First sentence: She dreamt that it rained and she could not go out to meet him as planned.
Reflections: Sammar is a Sudanese woman, working at a university in Aberdeen as an Arabic translator. She is tormented with grief over her husband's tragic death four years ago, and the manner in which she was subsequently ostracized by her mother-in-law. Her young son, Amir, remained in Khartoum and is being raised by her mother-in-law and other relatives. Sammar lives in a spartan apartment; she has not decorated, nor has she bought any new clothing, since becoming a widow. She struggles to cope with the Scottish customs and weather, and her only social contact is with her university colleagues.
Most of her translation work is done for Rae, an Islamic scholar and department head at the university. Rae is divorced and lonely, and it seems almost inevitable that Rae and Sammar become close. Yet the customs of Sammar's culture, and of the Islamic religion, do not make it easy to express her feelings. She does so in small gestures, which seem bold to her: visiting him in hospital, and meticulously making soup to help him heal. Rae does not practice any particular religion, and Sammar knows the only way their relationship can be sanctioned is if he were to convert to Islam. This is not a subject the pair can discuss openly, yet Sammar hold fast to her beliefs.
Rae arranges for Sammar to travel to Egypt for some translation work, and she then goes to Khartoum for an extended stay with family and a reunion with her son. There is much to comfort her here, but her relationship with her mother-in-law is still strained. While she is in Africa, Rae experiences a journey of his own; one of faith, which he describes, "... it didn't have anything to do with how much I've read or how many facts I've learned about Islam. Knowledge is necessary, that's true. But faith, it comes direct from Allah."
Leila Aboulela's prose is dreamy and wonderful. This was a short book, and yet I found myself setting it down every 50 pages or so, just to reflect on the text and allow it to wash over me.