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The Kindness of Enemies

The Kindness of Enemies

by Leila Aboulela

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“An absorbing novel . . . reminds us of the complexity of the web woven by those threads of faith, nationality, politics and history.”—New York Times Book Review

“Aboulela has written a book for grown-ups... that speaks more forcefully than a thousand opinion pieces...she has done more than breathe life into legend.” —


“An absorbing novel . . . reminds us of the complexity of the web woven by those threads of faith, nationality, politics and history.”—New York Times Book Review

“Aboulela has written a book for grown-ups... that speaks more forcefully than a thousand opinion pieces...she has done more than breathe life into legend.” —San Francisco Chronicle

From the first ever winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, Leila Aboulela, The Kindness of Enemies is a powerful historical journey across time and continents and a riveting epic of love, betrayal, and war. It’s 2010 and Natasha, a half-Russian, half-Sudanese professor of history, is researching the life of Imam Shamil, the nineteenth century Muslim leader who led the anti-Russian resistance in the Caucasian War. When Natasha discovers her star student, Osama (Oz), is not only descended from the warrior but also possesses Shamil’s legendary sword, the Imam’s story comes vividly to life. But 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, 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.

“A rich, multilayered story, a whole syllabus of compelling topics. As a novelist, Aboulela moves confidently between dramatizing urgent, contemporary issues and providing her audience with sufficient background to follow these discussions about the changing meaning of jihad, the history of Sufism and the racial politics of the war on terror.”—Washington Post

“Riveting . . . [this novel] hums in hushed and meditative tones through prisoners of war in historic and contemporary fantasy rooted in reality.”—Los Angeles Times

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher


“An absorbing novel . . . reminds us of the complexity of the web woven by those threads of faith, nationality, politics and history.”—New York Times Book Review

“A rich, multilayered story, a whole syllabus of compelling topics. As a novelist, Aboulela moves confidently between dramatizing urgent, contemporary issues and providing her audience with sufficient background to follow these discussions about the changing meaning of jihad, the history of Sufism and the racial politics of the war on terror.”—Washington Post

“Our political narrative of the war on terror too often reads like ‘Harry Potter,’ with forces of good and evil neatly and absolutely demarcated. Aboulela has written a book for grown-ups, one whose complexity is born of compassion, that speaks more forcefully than a thousand opinion pieces. By charting the pattern of human folly down the generations, she has done more than breathe life into legend. She has made the story of an obscure 19th century warrior topical and the story of three ordinary citizens in 21st century Scotland timeless.”—Anthony Marra, San Francisco Chronicle

"Riveting . . . [a novel] about the wish and murmur of lives lived centuries ago— what they tell us and how we exalt them, long for them, look to them to make our existence sufferable and better still, interesting. 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."—LA Times

“Radiant with historical detail and vivid descriptions . . . The entire novel is, in many ways, an extended rumination on the complexities of being Muslim in the West, but it is also an invitation to see identity as more variegated than the either/or distillations of the Global War on Terror . . . an excellent historical lens through which to project a complex and, seemingly, contradictory Islamic identity from the past into the present . . . The Kindness of Enemies reads as a well-crafted but quiet plea for the kind of humanism that once allowed enemies to respect one another.”—Los Angeles Review of Books

“Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies...recreates the fascinating story of the rebel of the Caucasus, Imam Samil, a 19th-century warrior who battled to defend his home against the invading Russians and united the Muslims of the region under his iconic leadership. 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.”
—Mariella Forstrup, The Guardian Best Books of 2015

"A richly imagined novel about a half-Russian, half-Sudanese professor whose studies of a 19th-century Muslim leader become a portal into his world. The story alternates between two narratives: his in the Caucasus Mountains of the 1830s and hers in the present day.”—Travel + Leisure

"In this remarkable and highly suspenseful novel Leila Aboulela moves back and forth between contemporary Scotland, where everyone is on the watch for terrorism, and nineteenth century Russia, where Iman Shamil is fighting for his freedom. The Kindness of Enemies is a wonderful evocation of faith and fate and what it means to be an outsider."—Margot Livesey

“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.”—Library Journal

“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.”—Publishers Weekly

"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."—Booklist

“Aboulela makes it clear not only that the current conflict between East and West has old roots, but also that "East" and "West" are little more than convenient fictions. . . . . 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.”—Kirkus Reviews

