Story begins when a young Scottish man arrives in Sudan. It's clear that it's his first journey abroad and he's nervous, not because he's in a foreign country but because he is about to meet his fiancee's family for the first time. Everything seems strange to him.
His fiancee's brother treats him with amusement and contempt. The man and his fiancee discuss her need for a visa in order for her to leave the country with him as his wife.
In a flashback it's revealed that the couple met in Edinburgh when she was working as a waitress. The Scotsman had dropped out of university and then converted to Islam. She was in Edinburgh because she'd gone to marry her first husband, but they are now divorced due to her husband's infidelity.
As the story progresses the Scotsman meets his wife's family and is taken on various excursions, on which they are always joined by family members. He feels a bit restricted by the constant presence of her family and is clearly frustrated about not being able to spend time with her.
Other events happen, and finally at the end of the story, once the period of mourning of his fiancee's uncles death is over, the couple get married in a simple Islamic ceremony, and they are at last working together. The ending is completely happy and forward looking.
Use of Arabic words
All these Arabic words help to convey a sense of culture alienation to British readers. However, at the same time, Aboulela makes the occasional reference to Western culture: describing the aged uncle as "Bill Cosby's look-a-like" (lines 223-240) and The Godfather II. This works in two ways: it shows how we increasingly share some aspects of culture across the world, but it also gives her Western readers a reference point.
Characters - The man
The man is clearly clever: at school we are told he was always top of his class and went on to study at university. However, he dropped out of medical school and at that point his life lacked direction until he converted to Islam. His new faith has given him a renewed purpose in life and the desire to marry and start a family. In many ways his trip to Sudan is very brave - he finds the whole experience rather alienating and unsettling; for example, he becomes angry when things go wrong and frustrated because he and his fiancee never get the chance alone together. We know that despite his conversion to Islam and the courage that must have taken, that he is actually quite timid: early in the story in the flashback that describes how the couple met, Aboulela warns us that "He was cautious by nature, wanting new things but held back by a vague mistrust. It was enough for the time being that he had stepped into the Nile Cafe, he had no intention of experimenting with weird tastes" (lines 86-88). In the final lines of the story he admits that the experience has been a rough one.
Characters - The woman
Originally went to Scotland to get married to a Sudanese man who was living in Edinburgh. Clear suggestion that the marriage was an arranged one and this is not unusual in Islamic cultures. However, her husband was unfaithful (he already had a live-in English girlfriend), and he and the woman were quickly divorced. As readers our perceptions of the woman are filtered through the feelings and perceptions of the man at all times: he sees her as beautiful, dignified and calm, but his own sense of low self esteem allows him to believe that she is laughing at him. She herself shows an emotional side when she gets frustrated and angry because of her visits to the British Embassy. At the end of the story, when asked by her new husband if she feels sorry for him, she admits that she does. This shows her awareness that his Scottish culture and her Sudanese culture can be difficult to reconcile with each other, but also suggests that the marriage will be successful.
Characters - The woman's own family
Are very close to each other and very protective of her. Since her first marriage ended in divorce, they are likely to be suspicious of her new husband - especially since he is a foreigner and a convert to Islam.
Characters - Woman's brother
Seems rather threatening to the man because he always seems to be interested in money - this arouses the man's suspicions about whether he, as the relatively wealthy Westerner, is being exploited. However, the brother can be seen as being genuinely protective of his sister and is regretful that the family arranged the woman's first marriage to a man who was unworthy of her: her brother calls her first husband "that son of a dog", showing his contempt for him (line 439-440). Everyone knew that the first husband had a British girlfriend but they hoped that by arranging for him to marry a Sudanese woman, he would give her up and commit himself to a married life. Because he didn't the brother's protectiveness towards his sister is perhaps understandable. By the time of the wedding the Scotsman anbd the brother seem to get along ok. Significantly, after all the men have prayed together at the mosque after the period of mourning for the woman's dead uncle, we are told "In the car there was a new ease between them, a kind of bonding because they had prayed together" (lines 371-2).
Characters - The uncle
Uncle who later dies is amusing and benevolent: he is compared to Bill Cosby, a Black American comedian - a simile which is used by Aboulela to suggest his sense of humour, but also to give her Western readers a point of reference; he is also very proud of an English song he knows about a cricket. However, his death is used by Aboulela to make clear the family's traditional Islamic values and to stress the difference between Scottish and Sudanese culture. The funeral and the period of mourning also put further strain on the couple's relationship, because they have no communication whatsoever and do not see each other for several days.
Language and structure
The title of the story alludes to the traditional rhyme that prescribes that brides on their wedding day should wear "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue", but clearly can be interpreted in different ways in the light of the story. What is 'old' in the story? Love between man and a woman; a family's desire to protect their daughter; the culture of Sudan; the traditions of Islam; the tensions between different cultures.
And what is 'new' in the story? The love between the man and the woman is new and is going to result in marriage. In a sense marriages across race and culture, while not completely new, are still a fairly modern phenomenon. For the man a lot is new: he is overwhelmed with new impressions of a country he has never visited before, some of them are good, some less favourable.
Is anything borrowed? The man has 'borrowed' Islam in the sense that it is not native to Scotland, but his new found religious faith is shown in a positive light. Blue? The man's first sight of the Nile - a river that is iconic and famous in world culture - is picked out by Aboulela as important and significant "And there was the Nile, a blue he had never seen before, a child's blue, a dream's blue" (lines 45-46).
