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The Translator
by Leila Aboulela

Published: 2006-09-28
Paperback : 203 pages
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Sammar is a young Sudanese widow working as an Arabic translator in a university department. Numb with grief after losing her husband, and estranged from her young son, she is adrift -an exile in a hostile country. Things change when she falls in love with Rae -but, twice divorced and a ...
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Introduction

Sammar is a young Sudanese widow working as an Arabic translator in a university department. Numb with grief after losing her husband, and estranged from her young son, she is adrift -an exile in a hostile country. Things change when she falls in love with Rae -but, twice divorced and a self-proclaimed cynic, he is totally different from Sammar: secular, worldly, and not a Muslim.

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Discussion Questions

From the Publisher:

1. Did you find your understanding of Islam deepened by reading The Translator? Is Sammar’s faith a consistently driving force? When does she have to work to sustain it? Have you observed people of deep faith in other religions?

2. What is it about Islam that attracts Western converts? How difficult is it to become a Muslim? (Become an Orthodox Jew is a long, rigorous process that can take years.)

3. Does Sammar understand the world of Scotland? How much does she want to? To what degree is she tempted to assimilate? How do you think she will eventually raise her child? What will be his own chances of integration if he is raised as a strict Muslim? When Sammar’s aunt speaks of Amir’s chances of success in Europe, what is she talking about?

4. What is at the heart of the conflict between Sammar and her aunt, Mahasen? Is it competition? Chemistry? Conflict of values? “You should go back to England, work there and send us things,” says Mahasen (p. 169).

5. How do you judge Sammar as a mother? Do you sympathize with her protracted breakdown from grief? Is it sheer will to survive that keeps her in Scotland for four years? Does she need all her strength to do her translation work and forge a new independent self? How would you describe the eventual reunion of mother and child? How has the scene reversed as Sammar tries a second time to recover from loss, living in Sudan away from Rae? Discuss Sammar’s earlier fantasies about mothering Mhairi, Rae’s daughter (who, like Amir, is left to the kindness of relatives not his parents). In Sudan, how does Sammar find meaning in caring for other children? Does her tentative relationship with Amir bode well for the future?

6. Cold, rain, fog, and snow permeate Sammar’s Scottish life. How effective is the weather as a metaphor for Sammar’s interior state? Is the obverse true in Sudan? Does she feel healed by the sun and colors of Africa? How does such a climate determine life there? Think of sleeping outdoors, eating outside, open-air markets, easy visiting back and forth. Talk about the relative merits of life in both countries. What is meant by “Loneliness is Europe’s malaria” (p. 103) and “Deprivation and abundance, side by side like a miracle” (p. 161)? Are these phrases, these paradoxes applicable to both countries?

7. Despite his interest in Arabic and the African continent, Rae’s own experience is far from salutary. On a boat ride shared with returning itinerant Moroccan workers, Rae spies North Africa. “They all looked in the same direction, at the lights and shadows of Tangiers under the low African sky. Rae stood with them, more in awe, more wretched than they. He felt stale and unclean, with his shirt torn and his hair covered in dust. His nose and chest burnt from the smell of the diesel. A pattern was set from that first time. In years to come every arrival to Africa was similarly accompanied by loss or pain, a blow to his pride. Baggage disappearing, nights spent in quarantine, stolen travellers’ cheques. As if from him the continent demanded a forfeit, a repayment of debts from the ghosts of the past” (p. 55). Are you surprised that Aboulela can make this imaginative leap and empathize with a European’s desolate experience in Africa? Are we able to make that kind of leap to understand the reactions of travelers and immigrants when they arrive in America, particularly since September 11, 2001?

8. Even today, would you say that, in African countries, progress in establishing order, civil liberties, and dependable infrastructure is fluctuating at best? Do you think it is poverty or disease or warring tribes and religions or venality of leaders that destroy stability? What is the role of individuals or nations in alleviating the suffering?

9. At one point Rae says about Scotland, “In this secular society, the speculation is that God is out playing golf. . . . Mankind is self-sufficient” (p. 42). What is the philosophical tradition Rae is alluding to?

