Summary and book reviews of The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela

The Kindness of Enemies

by Leila Aboulela

The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2016, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2017, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite

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Book Summary

A versatile prose stylist... [Aboulela's] lyrical style and incisive portrayal of Muslims living in the West received praise from the Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee... [she is] a voice for multiculturalism." - New York Times

It's 2010 and Natasha, a half Russian, half Sudanese professor of history, is researching the life of Imam Shamil, the 19th century Muslim leader who led the anti-Russian resistance in the Caucasian War. When shy, single Natasha discovers that her star student, Oz, is not only descended from the warrior but also possesses Shamil's priceless sword, the Imam's story comes vividly to life. As Natasha's relationship with Oz and his alluring actress mother intensifies, Natasha is forced to confront issues she had long tried to avoid - that of her Muslim heritage. When Oz is suddenly arrested at his home one morning, Natasha realizes that everything she values stands in jeopardy.

Told with Aboulela's inimitable elegance and narrated from the point of view of both Natasha and the historical characters she is researching, The Kindness of Enemies is both an engrossing story of a provocative period in history and an important examination of what it is to be a Muslim in a post 9/11 world.

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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Discuss the relevance of the title, The Kindness of Enemies.
  2. On page 45, Oz answers Natasha's question "Do you find yourself easily changing?" saying "It is not others that are the problem. Their thoughts become my thoughts." Examine what this admission reveals about his actions throughout the novel. Why do you think he feels this way?
  3. What do you think the author is trying to say about religious identity and belonging?
  4. "To get what you love, you must first be patient with what you hate" (pg. 66). Discuss what you think this means and how it relates to the characters and the story. How does this apply to your life?
  5. How does the author use dreams to discuss duality? What deeper meaning do the dreams ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The concept of jihad has become synonymous with terrorism but when Imam Shamil, an honorable, even noble, character uses the term, he is describing the defense of his homeland, not aggression or acts of terror. In the contemporary storyline, Oz is arrested and his university career derailed, it appears, solely because of online research he conducts for a course. And although Natalie wants nothing more than to feel at home somewhere, it is clear in Aboulela's novel, that for a young, intelligent Muslim woman in the UK, feeling that she belongs is not as easy as it ought to be. At a time of international concern over terrorism and fears of jihad against non-Muslim nations, these threads that The Kindness of Enemies unearths, makes it a deeply humane, refreshing and insightful read.   (Reviewed by Kate Braithwaite).

Full Review (622 words).

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Media Reviews

LA Times

Riveting...There is a tremendous amount going on in The Kindness of Enemies—but it does not crowd the reader. Rather, it hums in hushed and meditative tones through prisoners of war in historic and contemporary fantasy rooted in reality.

The Millions, Most Anticipated Books of 2016

A fascinating combination of Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat and A.S. Byatt’s Possession.

Publishers Weekly

Aboulela, winner of the Caine Prize, pens an ambitious tri-continental story covering more than 200 years and tackling themes of Islamic faith, personal heritage, and the disparity between academic and personal reconstructions of historic events...a nuanced story of identity and sense of place.

Booklist

Aboulela seamlessly moves between 2010 Scotland and the stories set in the nineteenth century and shows how complex geopolitical processes can lead to unlikely alliances...an astute exploration of the fluidity of identity that proves just how ineffective a check-the-boxes approach to the issue can truly be.

Library Journal

Aboulela challenges readers with thought-provoking ideas about the meaning of jihad, then and now, and demonstrates how ignorance of another’s beliefs prohibits us from embracing our common humanity.

Kirkus Reviews

Aboulela is a great storyteller, and she writers with clarity and elegance. A pleasurable and engaging read for fans of both contemporary and historical fiction.

The Guardian (UK) Best Books of 2015

Weaving the story of his relationship with a Georgian princess he kidnapped into a more contemporary story of mistaken terrorism, we learn much about the nature of loss, the legacy of exile, and the meaning of home at a time in our world when all three are high in our minds.

Author Blurb Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy
The Kindness of Enemies is a wonderful evocation of faith and fate and what it means to be an outsider.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

What is Jihad?

In The Kindness of Enemies, Leila Aboulela's twenty-first century protagonist Natalie asks: "How did this historical change in the very definition of jihad come about?" This question is developed thematically though the historical storyline in Aboulela's novel which features Imam Shamil, a mid-nineteenth century Muslim leader of mountain tribes in the Caucasus Mountain region, battling for independence from Russian forces. Talking about his battle with the Russians, Shamil uses the term "jihad", but this is not the jihad of today's headlines - of ISIS (also known as Daesh) beheadings or the attacks in Paris and Beirut - and Shamil is a character who is highly religious, thoughtful and honest.

The Arabic translation of the word "jihad" ...

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