The Cost of Assimilation: How Past Life and Identity Are Impacted by Migration

"The Ostrich" by Leila Aboulela

“The Ostrich”

“The Ostrich” is a short story written in 1997 by Cairo-born author Leila Aboulela. The text surrounds the idea of adapting to living in a new and unfamiliar environment after immigrating, and also deeply touches upon how this affects relationships. The story is centered on a married couple, Majdy and Sumra, and is narrated by Sumra, as she centers on her experience of immigrating from Khartoum, Sudan to London, England. Throughout the work, Sumra speaks of her social, physical, and mental experiences of immigration in a nonlinear narrative structure along a fragmented, blurred line of time and reality. Expressing her story through vignettes from her life in Khartoum, she portrays reactions and feelings of family members towards her choices based on assimilation. Sumra holds onto her memories of Sudan, constantly referring back to them throughout her work as she moves from the present to the past as her thoughts naturally progress. This leads to disagreements between her and her husband as he desires to be accepted in their new society, and is willing to let go of his past and identity to let this happen, while Sumra refuses to let go of her memories and homeland.

Leila Aboulela

Leila Aboulela

Historically, Britain is a country that has attempted to become a monoculture, which was made clear when they left the Soviet Union, wishing for a primarily white race to exist in the country. However, mass immigration has made this impossible and has led to a range of public reactions to immigrants, especially Muslims. In turn, immigrants have been pushed to assimilate into the British national identity, which is essentially white and Christian. In “The Ostrich,” Aboulela uses the character Majdy to represent those individuals who attempt to assimilate, motivated by fear of what may happen if they fail to, juxtaposing this to Sumra, who refuses to let her identity be reshaped by their new homeland, no matter the consequences. She demonstrates this oppositional relationship through Majdy’s consistent placing of London against Khartoum and Sumra’s aligning of Majdy to assimilation through connection of his reshaped identity to that of the British national identity. Majdy also conveys his understanding of hegemonic power dynamics in his new country through his use the word “forgive” to force his wife to assimilate.

Sumra links her identity to their homeland, Khartoum, while Majdy only acknowledges his homeland in an unfavorable, hostile manner. Whenever he mentions Khartoum, he speaks negatively of the place, appositionally stating positive aspects of London. For example, while speaking to his wife and remembering Khartoum, he shows no regret after leaving, asserting, “I can’t imagine I could go back…to the…books in the library that are years old, computers that don’t have electricity” (Aboulela 3). In these phrases, Majdy is explicitly pointing out uncontemporary aspects of his homeland, even rejecting the idea of ever returning. These observations also convey the idea that male immigrants are expected to eagerly assimilate while females cling to their homeland.

Aboulela utilizes Sumra and Majdy’s relationship to explore gender dynamics and assimilation by use of abstract diction. The narrator, Sumra, discusses her husband, Majdy, in a manner which implicitly reveals not only her true feelings towards him, but also her feelings towards assimilation, “I…must bear the weight of his arm around my shoulder, another gesture he had decided to imitate to prove that though we are Arabs…we can be modern too” (3). In this sentence, a pragmatic tone is used in juxtaposition with the words “imitate,” “prove,” and “modern,” which in this context are all directly connected with the term assimilation. By associating himself with London through cultural integration, which he places in opposition with Khartoum, Majdy implies that the negative attributes he ascribes to his homeland are also traits that he attributes to Sumra.

British and SU flagIn his essay, “Celebrating British multiculturalism, lamenting England/Britain’s past,” JackBlack writes a history of the United Kingdom through public reactions to displays of multiculturalism, arguing that the “white past, multicultural present” of the U.K. has served to construct present-day anxieties that exist in British multiculturalism, immigration, and national identity (Black 788). He continues to write that “a sense of loss and a lack of national distinctiveness has been found to underscore accounts of English/British identity” because “unprecedented waves of mass immigration…challenged our identity as a people” (791, 794). As such, Black continues to explain that “As a consequence, a ‘sense of loss…linked to the actions or presence of “other” groups who [have] threatened established identities, traditions and ways of life’ has coalesced with a ‘revamped Englishness’” essentially meaning a desire to return to the U.K.’s white, Christian past and to exclude other religious and ethnic backgrounds (Skey and Maguire qtd in Black 878). This hegemony of British national identity is what Majdy responds to so intensely. Majdy is persistent on assimilating and forcing his wife to assimilate because he is aware that he does not fit this white, Christian British identity. He has entered a land in which he is subordinate, and is targeted by the dominant, who long for a monoculture. In order to shield himself and become less of a target, he must assimilate.