Praise for LYRICS ALLEY:

“Aboulela’s vivid . . . fleet and engrossing narrative . . . [is full of] a generosity of spirit that extends to all her characters.” —The New York Times Book Review

“In beautiful, subtle prose . . . Aboulela explores themes of love, faith, and divided families with a tender restraint.” —Marie Claire (UK)

“Each scene is rich with period detail . . . Aboulela has the gift of making her readers care about her characters. This she achieves partly by making us privy to their thoughts, and revealing to us all their conflicts, contradictions, petty vanities, hopes, and amnitions. . . . [She] has created a story for all the senses, one to be savored at leisure.” —Aminatta Forna, Financial Times

“Beautifully rendered . . . The prose is smooth and clear. . . . As a tale of stricken love between two souls, Lyrics Alley is impressive.”—M Lynx Qualey, The Guardian

“Leila Aboulela’s Lyrics Alley gives us the rich and complex world of a Sudanese patriarch in the 1950s who presides over a household containing two wives, various nieces, two sons—a new world full of modern ambitions and ancient problems. I read it with the delight one has suddenly stumbling on lush and abundant hidden gardens behind foreign city walls, various with its own life and laws, and infinitely satisfying.” —Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress

"Leila Aboulela writes with tenderness and sensitivity about the hopes of a country on the verge of independence. Through the eyes of the Abuzeid family, we witness the competing claims of the political and the intimate, of modernity and tradition, of duty and individual freedom.The resulting narrative is at once compelling and illuminating, full of the color and cadence of Aboulela's homeland." —Tahmima Anam, author of A Golden Age

“[A] graceful and elegantly told saga . . . Aboulela writes with a light touch. . . . She uses words to powerful and sometimes surprising effect, language that seems to spring naturally from the very environment she’s describing. . . . This beautiful book is a testament to what might have been as well as what might be.” —Jane Charteris, Literary Review

“Rich in detail and generous in spirit toward its complex characters, [Lyrics Alley] showcases Aboulela’s talent for connecting political and personal upheaval. [An] elegantly written family epic that brings to mind Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Haunting . . . Keeps the reader gripped . . . A tale of powerful feelings and potent words . . . this visceral, epic novel . . . gives fascinating insights into Sudanese society, with different characters embodying the dramatic clash between tradition and modernity. . . . Vividly evoking the alleyways of Sudan, Egypt, and Britain, [Lyrics Alley] also movingly and meticulously traces the hidden pathways of the mind and heart with all its anger, shame, hate and love.” —Anita Sethi, The Telegraph (UK)

“A tender love story; a family saga, and a portrait of 1950s Sudan teetering on the brink of modernity.” —Lee Randall, The Scotsman

“A superb family epic . . . Vivid, beautifully original.” —Lesley McDowell, The Herald (Glasgow)

“[Aboulela’s] breakthrough novel . . . Real, compelling, and ultimately moving . . . Highly recommended for readers who enjoy family sagas set against a political backdrop, such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun.” —Library Journal (starred review)

"An assured and highly readable portrait of a family in flux and two societies—Sudan and Egypt--on the cusp on momentous changes. . . . Lyrics Alley is an evocative description of the struggle between tradition and modernization, a conflict that is still being fought in present-day Islamic culture." —New Internationalist (3 stars)


"Aboulela has a talent for expressing the simple wonders of unbroken faith. Just as deftly, she uncovers the intricacies of how such faith can be challenged—suddenly, subtly. . . . Beautiful passages on Islam's essential purity and poetry... A sensitive portrayal of love and faith."" — Kaiama L. Glover, The New York Times (Editors' Choice)

“Aboulela’s refined descriptions reveal intense emotion with staggering restraint, our attention assured with her first words.” ––Christine Thomas, Chicago Tribune

“Her writing is restrained and evocative, subtle and graceful.” —Jenn B. Stidham, Library Journal

“With authentic detail and insight into both cultures, Aboulela painstakingly constructs a truly transformative denouement.” —Publishers Weekly

“Above all, the book offers the uncluttered pleasure of a story that feels simultaneously reduced to its essence and full to the brim.” ––Elsbeth Lindner, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Aboulela's prose is amazing. She handles intense emotions in a contained yet powerful way, lending their expressions directness and originality, and skillfully capturing the discrete sensory impressions that compound to form a mood." — San Francisco Chronicle

