Something Old, Something New by Leila Aboulela is the final story in the AQA Short Story Anthology, Sunlight on the Grass, and is one of the longest. Here is the analysis, starting with likely exam questions, key quotations, interpretation and finally, the examiners’ report.

Likely Exam Questions for ‘Something Old, Something New’:
  • How does the writer portray the main male (or female) character?
  • How does the writer portray the central relationship?
  • How are feelings portrayed?
  • How does the writer portray the family?
  • How does the writer build the theme of identity / alienation?
  • How does the writer use place to build the themes?
  • How does the writer create tension?
  • How does the writer use narrative time to build the themes? (unlikely to be asked!)
Brief Explanation
The story is about a marriage between two people from different cultures. It focusses on themes of identity and alienation, separation – of the individual self and losing oneself in a relationship. The main male character has also converted to Islam (before he meets the Muslim girl), causing problems with family and friends – symbolising shifting identities. He never felt at home in himself – unable to complete the degree he was set on – falling short of himself. Then he meets a woman who seems ‘exotic’ – alien – and falls in love. What’s interesting is we then see him as an alien, ‘exotic’ in her country, where she is no longer foreign, and he is ‘the foreigner’. 

The story deals with identity as rooted in place. The man fears to lose himself, which is symbolised by his irrational terror when he loses his passport. We can interpret this as the fear of the alien – he fears losing himself in her country. OR we can interpret it as the fear of the other – of losing oneself in a relationship.

There are fears their marriage will not be seen as valid – as a ‘visa marriage’ – symbolising a fear of whether the emotion of love is real. In balance with this is the fear her country will not give her a visa to leave. This represents the idea that she may not be able to be with him fully as her country will always claim her.

Key Quotes
Page 41
Neither of the main characters are named. The anonymity gives a universal quality, and strips both of distinct identity. The first words are ‘Her country’, identifying her with Sudan – and the next words are ‘disturbed him’, evoking a troubled relationship.
He is ‘driven by feelings’ – emotive, perhaps irrational.
Her country is described as having: ‘simplicity’ and ‘strength’

Aboulela describes him as: ‘He was driven by feelings’, ‘had crossed boundaries’ (=transgressed social convention by marrying a foreigner and a Muslim). He is a ‘European’ strangely ‘murmuring salami alleikum‘. The word ‘foreigner’ is repeated twice – to describe the male main character – in quick succession.

Her family seems slightly hostile (or defensive) : from the main character’s point of view, the brother looks/seems ‘hard done by’. He seems ‘irritated’ with the ‘conflicting desire to get his sister off his hands’ and ‘misgivings’. He has ‘narrow eyes’ and seems to ‘judge’.

The main character isn’t allowed to be near to her due to religious conventions. Aboulela describes his viewpoint: it suddenly seemed ‘unfair’ in a ‘peevish’ way ‘that they should be separated like that’ (=theme of separation / togetherness). He wants to say: “I ache for you”.

The theme of unreality is shown in: ‘it was like a ride in a fun fair’.

Page 42
His fears are shown in the words: ‘punch’, ‘yank’, ‘snatch’. He fears being robbed (=symbolic). He is ‘nervous’, she is ‘calmness’. Her former alienness is reversed. Here, ‘everyone looked like her, shared her colour’. In Edinburgh, when he saw this in her, it ‘seemed to him exotic’. She is ‘proud of her Nile’, ‘a child’s blue, a dream’s blue’. He says it is “beautiful” but thinks it is ‘forceful’ ‘hungry and ruthless’, and it makes him think of ‘blood, death, bones’.
His luggage is ‘mostly presents for her family’. Here, he is observing cultural traditions of generosity = love.
She needs “an exit visa”. He seems possessive of her when he says: “because you’re my wife”

Page 43
On this page, are problems of passports and the British Embassy. He says, “I don’t understand” and “I don’t think your brother likes me”. She says “no… you’ll see” and the reason for the brother’s behaviour is explained on page 52
— flashback —-
Edinburgh In this section he is described as being, ‘cautious by nature’. ‘He had no intention of experimenting with weird tastes’. Also, he does not recognise the ‘mosque’ when he sees it. She opens a window into a new, strange world for him. ‘It was not often that people laughed at his jokes’.

Page 45
—flashback continues —
‘He had been the brightest in his class’, and ‘written lab reports’ ‘with ease’. He ‘should sail through Medical School’ but ‘he failed, failed again and dropped out’. ‘He had counselling’. He had ‘gone wrong’. His state ‘brought all the walls down’ in ‘shame’.
She was ‘sore’, ‘divorced after six months’. He tells her: “You have beautiful eyes”. Her husband married her against “his will” – wanted to marry an “English girl but his family disapproved”. This brings up the major theme of culture clash.

Page 46
‘They spoke about faith.’ He has already converted to Islam when he meets her and was previously a Catholic. ‘She couldn’t understand… She associated Islam with her dark skin, her African blood, her own weakness. She couldn’t really understand why anyone like him would want to join the wretched of the world’.
She says: “Your parents probably don’t like it.” “They won’t like you changing.” He has lost friends. One was ‘bitter’, another ‘withdrew’. His parents felt ‘dismay’.

Page 46
His aimlessness now has purpose. In Islam, he finds ‘answers’ which ‘opened new doors’, ‘urged him to look at things in another way’. He takes her to meet his parents and it is ‘a huge success’. ‘It was easier for his parents to accept that he was in love with a Muslim girl than it was to accept that he was in love with Islam.’
—- back to realtime of story in Khartoum —-
She phones him with a barrage of practical questions, then asks – “Are you going to dream of me?” // ‘He dreamt that he was still on the aeroplane’. (This symbolises that he is still in a state of transition, neither belonging in one place nor another. Then he wakes and sees an ‘arrow’. He tries to orient himself to find ‘Makkah’, using compass points ‘north east’, compared to ‘south east’ from Scotland. This represents his shifting centre of self and identity.

