Eight-year-old Lilly is the child of self-confessed English hippy parents whose only desire is
to travel stoned through Europe and North Africa. Most of the time they spend holed-up in seedy hotels, never staying in one place long enough to establish roots. Disaster comes when one day they are curiously murdered at a Sufi shrine in Bilal al Habash.
Lilly is suddenly orphaned.
With no home to be sent to and no relatives that she knows of, and knowing nothing of England, she is placed under the tutelage of her parents' best friend, the large fellow Englishman and Islamic convert Mohammed Bruce. Almost at once, Lilly is drawn to the spiritual voices of the Qur'an, perhaps in an attempt to replace the loss of her parents with a newfound love of orthodox Islam.
With her mind packed with reverence for the saints and the stable of mystical seekers who gather around the great guide Great Abdal, Lilly is packed off on a pilgrimage to the ancient city of Harar, in Ethiopia, where she is abandoned and left to fend for herself amongst the unfortunate and the meek. She finds shelter with Nouria, a desperately poor Ethiopian woman and mother of two who lives in ramshackle compound on the outskirts of the city. Life for Lilly, however, is anything but sanguine; she spends much of her time sleeping on a dirt floor, whilst helping Nouria feed and clothe her children. The daily routine consists of helping to brush away goat feces and dead cockroaches and pouring petrol over thresholds to deter flies.
She makes endless stews with contaminated water in giant cauldrons and gathers around the squat shrine once a week to celebrate the saint and his miracles. Eventually, she teaches local kids to read the Qur'an and is absolutely appalled when she witnesses the circumcision of both of Nouria's daughters.
Uncivilized in the ways of the place, and always treading on alien soil, Lilly is considered an exile a "Falasha" a landless one, almost "tiptoeing so as not to leave footprints." She may be educated in the ways of traditional Islam, but the women-folk are weary of her in this strange and insular world of superstition and conformity, where the local people are suspicious of outsiders, where the doctor is the last resort in a community
ruled by midwives, faith healers, and herbalists.
Lilly eventually forms a connection with the plainspoken and dark-skinned Doctor Aziz, who comes to the aid of a botched circumcision. Aziz, with his kindly and self-effacing ways, makes her feel different, stirred, compelled, and vaguely anxious.
Most of all, he makes her challenge her religious practices, causing her to loosen her grip on her dogmatic beliefs.
When Lilly is exiled to England in the 1980s, she realizes just how much she misses Aziz - it has been years since she has heard from him, and she wonders whether he ever got out of Ethiopia alive. She finds herself working as a nurse for the National Health Service in a hospital largely catering to the immigrant poor from the beleaguered Brixton housing estates. It
is a sad, bitter and resentful life, yet she manages to find time to help displaced Ethiopian exiles reconnect with their relatives in the aftermath of revolution. Lilly has become a white Moslem raised in Africa now living in London, existing "somewhere between the past and the future which is not quite the present."
Alternating between Lilly's two worlds, author Camilla Gibb beautifully renders the sights, sounds and smells of Harar, providing a contrast with central London's immigrant community. When Lilly first arrives in Harar, she is assaulted by what she sees around her: it
is a city "already in second gear," toothless old women, shrunken old men, expressionless Sufis clinging to their wool blankets, and oily mothers standing in doorways with babies on their hips.
In Brixton, Lilly desperately tries to hold onto her past and, with her best friend and fellow exile, Amina, re-enacts rituals, keeping the traditions of home alive in government housing. She longs for an easier time, when being Moslem was rigid and rule-bound and the where the past belonged clearly to a pre-Islamic era. Lilly is faced with a conundrum - she neither fits into the West or the East, and she finds herself feeling as though she has lost something – "lost hope and no dream for the future anymore, embedded in the old world, unwilling to let go." Although she strikes up a friendship with an amicable Pakistani doctor, she still hopes and preys that one day Aziz will eventually come to her.
Gibb exquisitely combines faith, memory and longing into an exotic tale of past and present, where life and death, religion and passion co-exist, entwined for eternity. Faith has accompanied Lilly over time and geography and upheaval – from Morocco, to Ethiopia and then on to England
- and it is a faith that has irrevocably bound her to her Muslim neighbors. Lilly's life has been obviously been fraught with much disappointment and turmoil, but only by letting go of the strictures of the past can
she hope to somehow breathe life into her future.