“A story of love and faith all the more moving for the restraint with which it is written.” —J. M. Coetzee

“Aboulela’s lovely, brief story encompasses worlds of melancholy and gulfs between cultures . . . A miraculous ending….A strikingly poised, cherishable novel.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“A subtle investigation into the meaning of exile and home, doubt and faith, loss and love. Aboulela’s writing is always beautifully observed, her voice one of restrained lyricism: She is a writer of rare and original talent.” —Duncan McLean

“In Sammar . . . [Aboulela] has created a personification of Islam that is as genuine as it is complex. . . . It is refreshing to read a novel that gives Muslims their due. For Aboulela, faith is not an ossified overbearing cross that crushes its followers. . . . It is a liberating force. The Translator is an exceptionally well-crafted and beautifully written novel. . . . Aboulela shows the rich possibilities of living in the West with different, non-Western ways of knowing and thinking.” —The Sunday Herald (Glasgow)

“Aboulela is a wonderfully poetic writer. . . . It is a pleasure to read a novel so full of feeling and yet so serene.” —The Guardian

“An enveloping story of the tentative possibilities between a man and a woman, and between faiths: two people, and perhaps people, between nations. It is an apt, resonant caution filled with love and poignant understanding of the world. It is exactly what fiction ought to be.” —Todd McEwen

“A lyrical journey about exile, loss, and love . . . poetry in motion.” —The Sunday Times (London)

Praise for MINARET:

“Harbors something remarkable beneath commonplace trappings . . . Lit up by a highly unusual sensibility and world view, so rarefied and uncompromising that it is likely to throw the reader out of kilter. . . . Her delicacy of touch is to be complimented.” —Chandrahas Choudhury, San Francisco Chronicle

“Absorbing . . . Though her writing is simple, even bald, Aboulela has vivid descriptive powers.” —Ella Taylor, LA Weekly

“She draws Najwa’s odyssey of exile, loss and found faith beautifully.” —Publishers Weekly

“This simple near-parable of a story successfully combines a tale of inexperience and cultural confusion with an insider’s view of the conflicts and complexities within the immigrant and Muslim communities. A low-key, affecting account of one bruised young woman’s search for wisdom and solace.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Clear and precise writing, sympathetic characters, and positive portrayals of Muslim religious practices lend this elegantly crafted novel broad appeal.” —Starr E. Smith, Library Journal

“A novel that unpacks complex emotional baggage with deceptive sleight of hand.”— Emma Hagestadt, The Independent (UK)