Page 47
‘Her house’ is ‘larger’ and ‘shabbier’ than he’d ‘imagined’. He ‘smiled until he strained the muscles of his face’. She’d never had privacy, anything of her ‘own’. ‘She had always lived as part of a group.’ He realises he has never seen her ‘hair’. The familiar idea in, “My Uncle knows an English song” contrasts with ‘she gave him strange fruit to eat’. Here, fruit symbolises natural and strange represents unnatural.

Page 48
He asks: “Can we be alone?” // She replies: “My family is very strict.” In the market, ‘his rucksack [is] slashed open, his passport missing’. ‘He started to shout’. ‘He could not calm down’. Here, we see, ‘the eruption of latent fears, the slap of a nightmare’, ‘the roar of anger in his ears’, ‘fuming’.

Page 49
She reassures him by saying: “they’ll chop off the hand of the thief who stole your camera.” This alien, cruel punishment is equal to his strange anger. Then she is angry at the Embassy: “You think you’re doing me a big favour by marrying me?” i.e. by letting me become a British citizen. It is his turn to ‘calm’ her down. They are both irrationally angry about issues linked to identity.
Then he commits a faux pas by giving too much money to a beggar. She says: “he’ll get mugged for it.” She and her brother are ‘laughing at him in Arabic, the height of rudeness.’ The brother asks for money for fuel, and now refers to his sister as “your fiancee”. This symbolises the transfer of ownership of the woman – as if she is property.

Page 50
‘It was as if the theft had brought out all the badness in them’. He wants to ‘punish’ and ‘hurt her’. Then they enter the house and her Uncle has died. The mourning will delay the wedding. ‘She was indoors, sucked up in rituals of grief he knew nothing about.’ This emphasises the cultural divide. ‘Death, the destroyer of pleasures’.

Page 51
‘He no longer asked himself why he was accompanying them; it seemed the right thing to do.’ This suggests he is starting to feel a greater belonging.

Page 52
‘He had thought… that in a Muslim country he would find elegance and reason. Instead he found melancholy, a sensuous place, life stripped to the bare bones.’ Then the brother opens up to him, saying, “I’m sorry… we could not have your wedding”. “I blame myself” for the “dog” she married last time.

Page 53

The main character gives money to the brother to pay for the ceremony. ‘His hand trembled a little as he put his wallet away. He had previously paid a dowry.’ ‘Now he felt humiliated, as if he had been hoodwinked or as if he had been so insensitive as to underestimate his share in the costs. Or as if he had paid for her.’
He thinks of his Scottish heritage: ‘he had turned his back on these customs, returned them as if they were borrowed, not his.’ This symbolises his alienation in his own culture.

Page 54
The details of the Muslim ceremony are given in detail. Then there is a problem: the groom needs a Muslim name, but has lost his certificate when he is robbed. The brother vouches for him. Without paperwork, the main character has to prove himself but has no proof – except what he carries inside himself. The family, touchingly, vouch for him as as Muslim.

Page 55

The groom has to recite the ‘Fatiha’. He is ‘sweating now’. The brother helps him. When the rites are concluded, the brother says: “Congratulations, we’ve given her to you now.” “She’s all yours now.” This seems as if he owns her, as if she is property which has been transferred. He sees her ‘hair’ for the first time. Unveiled ‘she is not thin’, as he thought but voluptuous and curvy. He has desired her though, before he could see this, showing that he loved her beyond her body or sexuality. The mood shifts into the sensual with words like: ‘sultry darkness’ ‘privacy’ ‘beautiful’

Page 56
He has no ‘words’. ‘Words wouldn’t come’. Her hands are hennaed as part of the ceremony and she says when they are back in Edinburgh: “I will wear gloves, so as not to shock everyone”. He says no. “It’s lovely”
His voice makes her think he’s “not well”.
He says: “it’s been rough for me, these past days, please, feel sorry for me.”
“I do,” she whispered. “I do.”
This repetition of “I do” echoes the words of the Christian marriage ceremony, ironically, and shows the communion between two people. It also makes an interesting reversal. According to custom, he owns her. But what he wants from her is her pity and compassion. His weakness is revealed in the final words, and her assent.

Actual Exam Questions June 2012
EITHER Question 1
Answer part (a) and part (b)
Part (a)
Write about how Baines presents the boy in Compass and Torch.

and then Part (b)

How does the writer present a young person in one other story from Sunlight on the Grass?


How does the writer present feelings in On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning?

and then Part (b)

Write about how feelings are presented in one other story from Sunlight on the Grass.

(30 marks) 

2012 Examiners’ Comments about how well students answered the exam questions:
“This task revealed that some students did not know Something Old, Something New very well. Instead of an understanding of how the family is presented to us by the writer, there was a tendency to make generalised remarks about Muslim families and then list all the things that happen to the protagonist. Other students, however, wrote well about cultural beliefs and traditions and explored the protaganist’s discomfort within the family; some interesting responses were able to apply a gender reading to the story. However, whilst quotations were usually selected very well and embedded into the responses, there was a marked tendency to fail to identify language/structural techniques used by the writer. Often students were more successful at addressing AO2 in the second part of the question, especially if they wrote about the broken family in Compass and Torch. In particular, this story prompted students to examine the symbolism of the compass and torch in the portrayal of the father/son relationship. Anil and When The Wasps Drowned also led to some effective answers.” [January 2012]