After 9/11, I feel like the western world got a crash course in Islam. The conversation about what jihad and spiritual authority in Islam are still going on. Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies takes that conversation and not only puts it into historical context but also gives us a story about three people who get caught out on the wrong side of religion, culture, and even race. Imam Shamil, an actual historical figure, provides a point of intersection for our three protagonists: a modern scholar, a nineteenth century Georgian princess, and the Imam’s first son.
Imam Shamil fought against Russian expansion into the Caucasus region, specifically Dagestan, from the early 1830s until 1859. He is now Natasha Hussein’s subject of study. Using Shamil as a focus, Natasha has studied what jihad looked like before the era of terrorism and suicide bombing. Unlike modern jihadis, Shamil was captured by the Russians and surrendered rather than fighting to the death. Natasha’s story is intercut with brief scenes from the life of Jamaleldin, the Imam’s son, who was taken as a hostage by Russian forces and from the captivity of Anna Elinichna, a Georgian princess who was taken captive by Shamil’s forces in 1854.
Through Anna Elinichna and Jamaleldin, we learn about Shamil’s attempts to preserve Dagestani independence, but the focus is more on how these two survive in different cultures. Jamaleldin was Russified, though he did not convert, during his time at the tsar’s court. By the time he was ransomed back (for Anna Elinichna), his heritage was alien to him. Before he could see his father again, his brother and Shamil’s generals required him to change from his cadet’s uniform into Dagestani clothes. Jamaleldin reluctantly agrees to change out in the open:
He tugged off his bouts, he unbuttoned, he pulled down. The cold air on his skin, the snow-capped mountains above and a Russian military uniform fell into a heap on the grass. Here he was between one dress and the other, neither Russian nor Chechen, just naked and human. It was a restful place to be with sun on his back and grass between his toes. He shivered and pulled on the familiar-unfamiliar clothes. (240*)
Anna Elinichna also has a hard time reacclimating to life with her husband back in Tbilisi. Because Anna Elinichna and Jamaleldin were (mostly) on their own, no one in their new environment quite understands the problem. Their time with other cultures has irrevocably changed them.
Unlike these two protagonists, Natasha Hussein has never really had a people to belong to. Her mother was Russian and atheist. Her father was Sudanese and Muslim. After they divorced and her mother remarried, Natasha moved to Scotland. She didn’t look quite like either of her parents. She’s nominally Muslim, but doesn’t practice. Rather than try to find an identity, Natasha dove into the past. When a gifted student is accused of radicalization, arrested, and questioned for eleven days and she learns that her father is dying, all the questions Natasha has been avoiding come back to violent life.
The Kindness of Enemies is slow to start, but it hooked me within the first few chapters. The exotic setting (nineteenth century Dagestan) certainly piqued my interest, though I ended up fascinated by the way the characters are forced to negotiate their identities and allegiances. Aboulela is particularly good at capturing just how lonely it can be to be cut off from one’s people and heritage.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who feel they don’t have a group to belong to.
* From Grove Press’s 2015 kindle edition.