The New York Times Book Review - Erica Wagner
This is an absorbing novel, especially in the sections set in the 19th century. Anna is deeply attached to her native Georgia, and Aboulela shows this in vivid descriptions of the land around the Georgian estate where Anna spends the summer with her husband…The Kindness of Enemies reminds us of the complexity of the web woven by those threads of faith, nationality, politics and history.
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. The book has three clearly defined narrative sections, the first of which focuses on the protagonist, Natasha, a history professor in Scotland, as she researches and unravels the history of real-life 19th-century Muslim leader Imam Shamil and his role as a leader in the Caucasian War. To save his besieged city, Shamil must give up his son, Jamaleldin, to the attacking Russian army as a conciliatory gesture. The second narrative follows Jamaleldin growing up among the Russians, and his assimilation into their culture. In the third narrative, Natasha confronts her Muslim identity as she spends time with Shamil’s descendants: a precocious student, Oz, who is active in the young Islamic group at Natasha’s university, and his actress mother, Malak. Though the book takes time to gain its footing, Aboulela’s (Lyrics Alley) is a nuanced story of identity and sense of place. Agent: Stephanie Cabot, the Gernert Company. (Jan.)
Library Journal
What's in a name? For those of Muslim heritage trying to assimilate in Great Britain after 9/11, quite a bit, according to this new novel about identity and acculturation from Aboulela. Part Russian and part Sudanese, history professor Natasha Hussein legally changes her name. Her standout student Osama Raja prefers to be called Oz. Natasha is researching the life of Shamil, Imam of Dagestan, leader of an insurrection against Russian expansionism in the Caucasus in the 1800s. After delivering a lecture about Shamil, Natasha discovers that Oz's family is descended from the Muslim chieftain and has information to share. Aboulela then transports readers to tsarist Russia, the seat of enlightenment, and to the mountains of Georgia and Dagestan, where fighting between Muslim separatists and Russian sympathizers has devastated Shamil's ranks. The author breathes real life into these historical characters: Shamil; his son Jamaleldin, who, as a hostage, is raised in luxurious Saint Petersburg far from his Islamic culture and language; and the Christian princess Anna, a hostage in Shamil's austere household. VERDICT Winner of the first Caine Prize for African writing, Aboulela (Minaret; Lyrics Alley) 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. [See Prepub Alert, 7/27/15.]—Sally Bissell, formerly with Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL
Kirkus Reviews
The award-winning author of Lyrics Alley (2011) and The Translator (2006) explores the role of old conflicts in the rise of modern extremism—and in the struggle against it. A professor of history, Natasha Wilson is researching the life of Imam Shamil, a 19th-century chieftain who led Muslim tribes against the Russians. Her favorite student, Oz, is one of the imam's descendants. Natasha has a Russian mother and a Sudanese father; her original last name was Hussein. Oz's given name is Osama. That these characters have names that are unsayable in Great Britain in 2010—where their narrative is set—is a deft symbol for the kinds of negotiations they must make in a post-9/11 world and something that brings the two together. But Natasha and Oz are as different as they are similar, and one of Aboulela's great achievements here is her deft elucidation of the diversity within what so many of us think of simply as "Islam." Using the contemporary narrative as a framing device, Aboulela weaves in stories from Czarist St. Petersburg and the battlefields of the Caucasus. Her thoughtful, empathetic portraits of a Georgian princess abducted by Shamil and of Shamil's son, hostage at the imperial court of Nicholas I, show that the existential crises faced by two people of Muslim heritage in contemporary Aberdeen are not entirely new. Indeed, Aboulela makes it clear not only that the current conflict between East and West has old roots, but also that "East" and "West" are little more than convenient fictions. None of this is to say that this novel is a purely didactic exercise. 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.

Product Details

Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

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 slip-ons. 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 symbolized was the reason men left the comforts of their homes for the collision of the battlefield. Or was that too idealized 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.

Malak grunted with sympathy. ‘Oh they must have had a field day with you!’ Behind her through the window, the snow was falling, grey and continuous like static on a television screen.

I felt a slight drop of fatigue. I had been tense these past few days preparing for yesterday’s talk. The previous night I had hardly slept, post-presentation euphoria and that unexpected new thread. I had started with ‘Thank you for coming out in this freezing weather.’ For a Monday at 8 p.m., it was a good turnout, boosted by the History Society’s new introduction of refreshments. There was also a decent showing from the Muslim Society, drawn no doubt by the title, ‘Jihad as Resistance – Russian Imperial Expansion and Insurrection in the Caucasus’. When they realised that my focus was Imam Shamil’s leadership from 1830 to 1859 rather than the present, they seemed a little restless. Sensitive to their attention span, I finished ten minutes earlier than planned. The Q&A session started with predictable questions from my colleagues that reflected their own research interests. Then a young girl in hijab asked, ‘Are you a Muslim?’ It was easy to dismiss the query as irrelevant, even silly. I laughed and that made her face flush with embarrassment. She was sitting next to Oz and I got the impression that they had come together. He was one of my brightest students, the one who asked the good questions in class, the one I found myself preparing my lectures for, pointing out an extra reference to, making that little bit more of an effort. Like turning back to the mirror to dab on another bit of make-up before an important meeting.

Oz disappointed me at the Q&A session by not saying anything. Perhaps I even turned to him when the laughter died, expecting at least a response. But he just looked past me, out of the window, at the first flakes of snow. After the talk, as I was putting my laptop away, he came up to me and said that his mother’s descendants were from the Caucasus and that she could tell me more. ‘Call her,’ he said, his hands in the back of his jeans, his trouser legs tucked into big white trainers. ‘She can tell you more, personal stuff too.’ He took out his mobile phone. ‘Here’s her number, she won’t mind at all. Come over and see our sword. A real one that was used for jihad, I’m not kidding!’

