The Romance of Resistance

April 4, 2016   •   By Jacob Rama Berman

IN FEBRUARY OF 1858, The Spectator, a leading conservative English magazine, directed its readers’ attention to the captivity account of two “Russian Princesses.” They had been taken hostage close to a year earlier by the “Lion of Dagestan,” Imam Shamil. For the last quarter century, Imam Shamil had been waging jihad against the imperial Russian army. The capture of the “Russian Princesses” was his most spectacular triumph to date, piquing the interest of the English press. “It gives us back a glimmer of the middle ages,” The Spectator suggested breathlessly. “In the sack of the mansion, the capture of the ladies and their people, and the subsequent march, one can realize an onslaught of the age of chivalry” (February 6, 1858). Far from lamenting Shamil’s medieval “onslaught” on modernity, The Spectator celebrated it. About Shamil himself, The Spectator commented, “he appears as a hard-working administrator, a cautious though a bold warrior, a kindly, regular, and strict family man.” The magazine’s coverage of Shamil suggests the extent to which “The Eagle of the Caucasus” cut a romantic figure in the 19th-century Western imagination.

Shamil’s appeal to Western audiences would only grow with time. In 1908, The Spectator revisited the subject, reminding its readers that

the resistance that Shamil and his wild tribesman offered to the Russian advance in the Caucasus … aroused the sympathy and admiration of the Western world. … Poets wrote verses in his honor, and Englishmen, traditionally ready to back the weaker side struggling for independence or political freedom, felt towards Shamil as they felt afterwards towards Kossuth and Garibaldi (November 28, 1908).

In the dying afterglow of the Age of Revolution, the English press cast Shamil as an anachronistic hero whose values recalled a bygone age of honor. Leila Aboulela’s new novel, The Kindness of Enemies, takes place in the shadow of that Orientalist fantasy.

The Kindness of Enemies is really two novels connected by the historical umbilical cord of Shamil. The first novel might be called The Natasha Wilson/Hussein Story: Autobiography of an Unfulfilled Academic of Color. Nominally set in 2010–11 Scotland, this narrative focuses on Natasha Wilson (formerly Hussein), a junior faculty historian at a local university who is of mixed Russian and Sudanese heritage. Natasha’s story is told entirely from her first-person perspective and follows the recognizable contours of a tale of failed racial integration. Since childhood, Natasha has had an irrational fear of the grotesque, a fear that comes to explain her personal struggles with identity:

I was seeing in these awkward composites, my own liminal self. The two sides of me that were slammed together against their will, that refused to mix. I was a failed hybrid, made up of unalloyed selves. My Russian mother who regretted marrying a Sudanese father. My African father who came to hate his white wife.

Aboulela is implicitly pushing back here against celebrations of hybridity by scholars of post-colonial identity such as Homi Bhabha, and there is nothing particularly original in her version of “liminal” identity politics: she fits into a tradition of post-colonial narrators who are unable to reconcile their Europeanized and African selves. “Perhaps we half and halfs should always make a choice,” Natasha muses: “one nationality instead of the other, one language instead of the other.”

Mixed identity narrators searching for authenticity have been the stuff of post-colonial novels since the 1960s. The unnamed narrator in Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, for instance, at the end of the novel is stuck in the middle of the Nile River, contemplating his physical and psychological inbetween-ness: “I veered between seeing and blindness. I was conscious and not conscious. Was I asleep or awake? Was I alive or dead?” He then declares, “[a]ll my life I had not chosen, had not decided. Now I am making a decision. I choose life.” Like Salih, Aboulela is of Sudanese descent, and she is surely familiar with these now canonical lines; is Aboulela suggesting that post-colonial identity politics have barely changed in 50 years? This position seems hard to reconcile with the novel’s emphasis on its own post-9/11 context.

What sets Aboulela’s novel apart though, is the subject of Natasha’s research — Shamil — the center of the novel’s other half. Natasha’s prized student, Oz (short for Osama), is a descendent of Shamil’s, and through her interactions with Oz and his family, Natasha draws the reader closer to her 19th-century subject, illuminating the ways in which the past can help us reinterpret the present. Radiant with historical detail and vivid descriptions of 19th-century tribal life in the High Caucasus Mountains, the historical sections deliver, because they reimagine familiar Orientalist tropes, such as the harem and the despot. This second novel might be titled Shamil: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Jihad and Love the Other. Natasha hopes to bring both nuance and context to contemporary discussions of jihad through her research and writing on Shamil. An early conversation between two Muslim characters maps out the terrain:

“Ever since 9/11, jihad has become synonymous with terrorism,” she said. “I blame the Wahabis and Salfists 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.”

Moments like this can read as strained, if earnest, efforts to translate debates and divisions within the Muslim community for a wider audience. 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. Shamil is an excellent historical lens through which to project a complex and, seemingly, contradictory Islamic identity from the past into the present. Caucasian and Muslim, freedom fighter and jihadist, tribal and courtly, martial and mystic, barbarian and scholar — Shamil combines a range of apparent oppositions into one figure. Perhaps most importantly, Shamil is considered by almost all who encounter him to be heroic despite, and in many cases because of, his commitment to jihad. Aboulela’s novel is keen to make the point that the very definition of jihad has been perverted by its contemporary usage. As Natasha opines at the end of the novel, “I wanted to compare Shamil’s defeat and surrender, how he made peace with his enemies, with modern-day Islamic terrorism that promoted suicide bombings instead of accepting in Shamil’s words ‘that martyrdom is Allah’s prerogative to bestow.’”

The historical fiction is divided into three strains bound together by their interlocking explorations of captivity. Captivity narratives have always been petri dishes of intercultural contact, not so much reinforcing cultural, racial, and gender norms as undermining them. Aboulela’s novel exploits the transgressive potential of the captivity genre in each of the three different narratives.

