The flames of Sept. 11, 2001, not only recast America’s future, they also illuminated a long-neglected history of conflict between the West and certain strains of Islam. Suddenly, for many of us, the present day had malignant roots we’d never recognized. Salman Rushdie recently added to the library of books on this vast subject with “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights,” a surprisingly whimsical story about warring genies reigniting an ancient battle in the modern age. And now comes another unusual novel that captures our anxious latter-days while reaching back to a contentious past.
“The Kindness of Enemies” maps the interconnectedness of the world on both personal and political levels. To some extent, that intricacy reflects the well-traveled life of its author, Leila Aboulela, who was born in Egypt, was raised in Sudan, studied in England and now lives in Scotland. Her new novel opens there, at an isolated farmhouse in the Scottish countryside, but the story that unfurls will take us around the world and back centuries.
The narrator is an ambitious young scholar named Natasha Wilson, nee Hussein, who’s come to meet an Iraqi-born actress. Malak Raja is “perhaps the female equivalent of Yul Brynner or Ben Kingsley,” but far less successful, resigned to playing Bombay aunties and Persian side characters. Natasha has traveled to her out-of-the-way home to examine an Ottoman sword that’s been in Malak’s family for generations.
At this point, “The Kindness of Enemies” pierces the fabric of its fiction to explore a largely forgotten historical moment. The story is predicated on the idea that this weapon once belonged to the real-life Muslim leader Imam Shamil, who fought against the Russians in the Caucasian War, a conflict that dragged on for decades in the mid-19th century. “Allah was inscribed on the blade in gold,” Natasha notices. “I put my thumb on the crossbar — long ago Imam Shamil’s hand had gripped this.”
Aside from its spiritual aura, this antique is relevant to Natasha’s research on the types of weapons used in jihad, a subject that sparks a compelling debate with Malak and her son, who is one of Natasha’s students. That conversation, extended by a snowstorm that keeps Natasha from leaving, displays the anxiety Muslims feel when they’re indiscriminately tarred with suspicion. Why should the faithful in London, New York or Paris be expected to denounce the agenda and atrocities of criminals who have no relation to them? Malak’s son, Osama — who, for obvious reasons, goes by Oz — chafes at this expectation, this gelding of his religious passion. “Limiting jihad to an internal struggle has become a bandwagon for every pacifist Muslim to climb on,” Oz complains. “Jihad is not something we should be ashamed of,” he insists before taking Shamil’s antique sword outside and chopping the heads off snowmen.
“The Kindness of Enemies” was published in the U.K. last summer, but it has grown no less pertinent in the intervening bloody months. It’s 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.
But this novel is not merely a collection of pertinent debate subjects. Almost as soon as Natasha leaves Malak’s home, she’s beset by a swarm of troubles: Her academic career is threatened by a bizarre harassment charge; her ethics are stretched by a terrorism investigation; her equilibrium is upset by an antiabortion intimidation campaign. And then her apartment is ransacked; her estranged father in Sudan falls dangerously ill; and her stepmother sues her. Clearly, the plot is designed to put stress on Natasha, to drive her deep into herself and her half-Russian, half-Sudanese heritage. But this quick succession of trials begins to feel like something Wile E. Coyote might endure. The novel struggles to resolve or even explore all these challenges, and they risk overwhelming the more interesting personal struggle that makes Natasha think, “I was a failed hybrid, made up of unalloyed selves.”
I’m hesitant to complain, though, because Natasha’s chaotic life provides such a fascinating counterpoint to the elegantly structured historical drama laced through the novel. Without any artificial parallels or contrived coincidences, alternate chapters take us back to Imam Shamil and his struggle against the Russians, starting in 1839.
The dashing mountain fighter rides through these pages in all his tortured humanity. He’s equally gracious and cunning as he struggles to unite various groups. But Aboulela tells this enthralling story largely through the experiences of two hostages snared on opposite sides of the conflict: After peace negotiations fail, Shamil’s young son is kept by the Russians and raised as the tsar’s special guest. In retaliation, Princess Anna, granddaughter of the last Georgian king, is captured by Shamil’s men and taken to his mountain lair.
A century before anyone would use the term “Stockholm syndrome,” both Princess Anna and Shamil’s son experience a disorienting sympathy with their captors, who treat them with as much kindness as their respective cultures allow. For Anna, whose Georgian homeland has been annexed by Russia, Shamil’s cause is not entirely alien, despite her initial horror at the Muslim way of life. And Shamil’s son, though emotionally devoted to his father, can’t help but enjoy the rich life he develops in Russia, even as he realizes he’s becoming a kind of bicultural freak. The diplomatic question of whether they will ever be allowed back to their homes is eventually subsumed by the more poignant question of whether either of them will ever feel comfortable in their old lives — a quandary that resonates with Natasha in the 21st century.
Aboulela never pushes the contemporary relevance in any heavy-handed way, but these experiences in enemy camps suggest the need for greater empathy, understanding and dignity, even in the prosecution of war. “The Russians believed the Chechens were wily and suspicious,” Shamil’s son thinks. “The Chechens believed the Russians were aggressive and treacherous. They were both right, they were both wrong.” Fixating on an opponent’s atrocities while brushing away one’s own is the closest humanity has come to a perpetual-motion killing machine. We may not use swords anymore, but we’re still striking similar poses.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Leila Aboulela
Grove. 320 pp. $25