Leila Aboulela

photo courtesy of author; photo credit: Vaida V. Naim

Contributor: Lily Mabura

She was born in Cairo, Egypt, to an Egyptian mother, Mona Khalifa, and a Sudanese father, Fuad Aboulela (d. 2008), from a merchant class family in Umdurman. He was educated in Victoria College, Egypt, and Trinity College, Dublin. Her mother, who is an expert in demography with a specialty in statistics, earned a PhD from the London School of Economics and lives in Cairo. For years, the couple maintained a mixed heritage household in Khartoum, but one that was culturally dominated by an Egyptian sense of identity.

In Khartoum, where she continuously lived from six weeks of age to 1987, Aboulela attended the Khartoum American School from age seven to eleven, reading children’s books such as Harriet the Spy and The Little House on the Prairie, before enrollment into a private Catholic girls’ high school, the Sisters’ School, and a subsequent degree in Economics from the University of Khartoum in 1985. Some of her favorite authors growing up included Dostoyevsky and Daphne du Maurier, but she had and would continue pursuing Economics, which she found difficult, at university due to high baccalaureate scores and math being a particularly strong subject under the dedicated tutelage of her mother. After marriage that same year of her graduation, to an internationally mobile engineer husband, Nadir Mahjoub of Sudanese British heritage, who was working in the oil industry in Yemen at the time, and the birth of her first son, a year later, she moved to London for postgraduate studies, completing a M.Sc. and MPhil in Statistics at the London School of Economics in 1990. In London, she shared a flat with her brother, who was undertaking postgraduate studies at the Imperial College London, and her mother, who helped with Aboulela’s baby and also undertook research at the LSE.

Following her husband, who was now working on an offshore oil rig in the North Sea, Aboulela, a mother of two sons by then, relocated to Aberdeen, Scotland, where she started lecturing at the Aberdeen College of Further Education followed by a Research Assistant position at the University of Aberdeen. By 1992, plagued by growing homesickness, she increasingly felt the urge to write and signed up for creative writing evening classes with Todd McEwen, who was writer-in-residence at the Aberdeen Central Library. McEwen encouraged her writing pursuits and even showed her stories to his editor. Aboulela also attended creative writing workshops at the University of Aberdeen and would later, with the support of her husband, give up her career in statistics to pursue writing fulltime. On the family front, she had a third child, a daughter, in 1998. After spending the 90s in Britain, she and her family have, since 2000, lived in Jakarta, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and, as of September 2012, back in Aberdeen again.

Her short story, “The Museum,” published in Opening Spaces (1999), Heinemann African Writers Series (Ed. Yvonne Vera), won the inaugural Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000. The short story was later included in her collection, Coloured Lights (2001). Aboulela is also the author of three novels, The Translator (1999), Minaret (2005), and Lyrics Alley (2010). Recent uncollected stories include “The Aromatherapist’s Husband” in Inkapture (2012) and “Missing Out” in Granta (2010). Aboulela’s work has been translated into fourteen languages so far, including Arabic versions of some of her novels, as well as appeared in various publications such as the Virginia Quarterly Review, Granta, and The Washington Post. She is also said to be working on a new novel, an adaptation of her historical drama about Imam Shamyl, the legendary warrior who united the tribes of the Caucasus to fight a jihad against Russian Imperial expansion.

Select broadcast radio plays include The Mystic Life (2003) and The Lion of Chechnya (2005). In 2002, BBC Radio 4 also broadcasted an adaptation of “The Museum” and a five-part serialization of The Translator.

Apart from the Caine Prize, select notable awards and recognitions include the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Award (Fiction) for Lyrics Alley in 2011; shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book) for Lyrics Alley in 2011; shortlisted for the Race and Media Award for the radio drama serialization of The Translator in 2003; shortlisted for the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award for Coloured Lights in 2002; and shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award in 2000.

Select major themes explored in Aboulela’s writing and the scholarship it has spawned include faith and Islam; transitivity; refugeeism – both economic and political; cultural competency and cultural encounters (East-West, East-East, Egyptian-Sudanese, etc.); race; interreligious relations and Islamophobia; religion and gender; coloniality and postcoloniality; identity; dual and exilic consciousness; class; body-ability; the state of the arts in the Islamic world; family relations; and [Islamic] feminist concerns such as gender relations, marriage (monogamous, polygamous, etc.), female circumcision/FGM, and the veiling discourse.

Other than her personal life and the biographical, which have been major influences and sources of inspiration for her work, Aboulela’s literary influences include writers such as Naguib Mahfouz and Tayeb Salih. She also admires works by Doris Lessing, J. M. Coetzee, Ahdaf Soueif, Anita Desai, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Abdulrazak Gurnah. Her favorite novels are The Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.

Emerging under the auspices of Islamic-informed writing from a woman writer living between the West and the East, Aboulela has championed fiction that “reflects Islamic logic” and “fictional worlds where cause and effect are governed by Muslim rationale” (quoted in Procter, British Council Literature). Her fiction, its sometimes halal status notwithstanding, often encompasses flawed characters who are depicted as “trying to practice their faith or make sense of God’s will in difficult circumstances” (quoted in Procter, British Council Literature).


Aboulela, Leila. “Contribution: Encyclopedia of Afro-European Studies.” Message to the author. 25-29 Jan. 2013. E-mail.

Aboulela, Leila. “Biography.” Leila Aboulela Homepage. 26 January 2012.

Akbar, Afrifa. “Back to Khartoum: Leila Aboulela returns to the land of her fathers.” The Independent. 17 December 2010.

British Council Literature. “Leila Aboulela.” 25 January 2012.

Exclusive Interview with Leila Aboulela.” Virgin Books. 9 February 2012.

Ghazoul, Ferial J. “Halal Fiction.” Al-Ahram Weekly Online. 12 – 18 July 2001

Kozberg, Donna Walters. “The Poet as Hero: PW Talks with Leila Aboulela.” Publishers Weekly. 24 January 2011.

Mabura, Lily. “Teaching Leila Aboulela in the Context of Other Authors Across Cultures: Creative Writing, the Third Culture Kid Phenomenon, and Africana Womanism.” Learning & Teaching in Higher Education: Gulf Perspectives (LTHE) 9.2 (2012): 1-14. Web. Jan. 2013.

Musiitwa, Daniel. “Sudanese Author Leila Aboulela Finds her Voice in Fiction.” Africa Book Club. 1 August 2011.

Sethi, Anita. “Keeping the Faith.” The Guardian. 5 June 2005.

Wilce, Hilary. “My best teacher Leila Aboulela.” TES Newspaper. 11 August 2000.