Avid readers of contemporary African fiction have much to thank Leila Aboulela for. Today African writing is highly sought-after in the global literary market. It was not always like that. After the slump of the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was writers such as Aboulela, in the company of Yvonne Vera, Ben Okri, Helon Habila and others, that helped reintroduce the world to the new, evolving, and exciting world of contemporary African fiction.
Her fourth novel The Kindness of Enemies was published last year. With this novel—beautifully written, entertaining, but also timely—she reprises her acclaimed success at pushing the boundaries of contemporary forms of African storytelling.
The novel tells the story of Natasha Wilson, a history professor in a Scottish university. She has a Sudanese father and a Russian mother. In her private life, Natasha has all but moved away from her Islamic upbringing in Sudan, evidenced in the fact that though born Natasha Hussein, she now bears Natasha Wilson.
Islam may have been excluded from her personal life, but it dominates her intellectual life. She spends most of her time studying and teaching the life of Imam Shamil, a 19th century Muslim warrior who fought Russia for control over the Caucasus. Shamil’s world of sword fight, horseback riding, and guerrilla tactics are purely of scholarly interest to Natasha until she meets Osama “Oz” Raja, a student who claims that he is a descendant of the celebrated Islamic warrior.
Aboulela employs a narrative technique that works well only in the hands of a masterful storyteller such as herself. The Kindness of Enemies is split between two parallel stories in such a way that the novel progresses by cutting back and forth between the two. The main plot line follows Natasha and how life as she knows it is disrupted when she attempts to explore her student’s Jihadist ancestry. This story set in present day Scotland is frequently interrupted to narrate the political drama of Shamil’s unwavering resolve to free Muslims of the Caucasus from Russia’s colonial grip.
Aboulela expects the reader to place him or herself at the exact point where these two narratives—separated by centuries—meet. From this vantage point, the reader is able to reassess his or her assumption about Islam and political resistance. Shamil uses Islam as the ideological backbone of a disciplined resistance against Russia’s colonial expansion in the Caucasus. Aboulela portrays his world as deeply spiritual, intellectually rich, and politically complex. 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.
In my view, The Kindness of Enemies offers the powerful argument that to understand events such as the Paris attacks, we have to make a distinction between Shamil’s anti-colonial struggle, on the one hand, and Al Qaeda (and its other incarnations). Understanding the difference between the two is key to having conversations about contemporary perceptions of Islam in a way that does not devolve into stereotypes and racist assumptions.
Shamil’s Jihad is portrayed as a cosmopolitan project that imagines an inclusive world brokered through political alliances. Jihad was for Shamil a just struggle against a Russian colonial fundamentalism—a world that stifled dissent, an ideology that discouraged difference and sought to mold the world into a single monolithic way of life.
History is always an awkward subject for the novelist. Whereas a novel is that kind of story designed to capture the little, private moments of life, history is about momentous events. The challenge for the novelist is letting the grand, larger-than-life movement of history organically emerge from the micro-moments of the everyday. Aboulela does just that and more. Shamil’s struggle and the ways in which his faith inspires his politics are explored through his life as a father and as a husband. Some of the most beautiful moments of the novel take place around the unspoken love interest between Shamil and ex Georgian Queen Anna Elinichna. The Kindness of Enemies is also a novel about feminine friendships. The bonds formed between Anna and one of Shamil’s wives mirror the friendship between Natasha and Malak, the mother of Natasha’s students.
The Kindness of Enemies is an intellectual read, and refreshingly so. But what makes the novel breathtaking is the honesty of the narration and the authenticity of the drama.