the spirit of this tale; “Fighting an enemy is always easier than governing human complexity.”

Preorder River Spirit here

Noshin Bokth has over six years of experience as a freelance writer. She has covered a wide range of topics and issues including covering the implications of the Trump administration on Muslims, the Black Lives Matters Movement, travel reviews, book reviews, and op-eds. She is the former Editor in Chief of Ramadan Legacy and the former North American Regional Editor of the Muslim Vibe.

Follow her on Twitter: @BokthNoshin