The first is the story of Shamil’s son, Jamaleldin. Eight years old when captured by the Russians, Jamaleldin spends 15 years in the czar’s court, where he becomes “a young man whose opinions and manners are completely Russian.” However Jamaleldin’s story offers a lesson not on cultural assimilation, but on its limits. When Jamaleldin asks the czar for permission to marry his Russian sweetheart, he is told that he must marry “one of his own.” “Think of the future,” the czar cautions Jamaleldin. “You will be my mouthpiece in the Caucasus. You will bring enlightenment to your own people.” But, when the time does come for Jamaleldin to return to “his people,” he has so fully incorporated Russian values that he feels like a crab “edging backwards to them.” There is an obvious corollary here between Jamaleldin’s relationship to his tribal Caucasian identity that reflects back onto Natasha’s relationship to the Sudanese identity she abandoned at a young age, giving her struggle to reconcile with her father’s culture more depth and complexity.

The second 19th-century narrative belongs to Anna Chavchavadze. Anna is the Princess of Georgia and wife to David, an important Georgian military commander in the service of the Russian czar. When Anna is kidnapped from her country estate by men loyal to the Imam, she is taken to Shamil’s remote mountain redoubt with her son and his governess. Once there, Anna is held in Shamil’s seraglio as an honored guest. Anna’s privileged access to this space plays to Orientalist curiosity and against the stereotypes. (Aboulela may have taken a cue from Lady Mary Wortley Montague’s 18th-century descriptions of Turkish seraglios, in which she chided her male counterparts that they shouldn’t write about what they had never seen. Montague detailed a space where intelligent and powerful women had relative freedom, comparing Turkish women’s situation favorably to that of English women.) The scenes set inside Shamil’s harem reveal women who are there by choice not force. These are women whose wills are honored and whose voices influence Shamil’s actions.

Anna comes to recognize that Shamil understands her relationship to her Georgian identity better than her husband does. When Shamil argues to her that Georgia had not resisted the Russians as it should, she feels a kindred emotion, but recognizes that, as a Russian, she has to sequester her opinions:

Anna bit her lips. Weren’t these the same words she had said to David? The thoughts that could not be voiced in public, the resentment that must stay hidden. We are Georgians, not Russians. But for the sake of peace her grandfather had ceded the throne and here she was, caught up in the war against Russia.

Natasha, too, hides parts of herself and her opinion away in order to keep her job as an academic. When Natasha is asked by her superior to write up a “report” on Oz after he has been arrested for suspicion of terrorist activity, she agrees despite her moral qualms.

The third narrative strain belongs to Shamil himself and has the longest arc. The novel opens with Shamil as an outnumbered rebel, protecting a mountain fortress from a technologically and numerically superior Russian attack. Though Shamil escapes to wage jihad for the next 20 years, he ends the novel as a captive of the Russian czar, held, with his family, in a well-appointed home just outside Moscow. Ultimately, the czar allows Shamil to make hajj to Mecca and Medina, where he dies and is buried. At every turn, Shamil reveals himself to be an exemplar of honor, devotion, and loyalty. Most significantly, he models the intercultural dialogue that is the hallmark of captivity accounts. When his wife, Zeinat, complains about the sound of Russian church bells, Shamil advises her to recognize in them a spiritual call that unites Christianity and Islam.

“Your heritage should have given you more sensitive ears. Listen to what these bells are saying.”

She made a face. “There aren’t any words, just ding ding.”

He paused to listen to the bells but not with his ears. “They are saying ‘Haqq! Haqq!’”

Zeidat raised her eyebrows. “Is that what they are saying to you?”

“Yes, they too can remind us of Allah. If you listen carefully you will hear them say His name. Truth! Truth!”

For Aboulela, Imam Shamil counters contemporary examples of jihad. Shamil’s values are universal values, and through his humanism, the reader comes to recognize the connection between the “enemies” of the novel’s title. By unpacking the West’s fascination with Shamil’s supposed atavism, however, Aboulela has stripped him of menace; the Shamil that attracts Oz represents the romance of resistance, the pull of violence for those who face injustice. This Shamil has more in common with the Orientalist fantasy sketched out in the pages of The Spectator than the “historical” substitute the novel provides. Oz, a second-generation immigrant, sits in the cross-hairs of contemporary jihadist recruitment in the West. But the novel seems at pains to downplay the threat he poses, as well as the threat he feels. This lack of menace obscures the stakes. When Oz is arrested for suspected involvement in terrorism, the reader never gets the feeling that he is actually guilty of anything more than misplaced youthful enthusiasm. More telling, the reader is never privy to what happens to Oz during his detention beyond some vague references to being watched and questioned constantly. Perhaps this is a wise decision on Aboulela’s part; who can match the chilling intensity of non-fiction accounts of indefinite detention such as the one provided by Mohamadou Ould Slahi in Guantanamo Diary?

Still, the feeling of threat seems a key atmospheric element for a novel that focuses on the treacherous social, professional, and spiritual ground traversed by Muslims living in the West after 9/11. I understand Aboulela’s desire to answer contemporary fear-mongering with a portrayal of a Muslim jihadist who is not an extremist or a fanatic, but the threat embodied by the fantasy of Shamil cuts in multiple fascinating ways that are often short-circuited by the novel’s insistence on his unequivocal virtue. 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. As Mirza Aleksander Kazem-Bek, a Russian Orientalist and historian of Azeri descent, wrote after Shamil’s capture in 1859, “sensible Russian patriots do not hate Shamil, they do not despise his name … still he is heroic, and a creator of heroes, and now our humble guest.”


Dr. Jacob Rama Berman is an Associate Professor of English at Louisiana State University.