Majdy uses conformity as a defense mechanism and a means of survival, at the expense of his memories and connection to his homeland, which he articulates through his syntax and diction. As a part of this apparatus, he attempts to protect his wife, in a manner which does not appear protective. This can be seen in an incident that occurs when Sumra and Majdy are eating dinner with their British friends, and Sumra mentions polygamy in a casual, accepting manner. In response to her statements at dinner, Majdy slaps her once their guests leave and states, “They can forgive you for your ugly colour, your thick lips and rough hair, but you must think modern thoughts, be like them in the inside if you can’t be from the outside” (Aboulela 5). In this statement, Majdy, critiquing his wife based on her actions as well as her looks, shows that he is being assimilated and as his identity is shifting, he is subconsciously adopting the mindset of his oppressors. Majdy, states a list of negative traits that he attributes to his wife in order to criticize her, as well as explain to her that her physical characteristics are not accepted in this country.

Moreover, Majdy’s use of the word “forgive” indicates that, in his mind, Sumra has done something wrong, in the case, not being white, as he describes to her, “your ugly colour, your thick lips and rough hair.” He implies that her physical appearance is something requiring forgiveness, which he believes can be won by thinking “modern thoughts” and trying to be British “on the inside if you can’t be from the outside.” In addition, Majdy’s juxtaposition of the pronouns “you” and “them” further extends his dislike of his home culture, and respect for the American culture. Not only is Majdy aligning himself with British notions of beauty and racist ways of thinking, but he also rejects Sumra’s cultural openness with sexuality through his abusive response to her accepting attitude towards polygamy. His rejection of polygamy and Sumra’s casual acceptance of it aligns Majdy with more orthodox Christian beliefs regarding sex and sexuality, further aligning himself with the tenants of monocultures that Black examines.

Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall

In his lecture entitled, “The Multicultural Question,” Britain’s leading multicultural theorist, Stuart Hall, considers the idea of Muslim presence as being a threat to white hegemony in the U.K.. In order to contextualize this argument, he provides historical background, claiming that the origin of interethnic conflict lies in “the break-up of the Soviet Union…which has precipitated [a] wave of small societies seeking independent nationhood” (Hall 3). He continues to explain that these societies yearn for “an ethnically cleansed nation-state,” meaning that countries left the S.U. in an attempt to become a monoculture (3). Hall explains the consequences of ethnic-cleansing, discussing the issues that arise when immigrants arrive in a nation in which they are not welcomed. When entering this kind of sphere, immigrants “disguise themselves within the culture” according to “the British way of life” which is white and Christian (13, 15). These definitions assist greatly in unpacking actions and viewpoints of characters in “The Ostrich.”

From the second Sumra and Majdy leave the airport and enter British society, they face hegemonic standards as well as unfamiliar modes of living. Citizens of this new country expect immigrants to recognize that there is one hegemonic culture in this nation, and that unless they act like the dominant group in all aspects—physically, socially, and mentally—then they are threatening “the British way of life.” In fact, their very presence in the country is viewed as threatening as Majdy and Sumra observe targeting, offensive graffiti on communal structures saying, “‘Black Bastards’ on the wall of the mosque,” and “‘Paki go home’ on the newsagent’s door” (Aboulela 5). These racist, condemning messages contribute to identities being suppressed, as indicated by Majdy’s loss of identity, and also lead to Sumra’s identity remaining intact, at the expense of the spirit and ease she experienced in her homeland.

