The Kindness of Enemies, by Leila Aboulela.
The Kindness of Enemies, by Leila Aboulela. Grove Press (2016), 320 pages.
A complex and beautifully written novel weaving together the narratives of a contemporary Muslim woman and the struggle of Muslims and Russians in the mid-1800s in the Caucasus Mountains, which she is researching.
Leila Aboulela is a Muslim woman from Sudan who has written several fine novels focusing on a variety of Islamic women. I have read and enjoyed several of them. (See my reviews) I found them particularly valuable because they gave me a sense of what women found in Islam and the diverse way it is meaningful for them. She conveys the differences among the women and her books are a good corrective for those claiming that Islam is totally bad for women.
In The Kindness of Enemies, Aboulela has undertaken a broader and more complicated narrative than previously. One thread is a first person account of Natasha Hussein, a woman in Scotland, herself the child of a Russian mother and Sudanese father, and confused and troubled by the chaos of her childhood. Of mixed race, she has never felt a sense of belonging in Scotland where she teaches. Her dark skin and her religion continue to be problematic for her. Her research has focused on a Muslim chieftain in the Caucasus Mountains of the region we know today as Chechnya. He had fought against his region’s take over by the Russians. Natasha finds friendship with a male student and his mother who are Sufi and descended from the man whom she is researching.
After a segment following Natasha’s story, each chapter moves back and forth between the present and the middle of the nineteenth century and events surrounding the conflict between the Russians and the Islamic tribes resisting colonization by Russia and lead by Imam Shamil. Anne, the wife of a Russian official, was born a princess of Georgia, a province newly annexed by Russia. Despite having been part of the glamour and excitement of the court in St. Petersburg, she prefers living in her Georgian homeland. She is captured and taken to Imam Shamil to be exchanged for his son, Jamaleldin who was taken as a hostage by the Russians. While she finds much about her imprisonment stressful, she makes friends with some of Shamil’s family, and achieves a strange, limited rapport with the Iman himself. Like Natasha, Anne and Jamaleldin share a sense of not really belonging in the society in which they find themselves.
Aboulela is at her best in depicting the complex and ambivalent feelings of all the characters affected by the dual imprisonment. Her descriptions are always sensitive and often exquisite. I was particularly moved by her ability to reveal Anne’s mixed emotions when she is returned to her Russian husband. I was reminded of accounts by Anglo women captured by Native Americans. On one hand, she is glad to be freed from imprisonment, but she cannot share her husband’s desire for revenge against those who had become her friends. The ending of the book is weak, however, in part because Aboulela remains true to the historical facts about her major characters’ lives. History is never as neat as fiction can be.
The Kindness of Enemies is an enjoyable and informative book. I learned much about a part of the world I knew little about. I recommend it heartily to a wide variety of readers.