When I called Malak the following morning and she said, ‘Come now if you like,’ I jumped in the car and drove all the way with my windscreen wipers flapping away at the falling snow. I was on a high when I held the sword, knowing that it was a privilege, hoping for a breakthrough. No, I was not here to talk about myself. She had lured me this far like a fortune teller. I was usually restrained, keeping back the shards and useless memories. I had worked too hard to fit in. To be here and now. That’s how I wanted to appear – topical, relevant, and despite my research interest, inhabiting the present. And now the mention of my father’s name stalled me, I teetered on the brink of the usual revulsion. If I had been Dr Hussein, the girl wouldn’t have asked me if I were Muslim. And yet still I would have had to explain the non-Muslim Natasha. Better like this, not even Muslim by name.

Many Muslims in Britain wished that no one knew they were Muslim. They would change their names if they could and dissolve into the mainstream for it was not enough for them to openly condemn 9/11 and 7/7, not enough to walk against the wall, to raise a glass of champagne, to eat in the light of Ramadan and never step into a mosque or say the shahada or touch the Qur’an. All this was not enough, though most people were too polite to say it. All these actions somehow fell short of the complete irrevocable dissolution that was required. Yet children pick up vibes, they know more than they can express, they feel and understand before learning the words for a particular emotion or idea. Many of the young Muslims I taught throughout the years couldn’t wait to bury their dark, badly dressed immigrant parents who never understood what was happening around them or even took an interest, who walked down high streets as if they were still in a village, who obsessed about halal meat and arranged marriages and were so impractical, so arrogant as to imagine that their children would stay loyal. Instead their children grew up as chameleons not only shifting their colours at will, but able to focus on two opposing goals at the same time. They grew up reptiles plotting to silence their parents’ voices, to muffle their poor accents, their miseries, their shuffling feet, their lives of toil and bafflement, their dated ideas of the British Empire, their gratitude because they remembered all too clearly the dead-ends they had left behind.
I was actually one of the lucky ones. I was one of the ones who saw the signs early on in the tricksy ways of school children, in the way my mother, snow-white as she was, was disliked for being Russian. I saw the writing on the wall and I was not too proud to take a short-cut to the exit.

Oz brought in a flurry of snow with him. He stood stamping his wellies, taking off his scarf and gloves. Melting snow gleamed on his hair and I could tell that his lips were numb. The news of the snow-storm was not reassuring. ‘Some of the trains are cancelled; I had to change twice. Here, Malak, I got you the vitamins you asked for.’ He used her first name as if he was indulging her. He seemed more grown-up in her presence. Perhaps his role was to be the steady responsible son so that she could be the ditzy artistic parent. Yet I had seen in him too the inclination for theatre. Oz liked to make his classmates laugh at his impersonations of politicians. He once had me laughing out loud when he used a clothes hanger and did Abu Hamza, the hook-handed cleric. Shaking the snow off his coat, he hung it behind the door. ‘When I got out of the station the bus wasn’t there and all the taxis were taken. The roads are pretty bad. I walked because it was quicker than hanging around waiting for the bus.’
‘Poor Ossie,’ drawled Malak without much sympathy. This was a sharper side of her, a glimpse of the mother who had handed him calmly to babysitters, tucked him into boarding school during a messy divorce, gazed past him as if he never existed while she was practising for a new role. I guessed he was not a child who was encouraged to complain, a child who learnt to search for comfort away from her.

He turned to me. ‘Did you see the sword? It belonged to Imam Shamil.’

‘We can’t be a hundred per cent sure.’ Malak ran her finger through her hair.

‘It could have belonged to someone else.’

‘You haven’t told her yet, have you?’ He was excited or just flushed from his walk in the cold. He drew out a chair but didn’t sit down. He looked straight into my eyes and later, I would remember that focused look, the youthful energy in the voice. ‘Imam Shamil is my . . . is our,’ a quick glance at his mother to include her, ‘great, great, great – not exactly sure how many greats I should say – grandfather! We are descended through his son, Ghazi.’

My delight was muted by my mobile which, now on silent, buzzed again. It was Tony, who since my mother’s death has been plaguing me with his sadness. Every other evening tears and long-winded confessions of guilt – he had not looked after her enough, he had not urged her to see a specialist soon enough. It was earlier than usual for him; on most days he only started to unravel after six. I rejected his call. I would not act as his grief counsellor today.