10. When Sammar talks of changes in her Sudanese world, such as people no longer sleeping outside, no longer losing themselves in the sky and taking comfort, it is an elegy to the past in several ways. Rae responds, “This is the enemy, what is irreversible, what has already reached the farthest of places. There is no going back. They can bomb bus-loads of tourists, burn the American flag, but they are not shooting the enemy. It is already with them, inside them, what makes them resentful, defensive, what makes them no longer confident of their vision of the world” (p. 45). If this can be seen as a picture of Muslim extremists, do you have any hope that they or their victims can be saved? We think of terrorists as single-minded. How does Rae’s comment expand our view of them?

11. Rae says at the end of the book, “It’s a lonely thing . . . you can’t avoid it. . . . The spiritual path. Everyone is on his own in this” (p. 202). Do you agree? Is this paradoxical for Rae? Has he become a Muslim just to please and grow closer to Sammar? Or is it a logical outgrowth of his long study of Arabic? Does logic even pertain?

12. Earlier, Yasmin rejects Rae’s interest in Islam as merely academic: “ ‘It’s a modern thing. Something to do with not being Eurocentric. They take what each culture says about itself. So they could study all sorts of sacred texts and be detached. They could have their own religious views or be atheists.’ . . . Sammar put the iron down. Never in her life had anyone she cared about been an unbeliever” (pp. 93–94). Is it her deep concern for Rae’s spiritual salvation that makes her want him to convert? If he had his own deep faith, would that have assuaged her? Or is it really for herself –and their future—that she prays for him to accept Allah? See page 175 for her own analysis.

13. “Go home and maybe you’ll meet someone normal, someone Sudanese like yourself. Mixed couples just don’t look right, they irritate everyone,” says Yasmin to Sammar (p. 93). Is this conventional wisdom? Is it an idea that is being subverted—or being exacerbated—by increasing immigration in Europe and the United States? What would you counsel your friend or your child?

14. What connects Rae and Sammar? Rae says often that Sammar makes him feel safe. What is it about Sammar that gives comfort and solidity to Rae? He, in turn, draws Sammar into his past experiences, makes her feel “connected to his stories in some way” (p. 66). Is this process particularly important to these two linguists? At one point, “Sammar found herself nostalgic for her old job, the work itself, moulding Arabic into English, trying to be transparent like a pane of glass not obscuring the meaning of any word” (p. 165). Will her talents as a translator make her a better lover or wife? What is implied about the larger possibility of people’s reaching across cultures by learning others’ languages?

15. Would you say Sammur presents a face to the world as someone contained, disciplined, resigned? When, if ever, does she express anger? What about?

16. Dreams occur throughout The Translator. Talk about some of them. Do they represent alternate realities or some of the possibilities that infuse the novel? There are “the ‘ifs’ like snakes coiling, never still” (p. 116). Clearly Rae and Sammar are on voyages toward resolving their own internal dilemmas. How? Is there also some alternate reality, some possibility, some hope that Europeans and Africans, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, might understand each other better?

17. How does Sammar’s culture shock help us to see Western life through Muslim eyes? “Things that jarred—an earring on a man’s earlobe, a woman walking a dog big enough to swallow the infant she was at the same time pushing in a pram, the huge billboards on the roads: Wonderbra, cigarette ads that told people to smoke and not smoke at the same time, the Ministry of Sin nightclub housed in a former church” (p. 70). Eventually, Sammar grows inured to these discordances. Do we, too, grow numb to absurdities in our culture? Are they too numerous to react to anymore? Give examples.

18. Although Sammar is often isolated in Scotland, and she regularly prays alone, she also seeks out other Muslims for prayer in what serves as the university mosque, one room in an old building. “There was more reward praying in a group than praying alone. When she prayed with others, she found it easier to concentrate, her heart held steady by those who had faith like her. . . . All praise belongs to Allah, Lord of all the worlds, the Compassionate, the Merciful . . . and the certainty of the words brought unexpected tears, something deeper than happiness, all the splinters inside her coming together” (p. 74). What is the unity, the cohesion meant by “all the splinters coming together”? Is it this union with a single, preeminent God that is sought by Christians and Jews, as well?

19. Are Rae’s theories about “the link between Islam and anti-colonialism” (p. 109) persuasive? (See pages 108–110.) Do his studies help us approach an understanding of today’s conflicts in the world?

Suggestions for further reading:

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih; Admiring Silence by Abdulrazak Gurnah; In the Eye of the Sun by Ahdaf Soueif

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