My best teacher Leila Aboulela

11th August 2000 at 01:00
I went to an American school in Khartoum from seven to 11, where I learned my English and read a lot of American children's books such as Little House on the Prairie and Harriet the Spy. The books seemed very remote from my own world, but were more comforting than school where there weren't many Sudanese children and I was very aware of the culture shock.

It was my mother who taught me maths. My maths teacher said I was useless - he said I was retarded or something - and my mother was so furious she was determined to show this was not true. I remember her going through the multiplication tables, even when I was having a bath. And she used the stairs, too - going up you added one, and coming down you subtracted. I remember it as being a series of breakthroughs, getting over my block, rather than acquiring knowledge.

My mother is a wonderful person, very open-minded and progressive, and she taught me a lot of things that I still use, even though literature is not her field at all.

I remember her sitting at her desk in the dining room - only it wasn't a desk, it was an awful sort of table - where she could hear everything that was going on in the kitchen, and see whoever came in through the door, and hear the phone ringing: yet she was working at the same time. She's an expert in demography and specialises in statistics, but it was a struggle for her. She was one of the few women in Khartoum who worked, one of the few women who could drive.

When I was 13 she came to London to do a PhD at the London School of Economics and I spent the summer term living with her in the student hostel, which was wonderful. I saw student life, and she rented this black and white TV and I would sit and watch it.

From the American school I went to a private Catholic girls' school, where they said that if I passed the entrance test I could skip a year. My Mum loved this idea so she spent the whole summer teaching me. She also coached me for the baccalaureate. She took me out of school a couple of months before the exam and taught me how to make time-table and study different things so I didn't get bored, and how to do a bit of a difficult subject and then a bit of a lighter one. When I read those books now about how to pass exams I think, Well, my mother taught me all that.

As a result I started at Khartoum university about two years earlier than the other students. I wanted to do arts, but I got very high marks in my baccalaureate and if that happened it was felt you should go and study the hardest thing, which was economics. I didn't much enjoy it, but I did enjoy the atmosphere of university.

When I came to London to do my MSc at the LSE my Mum came with me to do research there, and my brother was also doing an MSc, at Imperial. I was married by then so I had my baby with me and we all lived together (my husband works in the oil industry and was off in the desert in Yemen). My brother and I would rush out in the morning and Mum would look after the baby, but at 11 o'clock she would have all her books out on the table - another dining-room table - and the water in the kettle ready to boil for coffee, so that she could use every minute when the baby was asleep for working. Now I do the same thing. I get everything sorted out and as soon as my youngest child sleeps, I run to my desk; only it's a proper desk with a computer so I suppose that's some progression.


1964 Born in Egypt to an Egyptian mother and Sudanese father 1985 Graduates from the University of Khartoum, marries same year 1986 First of three children born 1987-1990 Post-graduate studies at the London School of Economics (MSc, followed by MPhil in statistics) 1990 Moves to Aberdeen 1991 Lecturing at Aberdeen College of Further Education, then working as a research assistant at University of Aberdeen 1992 Starts writing 1995 First short story published 2000 First novel, The Translator, appears on the longlist for the Orange Prize 2000 Wins the first Caine Prize for African Writing for a story, "The Museum", published in Opening Spaces, in the Heinemann African Writers Series

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