Language and structure (2)
His mixed feelings about Sudan are present in his feelings about the Nile: he recognises its beauty, but also that its "flow was forceful, not innocent, not playful. Crocodiles no doubt lurked beneath its surface. He could picture an accident: blood, death, bones" (lines 48-50). Story told in chronological order, but there are flashbacks to events in Edinburgh which tell us about the young man's past and about the beginnings of their relationship. FRlashbacks are a vital part of story because without them we wouldn't know that the woman has been married, why she divorced or why she was working in Scotland in a cafe. As far as the man is concerned, the flashbacks explain his crisis in life after he dropped out of medical school, his conversion to Islam and his meeting and courtship of the woman.
Story is told in 3rd person with Aboulela as omniscient narrator. Often gives us view of the Scotsman and rarely that of another character, perhaps because he's observing many things for the first time, so its natural to give us his perspective. In addition, Aboulela is writing in English for an English-speaking audience who have probably not been to Sudan and may share some of the man's fears, as well as his wonder of seeing the Nile. Writer uses extensive dialogue: we hear what characters say and form an impression from their words.
Language and structure (3)
Man and woman are never named. Seems to be a deliberate ploy on Aboulela's part to suggest they could be anyone: what is important about them is they are a man and woman who love each other and want to be together and therefore all the differences - nationality and culture - and all obstacles put in their way - delay to marriage, the mugging, attitude of British Embassy staff - are unimportant compared to their love. The story of love between a man and a woman is as old as the earth.
Aboulela uses many Arabic words in story - chiefly to do with Islamic customs or food and drink - to keep the idea of a different, alien culture in the forefront of the readers mind. Because the Scotsman has converted to Islam and also really enjoys all the food he tries this helps build a very positive picture of a different culture and, more broadly, encourages us to feel that the marriage will be a success once they can be alone together.
Themes - Being abroad
Opening sentence of story prepares us for sense of alienation that Scotsman feels at beind abroad in a country which is so different from his own: "Her country disturbed him". Throughout story Aboulela frequently reminds us of how alien another country can be to a newly-arrived tourist. His first car ride from the airport seems to confirm his prejudiced stereotypes about the lack of discipline in foreign traffic: "It was like a ride in a fun fair. The windows wide open; voices, car-horns, people crossing the road at random, touching the cars with their fingers as if the cars were benign cattle" (lines 32-34). He is especially fearful of being robbed.
Fears are realised later in story when he is mugged on street. Aboulela describes this incident as "the eruption of latent fears, the slap of a nightmare" (line 274). The Scotsman is angry because he begins to calm down when they report theft to the police, which probably comforted him.
Fear of being mugged abroad is common, but his anger of being robbed is mirrored by her irritation at the way the staff treat her at the British Embassy. On both sides there is mutual distrust based on stereotypes: everyone abroad is a potential mugger and foreign women marry UK citizens for visas.
Themes - Concepts of Islam
Islam is presented as largely positive light in story. When the man arrives at the airport he is not allowed to kiss his fiancee and they are not allowed to be alone together until after marriage, but this is presented as more of a part of Sudanese culture rather than an inherent part of Islam: his desire to kiss her at the airport suggests strongly that they have kissed before in Edinburgh, but there has been no other intimacy between them: the story later reveals that he has never seen her hair since the Islamic code of dress dictates that her hair should be covered at all times.
In other respects, Islam is presented as a force for good, because it has changed the young mans life and given him purpose. He finds answers in Islam and begins to lead a productive life. He faces bewilderment and dismay from his Catholic parents because he converts to Islam, but Aboulela makes it clear that the alternatives are much worse. Given his failure at medical school and him questioning the meaning of life, it would have been easy for him to be sucked up into unemployment, drugs, etc.
His parents are aware of their neighbour's son who hanged himself. There was a secret plague that targeted young men, in this sense Islam is presented as a good thing because it saves man from plague and a path of self destruction.
Themes - Poverty and wealth
Because Sudan is a developing country much of the population is desperately poor. We are reminded of this throughout story. Woman is proud that they have booked him into Hilton hotel because although country is poor, they do have a luxury hotel. The Scotsman is always wary that he is going to be cheated out of money - because he has so much compared with the poverty in Sudan.
Details of him talking about poverty and wifes belongings (lines 322-324), remind us of poverty of developing world but suggest that the materialism of the Western culture is only superficial and not completely satsifying - after all, the man has had all these things, but has completely lost all purpose in his life before his conversion to Islam.
Themes - Subservience of women
Woman's first marriage was arranged and had only ended because of the woman's insistence and because her husband would not give up his British girlfriend for the sake of his marriage. During the period of mourning, the sexes are kept completely apart, the women mourning in private and out of sight, the men recieving the visitors in the tent in the garden. Islamic and Sudanese custom dictates that the man and the woman cannot even kiss or be alone together before they are married.
Ending of story
Closing paragraphs of story suggest marriage will be successful and that despite all delays the couples have been subjected to, because of clash of cultures and different nationalities. They have successfully overcome each obstacle they gave faced and are married with a life of love and togetherness ahead of them.
In the end, despite all difficulties they undergo, the moments of tension and irritation between them, and the Scotman's fears of the foreigness of the Sudan and that he is being exploited, this is a love story.
As a whole this is a story about the triumph of love between two human beings, despite all the boundaries they have to cross. Aboulela's decision not to name the man and the woman can therefore be seen as an attempt to give their story a universal significance: they are a man and woman deeply in love with each other - and that story is as old as humanity itself, despite the modern details of aeroplanes and difficulties with visas etc. By giving them no names, Aboulela is suggesting that they could be any man and woman at any time and from any country who are strongly moved by love.