I said to Malak, ‘Did you know that Queen Victoria supported Imam Shamil? His picture was on the front page of the London Times with a call for the English to be,’ I made quotation marks with my fingers, ‘“the generous defenders of liberty against the brutal forces of the Russian Empire.”’

Malak made a face at her son. ‘Queen Victoria championed a jihad.’
Oz sat down. ‘Don’t be naive, Malak. If Russia took over the Caucasus, it would have threatened India. Besides, the word “jihad” then didn’t have the same connotation it has now.’

‘Ever since 9/11, jihad has become synonymous with terrorism,’ she said. ‘I blame the Wahabis and Salafists for this. Jihad is an internal and spiritual struggle.’

‘But this is not entirely true. If someone hits us, we need to hit back.’
‘It’s better to forgive.’

‘No it’s not. Limiting jihad to an internal struggle has become a bandwagon for every pacifist Muslim to climb on. You Sufis . . . ’ he wagged his finger at his mother.

‘Am I a Sufi? Do you see me as such? Then you are doing me a great honour.’

‘You’re a wannabe, Malak. Besides, what choice do you have? Actresses aren’t exactly welcome in mosques.’ He gave a little laugh but I could tell that he was having a dig at his mother.

‘I couldn’t care less what conservative Muslims think of me, but a wannabe Sufi? Really!’ she looked at me and rolled her eyes. I smiled.

‘Yes, of course with your chants and spiritual retreats,’ he continued. ‘Plus you’re interrupting. I was saying that you Sufis play down your historical role in jihad. Most fighters against European Imperialism were Sufis. And Imam Shamil is a prime example. He was the head of a Sufi order.’

This was not new to me. But this stress on Sufism was not an angle I had previously considered to be important. I needed to reconsider. Shamil’s Sufism might well be what I needed to refine my research direction.

Malak replied, ‘Every fight Shamil fought was on the defence. He was protecting his villages against Russian attack. And surrender to the Russians would have meant the end of their traditional way of life, the end of Islam in Dagestan. The Russians were so brutal they often didn’t take prisoners of war. By comparison Shamil’s generals were scholarly and disciplined. This type of jihad is different from the horrible crimes ofal-Qaeda.’

‘I agree, but still it was guerrilla warfare . . . ’ reiterated her son.

‘No it wasn’t.’

He grinned. ‘Malak, you think guerrilla warfare is what you see in the movies! Shamil understood that he couldn’t pitch a direct battle against the tsar’s large and well-equipped army so he lured sections of them up the mountains. He tricked them into dividing and then launched attacks at them.’

‘Well that is a clever thing to do.’

‘That cleverness is guerrilla tactics.’

But Malak wasn’t going to be shaken. ‘Listen Oz, the door of jihad is closed. Jihad needs an imam and there is no imam now. Jihad is for upholding the values of Allah; it’s not for scoring political points, it’s not for land, it’s not for rights, it’s not for autonomy.’

‘It’s for getting us power over our enemies. Jihad is not something we should be ashamed of.’

‘What we are ashamed of is what is done in its name. Not every Muslim war is a jihad. Not suicide bombers or attacking civilians.’

I said, ‘The mufti of Bosnia said that Muslims shouldn’t use the word “jihad” and Christians shouldn’t use the word “crusade”.’

‘See,’ said Malak with a sharp look at her son.

‘Well, I shall use it,’ Oz glared back at her. He sounded bitter. ‘If Shamil were here today he wouldn’t have sat back and let Muslim countries be invaded. He wouldn’t have given up on Palestine and he wouldn’t have accepted the two-faced wimps we have as leaders.’

His voice was unnecessarily loud. The slight tension that followed made me conscious of the time. ‘I really should be going. If the snow is going to get worse, then I might make it if I leave now.’ I stood up but not without reluctance.

And it was perhaps because of this desire to stay that I succumbed to the following sequence of events. Their drive was thick with snow and I was unable to get my car to the main road. Phone calls to local cab companies elicited the same response – they were unwilling to venture that far out into the countryside on a night like this. Around nine in the evening, I accepted Malak’s repeated invitation to stay the night. It seemed the sensible thing to do.

Meet the Author

Leila Aboulela won the first Caine Prize for African Writing. She is the author of four books: Lyrics Alley; The Translator, a New York Times 100 Notable Book of the Year; Minaret; and a book of short stories, Colored Lights.

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