The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela – a Review

Leila and I meKindness of et over 20 years ago when we were taking a creative writing class. The day I first noticed her, she told the class she was delighted to have just finished writing her first ever short story. Since then, Leila has written many more short stories, including The Museum, which won the first ever Caine Prize for African writing. (You can find it in Coloured Lights, her short story collection.) She has also written several radio plays and this is her forth novel, and a very fine one!

The Kindness of Enemies follows two timelines – that of Natasha, who teaches at a Scottish university, and that of her 19th Century research. As the novel opens, Natasha gives a talk to the Muslim Society on: “Jihad as Resistance – Russian Imperial expansion and Insurrection in the Caucasus.” She visits Malak, mother of one of her students, Oz, and descendant of Iman Shami, the Islamic warrior who led the Caucasian resistance. Heavy snow prevents Natasha from leaving and before she returns home, Oz has been arrested, suspected of terrorism. Before long, she too is investigated by police.

The 19th Century part of the novel follows the lives of Iman Shamil and his son Jamaleldin who is taken hostage by Russians, as well as that of Georgian princess Anna whose grandfather had surrendered to Georgia Russia several years before.

The contemporary and historical strands of the book sit well together, with none of the confusion that sometimes occurs in novels that span two timelines. Aboulela does a fine job of weaving historical information with a beautifully written and compelling story.

In The Kindness of Enemies characters are uprooted from their families and from the familiar – in Natasha’s case this is because her parents divorce. For the 19th century characters, Jamaleldin and Princess Anna, war is the cause.

These disrupted lives follow common threads: homesick longing, confusion, and feelings of alienation and fear. All also assimilate into their new surroundings – to a greater or lesser degree. One aspect of the Kindness of Enemies I particularly enjoyed was the portrayal of the complicated emotions of these displaced characters – both Princess Anna and Jamaleldin feel resistance to their new surroundings coupled with affection for some of the people who hold them captive. Both want to return home and feel regret at the prospect. Natasha also feels mixed emotions for her childhood home of Khartoum. I also like that Aboulela doesn’t give easy resolutions to these contradictory emotions, so bringing the characters fully to life.

As its title suggests, in The Kindness of Enemies, enemies are kind – Princess Anna grows to respect and admire Iman Shamil, and to wonder what it might be like to be one of his wives. Later, Russians show Shamil similar respect. This contrasts with the present-day suspicion of British Muslims that leads to Natasha abandoning her surname Hussein and to Oz avoiding the use of his first name Osama. The novel also explores the way this suspicion can lead deeper into fear. But the Kindness of Enemies is not a rant about western prejudice – Malak is an actress and a Sufi Muslim and the hate mail she receives comes from intolerant Muslims. I also found it fascinating to see Political Islam compared to Trotskyist parties – whereas the Sufism Malak embraces has more in common with Buddhism. Shamil was also a Sufi, and according to Malak, this meant, “Every fight Shamil fought was on the defence.” His generals were “scholarly and disciplined. This type of jihad is different from the horrible crimes of ad-Qaeda.”

Nevertheless, as the story unfolds, at times Shamil makes poor judgements and disregards his spiritual teacher, Jamal el-Din. He comes to see himself as invincible and this arrogance is to be his downfall.

The Kindness of Enemies shows the timelessness and universality of human emotions – the preoccupations of a 19th century Georgian princess are not so different to those of a 21st century mixed-race university lecturer. Or indeed to my own. We all want to love and be loved, to feel connection, to matter.

The Kindness of Enemies explores themes of displacement, alienation, loss and loneliness with sensitivity and compassion. The characters are complex, filled with a mix of wisdom and insanity, compassion and self-interest. Princess Anna is perhaps the character that most exhibits this, with her desire to cling to personal belongings, even when her life is in danger: Afterwards she would think, if I had not cared about the flowers, the silver, the packing, how much time would I have saved? Horsemen at full tilt on the plains and she was giving Lydia her morning feed. Her breasts not as full as they usually were, the milk sensitive to the sleepless night, the disjointed nerves.

I also loved the portrayal of her as a mother. Aboulela writes about the connection between mother and baby in a way not often shown in fiction, showing the intense emotional and physical bonds: If Lydia woke up and cried now, she would not hear her. Her ears, though, strained for that familiar high note and now it felt as if she was playing truant, exploring the furthest end of the leash that tied her to her daughter.

The Kindness of Enemies isn’t just a beautifully written story but a really, really important one that could go a long way towards aiding understanding between cultures. I loved Aboulela’s last book, Lyrics Alley: A Novel, and I love this book even more!

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