Book Review: The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela
Even from just the first few pages of The Kindness of Enemies I knew that this was going to be a book that would stick with me for a long time. The novel is two stories in parallel, one taking place in the twenty-first century, and one in the 19th. The story starts with Natasha Wilson, born Natasha Hussein, an academic specializing in the history of Imam Shamil. She has gone to the home of one of her students, Oz, who claims to be descended from Shamil, in order to see the sword of Shamil that his mother keeps in their home. Given that it is the winter of 2010 in Scotland, she ends up stuck at their house for two days due to the weather, and forms a friendship/mentorship of sorts with his mother Malak.
Natasha’s first-person modern day narrations are offset by third person limited narration set in the mid 1800s and switches perspective between Shamil, his son Jamaleldin, and Princess Anna Elinichna. Early on, Jamaleldin is taken hostage by the Russians, and Anna’s narration continues some years later, and provides a vital perspective as she, along with her two children and their governess, Madam Drancy, is kidnapped on the orders of Shamil to be exchanged with Jamaleldin. The two stories weave together as we see how Islamic radicalism in the 21st century functions in contrast to conflicts that included religion in the past. I say conflicts that include religion because this book problematizes the East/West conflict and how we look at Islamic fundamentalism and also secularism.
While I do not usually enjoy Historical Fiction (mostly due to inevitable anachronisms, intentional or not), I found myself drawn to the narrative being told in the 1800s over that which took place in the modern day. This has to do with my own preference for third person narration over first person, and specifically my preference for reading stories told from multiple perspectives. Engaging with multiple narrators allows us as readers to engage with multiple truths, and I do believe that engaging with multiple truths is the best way to examine a topic.
I read this book for the independent study that I am taking this semester, and by discussing The Kindness of Enemies with my professor and the other student that we are working with we were able to reach what we think is the core of this novel, which is that the book is about teaching and about finding the right teacher. This can be seen most obviously by examining the relationship between Natasha and Oz, and between Shamil and his teacher, Jamal el-Din, but also between Malak and Natasha, between the Tzar and Jamaleldin, who the Tzar adopts as his godson, and to a certain extent, even between Shamil and Anna.
The text challenges us to see the world in a way that we haven’t before, and it does that by showing how the teacher does not just give knowledge, spiritual, or materialistic things, but rather is someone who opens your eyes and gives you a way of seeing that you didn’t have before. The book is about examining systems of knowledge and subverts the ideas of East and West as being completely definitive. The human quest to learn and how that is complicated by religion, gender, reason, and sexuality is woven throughout both narratives within the novel.
So much of our modern worldview is formed by the idea of secularity, but the truth is that we don’t have a way of secularly looking at religion because it is impossible to think about religion outside of religious contexts. The socialization that all of us are born into shapes the way that we think about the world and while we can overcome some of that by engaging with texts such as The Kindness of Enemies, texts that challenge us to respect systems of knowing that we do not understand, we can never escape from where we come from.
So much of this book is about that shift away from the culture one is born into, and being uprooted. Jamaleldin is taken from his father and raised among the Russians from age 8. Anna’s son, Alexander, acclimates easily to life among Shamil’s children when he is captured along with his mother. In the modern narrative, Oz is taken forcibly from his home under suspicion of being a terrorist. Natasha, who was born in Sudan to a Russian mother and Sudanese father, moves to Scotland at a young age and forgets the Arabic she know as a child. Due to her father’s limited knowledge of English, the only way they can communicate with one another is through her mother’s Russian.
The Kindness of Enemies is my favorite book that I have read for class this semester, and I highly recommend it to all who are looking for a read that will cause them to think critically about the interactions between the world we live in today and the past that looms behind us.