In Leila Aboulela’s Kindness of Enemies, Scottish university lecturer Natasha Wilson is researching the 19th century fighter and leader who battled against the Russian invasion of the Caucasus, Imam Shamil. One of her most gifted students, Osama (aka Oz), invites her to his home to examine the sword Shamil used in battle. While marveling over the sword and how it came to be in the possession of Oz and his mother, Natasha discovers that they are descendants of the great “Lion of Dagestan” himself. At some point while Natasha is snowed in at their home, the police take Oz under suspicion of terrorist activity and confiscate her phone and laptop.
Thus the narrative glides back and forth from present day rural Scotland at the height of the War on Terror to the 19th century Caucasus in the thick of Russian expansionism, exploring themes of globalisation to highlight their timelessness. The legitimacy of jihad is in question during Shamil’s fight to preserve his religious-cultural traditions as the battle ravaged his community. But its legitimacy is also a bone of contention in modern times between Oz and his mother, Malak.
Malak argues jihad is an internal struggle, but one that has become identified with terrorism, for which she blames Wahabis and Salafists. Oz claims reducing jihad to an internal struggle is somewhat of a modern copout, which “has become a bandwagon for every pacifist Muslim to climb on”.
Another emergent theme is cultural belonging as a struggle for both Natasha and for Shamil’s son, Jamaleddin, who is taken as a child hostage to Russia and returned to Shamil’s mountains as an adult, but remains an outsider incapable of assimilating in both places. We have always been global, Aboulela seems to say. The ideas of “western” and “eastern” culture, Islam and Christianity, self and other, have been more intertwined throughout history than perceived today.
The issue of hybridity for the characters is taken up by Aboulela in the form of the novel – a hybrid of a contemporary diaspora fiction and a historical novel. The shifts between seemingly disparate times and places are seamless and smooth, even as Aboulela adds another layer to the setting; Natasha’s childhood in and out of Sudan. With a Russian mother and a Sudanese father, Natasha feels she has never fit in, except with close family friends, another Sudanese-Russian couple with a boy who is her closest childhood friend, Yasha. When Yasha’s mother tells Natasha her estranged father is ill, she reluctantly makes plans to return to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and reminisces about his failings as a father and provider.
Aboulela approaches Natasha’s struggle to belong without sentiment – as a child, she eagerly takes on her stepfather’s surname and abandons her Muslim one, “Hussein”. As an adult, she continues the deception: she volunteers to monitor Muslim students who are deemed likely to be radicalized – a practice considered too unethical by her colleagues.
But while Natasha is deceptive, opportunistic and self-serving, she is not unlikable. She’s a perfect guest, a fine teacher and a good listener. She’s not evil, but neither is she ultimately reliable – she arrives in Khartoum too late to see her father alive, she leaves Malak in the midst of her crisis because she worries about getting involved further, and we discover that she hardly bothered to visit her mother as while she was on her death bed.
Aboulela has created a diasporic character that in one sense doesn’t belong, despite wanting to, but who also doesn’t want to belong – her detachment is her safeguard. Unlike the characters in the historical narrative, she belongs to no tribe. While Aboulela is gentle in the portrayal of her characters, she’s never sentimental or defensive about Natasha’s behaviour. She doesn’t rationalise or justify it, but rather presents it as a given of diasporas in modern times. Assimilation is not forced and deadly now as it was in the case of both Shamil and his son Jamaleddin, but neither is it quite an open, honest and painless process today.
Although Aboulela consistently strikes an engaging balance between the lyricism of Shamil’s heroic narrative and Natasha’s spare and stark realistic one, she doesn’t fully draw out Natasha, her past relationships and abortion are mentioned in passing but never given proper space to be narrated. While certainly the vagueness of Natasha’s portrayal aligns with her character’s modes of detachment and distancing, it can leave the reader perplexed and grasping for more of what exactly makes this daughter of the diaspora so flawed.