Earlier this year I read my first book by Leila Aboulela Bird Summons (2019), a wonderful novel about three immigrant women, born in different countries but living in Scotland, setting off on a holiday in the Highlands, to pay homage to Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first British woman convert to Islam to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.
I really enjoyed it for many reasons, confirming I wished to read more of her work, thus I chose The Kindness of Enemies as her next book to read, one I have had my eye on for some years, having refused to buy earlier because of the dreadful cover. That may sound whimsical, but I think that earlier cover does this book a great disservice, the way it turns readers away.
Being Muslim and an Academic in 21st century Scotland
I was completely drawn into the dual narrative story and loved both parts of it, modern day Scotland and mid 1800’s Russia and the Caucasus.
The contemporary story centres around Natasha Wilson (born Natasha Hussein to a Russian mother and Sudanese father, themselves the product of a Russian university education, her name is changed when her mother marries a Scot). A university lecturer in Scotland, her research concerns the life of the Caucasian Highlander, Shamil Imam.
Natasha is friends with Malak, of Russian/Persian parentage; her son Oz, is in her class and they possess a historical artefact belonging to Shamil Imam, due to an ancestral connection. Natasha is in their home when Oz is arrested for downloading materials related to jihad and she too comes under suspicion, her telephone and laptop seized.
“I was seeing in these awkward composites my own liminal self. The two sides of me that were slammed together against their will, that refused to mix. I was a failed hybrid, made up of unalloyed selves. My Russian mother who regretted marrying my Sudanese father. My African father who came to hate his white wife. My atheist mother who blotted out my Muslim heritage. My Arab father who gave me up to Europe without a fight. I was the freak. I had been told so and I had been taught so and I had chewed on this verdict to the extent that, no matter what, I could never purge myself of it entirely.”
Meanwhile, in Sudan, her father whom she hasn’t seen for 20 years is dying and there is pressure for her to go and see him, along with feelings of resentment and ill-will, demanding her to stand up for herself and her existence, a daughter of mixed heritage, living a life she has created for herself.
“It was an effort formulating this summary, explaining myself. I preferred the distant past, centuries that were over and done with, ghosts that posed no direct threat. History could be milked for this cause or that. We observed it always with hindsight, projecting onto it our modern convictions and anxieties.”
Being Muslim and a Caucasian Highlander in the 19th century
Interwoven between chapters of Natasha’s story, we are transported to the Caucasus territory in the 1850’s, to a period during the conflict between the Highlander mountain men lead by Shamil Imam who were resisting Tsarist Russia from expanding into their territory.
Shamil Imam, the Chieftan of Dagestan, led an armed resistance for thirty years, he appears in Leo Tolstoy’s classic posthumous novella Hadji Murad. Through imagination and historical fact, Leila Aboulela enters his territory and home, bringing us a view from the spaces women and children inhabit, not just that of men, as Tolstoy does.
In earlier years, to settle a conflict, Shamil was only able to negotiate peace by surrendering his son Jamaleldin, who for the next ten years or so was raised as part of the Tsar’s family (as his godson). Now Shamil’s men have captured the Russian Princess Anna (previously of Georgia – her grandfather Gregory XI, the last King of Georgia, ceded the territory to Russia), her French governess and two children Alexander and Lydia.
“Nothing has caused me so much pain as treachery. If the Russians would fight me honourably, I would not mind living the rest of my life in a state of war. But they tricked me; in Akhulgo they treated me like a criminal, not a warrior, and they sent my son far away to St Petersburg.”
The Kindness of Enemies follows these stories and although one carries the heavyweight magnitude of a well-known story of significant characters in history, the foreshadowing of it by a modern story, brings to light the many aspects of the past, whose threads might be seen as being current today.
Kindness and Empathy, Another Perspective
Much of the literature of the Caucasus in the literary imagination is told from the Russian perspective, by grand novelists like Tolstoy and Pushkin, whereas Leila Aboulela, by setting this historical period during the time of the Princess’s capture, takes us on that journey, re-imagining events that took place, understanding better the complicated and mixed sympathies of Princess Anna, a young mother, exploring her loss and how those eight months in captivity might have changed her.
She also presents the perspective of young Jamaleldin in another light, how his childhood memories lie dormant yet present, his mixed feelings of the return, his strange and estranged reality of feeling part of himself belonging to both worlds, the Highlands and to St Petersburg.
There was a time when it had all been much simpler. He rescued from the wild, Nicholas the benevolent godfather. He the pet, Nicholas the mighty. He the puppet, Nicholas the conductor, the thrower of crumbs, the arranger of roles, the changer of destinies. Jamaleldin the chess piece, and now Shamil had changed the rules of the game.
In the contemporary world, Natasha experiences something of the same, born of culturally different parents, spending her childhood in one country, her adulthood in another. She must create her own sense of belonging, to find peace of mind somehow. Being neither one thing or the other, having no one place called home, hers, by necessity is a spiritual journey, determined by the need for the soul to find home, rather than body or mind.
“I said that I was not a good Muslim but that I was not a bad person. I said I had a brother that I wanted to keep in touch with. I said that I wanted to give up my share of the inheritance to him. Apart from my father’s Russian books and Russian keepsakes, I wanted nothing. I said that I did not come here today to fight over money or for the share of a house. I came so that I would not be an outcast, so that I would, even in a small way, faintly, marginally, tentatively, belong.”
My Reviews of Interest
Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela
Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina tr. Lisa Hayden
Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself, Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Interview: Leila Aboulela Discusses The Kindness of Enemies The Arab Weekly
Review: For the Joy of Reading: The Kindness of Enemies by David Kenvyn
Documentary: Mountain Men and Holy Wars – film-maker Taran Davies traces the life and legacy of Shamil Imam
Article: Why do we Continue to Use the Word Caucasian? by Yolanda Moses, Professor of Anthropology