Looking at Individuality in “The Ostrich” From a Multicultural Perspective


Leila Aboulela

Leila Aboulela, author of “The Ostrich”

There is a balance multiculturalism has to strike — two schools of thought in conflict with each other. Charles Taylor in his essay in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition describes them as the politics of equal dignity and the politics of difference. The former looks to being blind of difference in order to treat all equally while the other looks to recognize the uniqueness of individuals and groups. There are real dangers to falling to heavily on one side or the other. Strong identification with the politics of equal dignity can lead to a disregard of the history that has led to varying groups’ current statuses. On the other hand, too strong an emphasis on the differences in people can lead to justification of separation, as is seen with the “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” signs of the British 60s.

The U.K. has struggled with multiculturalism since their failed attempt of stopping non-white immigrants from entering the country after the passing of the 1948 Nationality Act (Rattansi 22). This didn’t stop the flood gates from opening however and employers were soon recruiting migrant workers, and, through a chain reaction, caused more migration from those who heard of the job opportunities abroad. This time was dominated by migrants from the West Indies, India, and Pakistan, but with time, the U.K. became one of the places migrants tried to go to find work and a better life. In “The Ostrich”, Sumra, who is joining her husband in London, describes what she calls a “scramble” of migrants in and from Khartoum trying to get to the Gulf, Egypt, and even Norway. Her husband Majdy says it is confirmation that there is no future back home (Aboulela 4).


A painting of a university in Khartoum

The artwork originally presented with “The Ostrich”

Leila Aboulela’s short story “The Ostrich” follows Sumra, a Muslim Sudanese, as she returns to her husband in England after a two month visit to her hometown of Khartoum. She and her husband share a complicated, sometimes abusive, relationship as they both struggle to assimilate to British culture and maintain their Sudanese identities. Aboulela, born in Sudan herself and the inaugural winner of the Cain Prize for African Writing, is known for “Highlighting the challenges facing Muslims in Europe” (“About Leila”). In this short story published in 1997, Sumra’s husband Majdy forces her to forgo any evidence of Muslim faith or Sudanese heritage in fear of their British neighbors seeing them as “backwards.” Written in the first person, Aboulela gives Sumra agency and a voice to share her unique Muslim Sudanese immigrant experience despite the oppressive forces around her. I would like to argue that Aboulela gives credence to the politics of difference here by respecting Sumra’s individuality even within the group of other Muslim Sudanese. She also plays a little with the politics of equal dignity by presenting the world of Khartoum as familiar rather than alien and exotic as many may have been trained to see Africa.

While meeting with English friends in their apartment, Sumra makes comments on Islam that her husband deems to be not “modern.”  When they leave, he slaps her for it. She doesn’t understand what she did wrong, and he says the English can forgive her “ugly colour, [her] thick lips and rough hair, but [she] must think modern thoughts” and it is his comments on her looks that stick with her. She stands in front of the mirror and “hate[s] the face [she] was born with” (Aboulela 5). The effect of this is extreme sympathy for Sumra’s situation. We know at this point she is pregnant. We know at this point Majdy has told her every English person who walks past their window, even the rubbish collector, is better than them. This is produced through Aboulela’s use of repetition, “Why, why” Sumra asks as Majdy slaps her again. We are confused like Sumra due to the contrast in the friendly situation of “men with kind eyes and women who like the food I cook” met with violence from her husband. The syntax of steadily longer sentences leaves us in dread. This is important and a subversion from the expected because Sumra is being punished by her husband for defending polygamy, a practice typically seen in the west as being sexist and backwards. Here Aboulela is putting us firmly on the side of Sumra in an argument the reader might usually be on the other side of. This is Aboulela showing support for the politics of difference.

In his essay described above, Taylor goes into more detail on the politics of difference and the politics of equal dignity. The former, he says, demands that all be treated equally and is “based on the idea that all humans are equally worthy of respect” (Taylor 41). The latter asks that we recognize “the unique identity of [an] individual or group, their distinctness from everyone else” (Taylor 38). The politics of equal dignity are against the politics of difference because it “violates the principle of nondiscrimination” while difference is against equal dignity because “it negates identity by forcing people into a homogenous mold that is untrue to them” (Taylor 43). This scene in “The Ostrich” is significant because Aboulela is giving a voice to Sumra, a unique individual who does not agree with what the mold of her dominant society has decided is equal. She doesn’t believe they should “condemn something that Allah had permitted” – polygamy, whereas in England, the practice would be seen as inherently unequal to the women involved.

Lindsey Zanchettin’s chapter “Articulations of Home & Muslim Identity in the Short Stories of Leila Aboulela in the Writing Africa in the Short Story collection (2013) offers a framework for examining Aboulela’s portrayal of the Muslim Sudanese woman’s experience as an immigrant in the UK. Her goal is show how Aboulela is part of a new kind of African short story – one that expresses the African experience as plural and familiar instead of singular and exotic. This ties in with Taylor’s politics of equal dignity. “The memories Sumra has of her Muslim practice in Khartoum are not alienating to non-Muslim or non-African readers” Zanchettin writes. She analyzes the ways in which Aboulela allows her characters to “ache for a place of familiarity and comfort” even when that place is otherwise considered “undesirable” (Zanchettin 42). I will analyze how this allowance ties with Taylor’s politics of equal dignity through Aboulela’s representation of Khartoum with ordinary beauty.

Aboulela does this in sentences describing Khartoum in her school days. For example, “To walk from the hostels in groups and pairs, past the young boy selling peanuts, past the closed post-office, past the neem trees with the broken benches underneath” (Aboulela 5). The effect of this is showing Khartoum as an ordinary paradise. It’s special to Sumra in her memories, but it is not special in a magical way that makes it different than London and, by extension, the Western world. She does this writing sentences

students walking to school

Aboulela doesn’t give schoolife in Khartoum special significance

that are not only fragments, but are also lengthy run-ons. There are a cluster of four sentences like this, back to back, without a subject that pull us in to Khartoum casually, like we are part of the conversation, allowing us to relate Sumra’s experiences to our own. This is significant because the politics of equal dignity want to pain all the world as equal. Sumra walked with “[j]angly earrings, teeth snapping chewing gum and kohl in [her] eyes” just like I and numerous other women (and men) have. It puts us on equal footing.

Aboulela doesn’t fall into the trap Taylor warns about though. There is subtle mention of “the broken benches” in the city. Khartoum is struggling. We see it when Sumra describes waiting for her bread ration every morning. Sumra is not treated equally in London. She lives in fear of what people might think of her after Majdy shows her the Islamophobic and racist graffiti around the city. Sumra’s individuality is respected while her home of Khartoum is presented with the same respect one would expect for the presentation of a Western city. This balance is something more writers should strive for when searching to represent multiculturalism in a society.



Works Cited

Aboulela, Leila. “About Leila.” Leila Aboulela, www.leila-aboulela.com/about/.

Murray, Tony. “No Reason to Doubt No Irish, No Blacks Signs.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 28 Oct. 2015, www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/28/no-reason-to-doubt-no-irish-no-blacks-signs.

Rattansi, Ali. Multiculturalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Taylor, Charles. Multiculturalism. Princeton University Press, 1994.

Zanchettin, Lindsey. “Articulations of Home & Muslim Identity in the Short Stories of Leila Aboulela.” ALT 31 Writing Africa in the Short Story: African Literature Today, edited by Ernest N. Emenyonu et al., Boydell and Brewer, 2013, pp. 40–51. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt3fgmkz.8.


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