From present day Scotland to the court of the Tsar, The Kindness of Enemies follows the sword and legacy of a legendary warrior.
It’s 2010 and Natasha, a half Russian, half Sudanese professor of History, is researching the life of Imam Shamil, the 19th century Muslim leader who led the anti-Russian resistance in the Caucasian War. When shy, single Natasha discovers that her star student, Oz, is not only descended from the warrior but also possesses Shamil’s legendary sword, stories from Natasha’s research come vividly to life – Imam Shamil’s search for his lost son, tales of forbidden love, grieving mothers and hostages traded between wild mountain hideouts and the refined court of Imperial Russia. As Natasha’s relationship with Oz and his alluring actress mother intensifies, Natasha is forced to confront issues she had long tried to avoid—that of her Muslim heritage. When Oz is suddenly arrested at his home one morning, Natasha realizes that everything she values stands in jeopardy.
Told with Aboulela’s inimitable elegance and narrated from the point of view of both Natasha and the historical characters she is researching, The Kindness of Enemies is an engrossing story of a provocative period in history and an important examination of what it is to be a Muslim in a post 9/11 world.
“Extraordinary.” — Rachel Billington
“A wonderful journey across time (1839 to 2011) and continents (Scotland to Chechnya to Sudan)….. Leila Aboulela is a writer of flair and compassion, and The Kindness of Enemies is a thoughtful, insightful exploration of Muslim values (a welcome corrective to today’s tabloid scare stories) and of the difficulties, and benefits, of being ‘different’.’’— Jo Lateu, The New Internationalist
“A treat- a novel that recreates the fascinating story of the rebel of the Caucasus, Imam Shamil, a 19th century warrior who battled to defend his home against the invading Russians and united the Muslims of the region under his iconic leadership. Weaving the story of his relationship with a Georgian princess he kidnapped into a more contemporary story of mistaken terrorism, we learn much about the nature of loss, the legacy of exile and the meaning of home at a time in our world when all three are high in our minds.”
– Mariella Frostrup, Guardian, Best Books of 2015
“Aboulela has written a book for grownups, one whose complexity is born of compassion, that speaks more forcefully than a thousand opinion pieces. By charting the pattern of human folly down the generations, she has done more than breathe life into a legend. She has made the story of an obscure 19th century warrior topical and the story of three ordinary citizens in 21st century Scotland timeless.”
– Anthony Marra, San Francisco Chronicle
“Aboulela, winner of the Caine Prize, pens an ambitious tricontinental story covering more than 200 years and tackling themes of Islamic faith, personal heritage, and the disparity between academic and personal reconstructions of historic events…A nuanced story of identity and sense of place.”
– Publishers Weekly
“Aboulela’s most ambitious novel yet…An often intriguing story, politically relevant and historically fascinating.”
“The reader flicks back and forth through time, gleaning pleasure and enlightenment through each of the doorways as they go…The passages are arresting in their descriptiveness, with beautifulpockets of calm in which the spiritual journey, as advocated by Shamil’s Sufi teacher, is explored.”
“One of Aboulela’s aims – apart from telling a fascinating story with the verve and assurance of a natural novelist – is surely to present a sympathetic picture of Islam to a western readership more accustomed to being given what, for devout Muslims, is a distorted and reprehensible version of their faith.”
– Alan Massie Scotsman
“A novel so filled with ideas, new thoughts, images…..extraordinary.”
– Rachel Billington, author of .Glory
“Aboulela’s graceful writing style makes for a pleasurable read”
– Independent on Sunday
“The main thrust of this book is written from and about a historian’s perspective. It’s about the wish and murmur of lives lived centuries ago- what they tell us and how we exalt them, long for them, look to them to make our existence sufferable and better still, interesting.”
– LA Times
“A rich, multilayered story, a whole syllabus of compelling topics. As a novelist, Aboulela moves confidently between dramatizing urgent, contemporary issues and providing her audience with sufficient background to follow these discussions about the changing meaning of jihad, the history of Sufism and the racial politics of the war on terror.”
– Washington Post
“Aboulela is a great storyteller, and she writes with clarity and elegance. A pleasurable and engaging read for fans of both contemporary and historical fiction”
– Kirkus Review
“A great strength of the book is its ability to tell an absorbing story about what so many people have experienced: uncertainty about one’s identity, one’s place in the world, and one’s true home. These are some of the most pressing questions of our time, and Aboulela does us a great service by exploring these questions with sensitivity and compassion.”
-Rebecca Hussey, Bookslut
“The Kindness of Enemies is an intellectual read, and refreshingly so. But what makes the novel breath-taking is the honesty of the narration and the authenticity of the drama…. The intersection of religion and political activism in Shamil’s military campaigns is the basis on which Aboulela critiques present day fundamentalists who imagine that the history of Jihad authorizes their own acts of violence…. With this novel—beautifully written, entertaining, but also timely—she reprises her acclaimed success at pushing the boundaries of contemporary forms of African storytelling.”
-Ainehi Edora, Brittlepaper
“The Kindness of Enemies is an ambitious, courageous and complex novel that Aboulela handles with much skill. Her writing is wonderfully evocative, striking a balance between lyricism and a sometimes brutal reality. This new work will add to her already formidable reputation.”
– Susannah Tarbush, Qantara
In 2005, I wrote a BBC Radio play The Lion Of Chechnya inspired by the life of Imam Shamil, who united the tribes of the Caucasus to fight against Russian Imperial expansion. There were some aspects of the story that I wanted to develop further and to have the space to do so in the form of a novel. As I was writing Lyrics Alley, I held in the back of my mind the intention that I would one day develop my radio play into a full length novel about Imam Shamil.
Shamil’s life fascinated me for more reasons than the fact that he was a hero, one of the most successful rebels of the colonial age. Shamil lost his eight year old son, Jamaleldin, to his enemies. As an Imam, it hurt and humiliated him that his son was being brought up as a Russian, a godson of the Tsar. Shamil worked tirelessly to bring his son back. But how did Jamaleldin, after experiencing modernity and sophistication feel about re-joining the mountain tribes? Russian and Western historians cast him as a tragic figure but my instincts were that Jamaleldin’s position was more complex; he too belonged to Chechnya and he too, eventually, returned to Islam.
Shamil was forced at the end of his life to surrender. Exiled in Moscow, he found himself admiring many aspects of Russian life. His open heart and mind and his final reconciliation, culminating in the honour with which he was buried, moved me the most.
When I started writing The Kindness of Enemies, I introduced a present day character to act as a bridge connecting us to the past. Natasha Hussein is a half-Russian, half Sudanese lecturer of History, living in Scotland. In 2011, I was intrigued by articles in the British newspapers which reported that under new anti-terror legislations, university staff would be expected to inform on Muslim students vulnerable to radicalization. What if Natasha, eager to fit in, eager to distance herself from being Muslim, sets out to inform on those of her students who were ‘at risk’?
For the epigraph of the novel, I used the quote from Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, “…we have to grope our way through so much filth and rubbish in order to reach home! And we have no one to show us the way. Homesickness is our only guide.” Natasha is ‘homeless’, so is Jamaleldin, and Shamil fought until he lost his homeland. But perhaps home is not a physical place. Perhaps it is not Sudan for Natasha or Russia for Jamaleldin, or even the Caucasus for Shamil. Perhaps there is a spiritual home that we can aspire to.