Leila Aboulela discusses The Kindness of Enemies
London - With growing pressure on UK professionals to report signs of religious extremism, Leila Aboulela’s novel The Kindness of Enemies is timely, drawing a parallel between the jihad perpetrated by the Islamic State (ISIS) and a case of 19th-century Sufi jihad in Russia.
Speaking at Bare Lit Festival in London, Aboulela contrasted the two types of jihad.
The Kindness of Enemies, Aboulela’s fifth work of fiction, runs two stories in parallel. In the present day, Natasha Wilson, born in Khartoum as Natasha Hussein to a Russian mother and a Sudanese father, is an academic working at a Scottish university. Her field of study is the campaign of resistance led by Sufi Imam Shamyl, against Russia in the Caucasus in the 19th century. Natasha spends time in the home of one of her students, Oz and his mother Malak, who are descendants of Imam Shamyl.
There is an interweaving of narratives presenting Natasha at the university with Oz, and the historical stream of the novel, which begins in Caucasian Georgia in 1854 when Anna, a noblewoman, is taken hostage by the imam in retaliation for his son, Jamal al-Din, who has been a captive of the Russians since 1839.
“I was interested in Imam Shamyl for quite some time. I wrote a radio play about him and I was interested in what he did. He reunited the tribes of the Caucasus and announced jihad against Russian expansion,” Aboulela said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
“I was interested in him fighting jihad from a Sufi aspect. This kind of jihad is different from what we see practised by ISIS and al-Qaeda. Imam Shamyl was eventually exiled in Moscow. He didn’t fight until death. He accepted peace and he accepted he lost the war,” Aboulela said.
The author described how when he went to Russia, the Imam marvelled at the advances Russians had achieved and he admired the Christian compassion towards him and his family.
“When the Russians fell into his hands, he treated them badly whereas the Russians treated him well in their country,” Aboulela said. “He knew there were political motives behind that but he was fair-minded, he was educated, he was hard on himself as a Sufi. He questioned his motives, his feelings of pride.”
Speaking about the way Shamyl would have perceived ISIS brutality, Aboulela said he would be ruthless against them. “He would have fought and killed them and be totally unforgiving towards them. He would be a huge Muslim supporter of the war on terror,” she said.
In her novel, Aboulela underscores the ambiguous issue of monitoring extremism as she read a few articles in the Guardian about a student who was arrested because he downloaded an ISIS training manual.
“That scared me as I have children,” Aboulela said. “Once you become a parent, you get into the habit of worrying about them. I created Natasha’s character to be ambiguous as I feel the situation with terrorism now is ambiguous. There is an element of not being sure what you can say or do. There are changes in laws here every day.”
The author also explains the dilemma of having two identities. “Natasha is ambivalent about her faith because she wants to fit in and deceives herself. She volunteers to do the training course. She ends up reporting certain students but not all and Oz is not reported. The reader questions why she reported the rest but not him,” she said.
Anna’s story, that of a stranger in a strange land, mirrors Natasha’s. As time passes, Anna comes to feel acclimated with her captors, though not comfortable. The same applies to the Imam’s son, Jamal al- Din, who ends up living almost his whole life among the Russians. By the time he returns to his father’s house, he no longer feels any sense of belonging.
“I understand the situation Jamal al-Din was in. When you read his story from Russian sources, he’s portrayed as a tragic hero who did not want to go back to the Caucasus at all,” Aboulela said. “I felt he had mixed feelings. Jamal al-Din feels he is Russian but misses his father and his brother. He believes he was going backwards from sophistication to a harsh mountain climate. He felt the struggle of fasting during Ramadan in a hot climate.”
Explaining more about her protagonist, Natasha, Aboulela said she needed a modern character to bridge the gap between the past and present. “I received good advice from an editor that I should make sure the present is as strong as the past,” she said. “That was a big challenge and I still hear my readers prefer the past.”
The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela was published in August 2015 by Grove Press.