Graffiti in England, "Muslims out"

In her article, “Where the Heart Is: The Concept of ‘Home’ in Leila Aboulela’s Short Fiction,” Eiman El-Nour discusses multiple works written by Aboulela, and relates these works to the concepts of home and belonging. She compares and contrasts themes that are prevalent within Aboulela’s works, and also evaluates characters in these works. Specifically, she points out the contrast between males and females, explaining by what means these genders tend to hold onto their identity, or do not, amid confrontation. El-Nour analyzes “The Ostrich” and highlights the theme of nostalgia writing, “The cold faraway land instils in the souls of her characters memories of the warm and familiar past life” (El-Nour 11). El-Nour understands the root of nostalgia as being the distance an individual is physically situated from their homeland. In addition, the contrasting connotations of the words “cold” and “warm” brings in a factor of comfortability. Sumra is unable to be comfortable in London because it is not “warm and familiar” like her homeland, but rather “cold.” In contrast, El-Nour justifies Majdy’s “fascination with the west and apparent rejection of home” by explaining that he was not entirely “devoid of a sense of longing” for Khartoum (11). This is indicated by Majdy’s mocking tone that he employs towards Sumra when she brings him back food from their homeland, as he states, “from the land of famine you bring me food” (11). This statement, revealing a desire for food from his homeland, indicates that he longs for Khartoum, while his jeering tone masks his desire, making it appear sarcastic and not as emotionally driven as Sumra.

In addition to nostalgia, El-Nour analyzes faith as a “tool of empowerment in the lives of the young female characters” (12). Particularly, she centers on how Sumra “clings to her faith for solace and sustenance” (12). Sumra tries to take control of her own life, and as a consequence, she is “offer[ed] a type of freedom” in which she is her “own master in the absence of the patriarchal society back home” (13). For example, in “The Ostrich,” after her husband mentally abuses her through comments about her appearance, Sumra turns to her faith for comfort and support. As Aboulela writes, “I would stand in front of the mirror and Allah forgive me, hate the face I was born with” (Aboulela 5). Her use of the word “forgive” while Sumra speaks to Allah, a being whom she sees as her creator, is powerful in the sense that Sumra is literally telling this force to forgive her and to “hate” the face she was born with, the one which he shaped. She is attempting to convince the one other being she can talk to other than Majdy, to assimilate, and accept the hegemonic standards, just as Majdy is attempting to persuade Sumra to believe that her looks are something for which she should feel guilt.

Aboulela’s short story, “The Ostrich” speaks to the realities of Sudanese migrants leaving their homeland in search of a better life overseas. In this journey, characters are not welcomed and live in a state of exile as they are unable to feel at home in this new, hostile country. Aboulela uses abstract diction to denote emotions that are experienced in this new country as well as the conditions migrants face upon arrival. She does not explicitly list aspects of British culture which result in these conditions and feelings, but instead, uses her characters to represent those individuals who attempt to assimilate, motivated by fear, in juxtaposition to those who refuse to let their identity be reshaped by their new homeland. Through scenes and events which take place throughout the story, the British national identity is identified, and hegemonic power dynamics which exist in England serve to explain the mistreatment of migrants. These hegemonic influences have the power to intimidate and threaten immigrants to the extent that their identities may become sensitive to change, causing those individuals to begin internalizing the cultural practices which surround them.


Works Cited

Aboulela, Leila. “The Ostrich.” Intangible, Intangible Publications, Inc., 1997,                                   

Black, Jack. “Celebrating British Multiculturalism, Lamenting England/Britain’s past.” Nations & Nationalism, vol. 22, no. 4, Oct. 2016, pp. 786-802. EBSCOhost,       doi:10.1111/nana.12164.

Hall, Stuart. “The Multicultural Question.” The Political Economy Research Centre Annual             Lecture. Firth Hall, Sheffield. 4 May 2000. Web.      cerpt.pdf

Nour, Eiman El- and Leila Aboulela. “Where the Heart Is: The Concept of ‘Home’ in Leila Aboulela’s Short Fiction.” Cross-Cultural Communication, vol. 12, no. ix, 2016, pp. 10-           15. EBSCOhost,

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