Excerpt from The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Kindness of Enemies

by Leila Aboulela

The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela X
The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2016, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2017, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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Print Excerpt

1. Scotland, December 2010

Allah was inscribed on the blade in gold. Malak read the Arabic aloud to me. She looked more substantial than my first impression; an ancient orator, a mystic in shawls that rustled. The sword felt heavy in my hand; iron-steel, its smooth hilt of animal horn. I had not imagined it would be beautiful. But there was artistry in the vegetal decorations and Ottoman skill from the blade's smooth curve down to its deadly tip. A cartouche I could not make out. I put my thumb on the crossbar – long ago Imam Shamil's hand had gripped this. Malak said the sword had been in her family for generations. 'If I ever become penniless, I will show it to the Antiques Roadshow,' she laughed, and offered me tea. It was still snowing outside, the roads were likely to become blocked, but I wanted to stay longer, I wanted to know more. I put the sword back into its scabbard. With care, almost with respect, she mounted it on the wall again.

I followed her to the kitchen. It felt unusual to walk in my socks through a stranger's house. Malak had asked me to take off my boots at the door and she herself was wearing light leather slipons. The house suited her with its rugs of burgundy and browns, cushions for what must be a seating area on the floor and more Islamic calligraphy on the walls. One tapestry took up the whole side of the sitting room, its large rugged words stitched in green. It looked like a banner carried by a charging horseman. Whatever these letters symbolised was the reason men left the comforts of their homes for the collision of the battlefield. Or was that too idealised an interpretation? My childhood memory of the Arabic alphabet had become hazy and the letters were not easy to distinguish. Malak might read the words out to me. Remarkable that a successful actor would choose to move to such an isolated farmhouse. Even the nearest town, Brechin, was miles away. And this home did not look like a bolthole, an excuse to visit her student son now and again. It looked settled, lived in. Malak Raja had turned her back on London, carried her furniture and family heirlooms north. 'I brought the scimitar by train,' she said, scooping tea leaves. 'I knew I wouldn't be able to get it past security at Heathrow.'

I took my notebook out and laid it open on the kitchen table. I thought she would be used to media interviews. But I had looked her up on Google and, surprisingly, there were none. Only a list of her roles and a brief description: Born in Baghdad of Persian and Russian ancestry . . . has a diverse range of accents . . . trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Her roles were too minor to merit interviews. Perhaps the female equivalent of Yul Brynner or Ben Kingsley was doomed not to fare as well. Malak Raja had been one of Macbeth's witches on stage; she was an auntie in Bombay Barista, a mother in the BBC's new Conan the Barbarian. Recently she had played the wife of a beleaguered Iranian ambassador in Spooks and the voice of a viper in a Disney cartoon. Later when we became friends she told me that being a viper was lucrative.

Now at her kitchen table, instead of listening to my questions, she asked me about myself. The tea smelled of cinnamon and threatened a memory. She knew only what her son had told her. 'And you know what boys are like,' she twisted her bangles. 'They never tell their mothers everything.' She called him Ossie. His friends and teachers called him Oz. We were all eager to avoid his true name, Osama.

I too had an unfortunate name; my surname. One that I nagged my mother and stepfather to change. It was good that I did that; had I waited for marriage, I would have waited in vain. 'Imagine,' I said, 'arriving in London in the summer of 1990, fourteen years old, just as Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Imagine an unfamiliar school, a teacher saying to the class, "We have a new student from Sudan. Her name is Natasha Hussein."' From the safe distance of the future, I joined my classmates in laughing out loud.

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Excerpted from The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela. Copyright © 2016 by Leila Aboulela. Excerpted by permission of Grove Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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