Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Kindness of Enemies

by Leila Aboulela

A riveting epic of love, betrayal, and war from New York Times Notable author and winner of the Caine Prize, Leila Aboulela, The Kindness of Enemies follows the sword and legacy of a legendary warrior.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 352
  • Publication Date January 10, 2017
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2624-5
  • Dimensions 5" x 5"
  • US List Price $16.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 352
  • Publication Date January 05, 2016
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2448-7
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $25.00

About The Book

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 legendary 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.

Tags Literary


“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

“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

“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

“Timely, vastly important, and brilliantly engaging.” —Bustle, 17 Of January 2016’s Best Books To Fire Up Your New Year

“A fascinating combination of Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat and A.S. Byatt’s Possession.” —The Millions, Most Anticipated Books of 2016

“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


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.

Reading Group Guide

by Keturah Jenkins

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 represent for Natasha?

6. How does the author comment on being a Muslim in a post-9/11 world? What are the parallels between 19th century and 21st century Muslims found in the book? How does the novel challenge reader’s perception of the meaning of jihad? Did reading the novel affect your understanding of the Muslim lifestyle? Explain your answer.

7. At one point Natasha ponders, “Does the student seek the teacher or the other way around?” What do you think she means by this? Find examples throughout the novel of character’s seeking guidance.

8. What do the contents of David’s letter to Anna reveal about his character and his marriage? Discuss how the letter affects Anna’s faith in him and his handling of their abduction. In the long-term, how does the kidnapping change their relationship?

9. What does Shamil’s admission that he would not mind living the rest of his life in a “state of war” tell us about him? How does losing his eldest son Jamaleldin and then the Caucasian War change him? Are the changes positive? Explain your answer.

10. On page 74, Natasha says about herself “I was and had always been a coward.” How do you feel about this interpretation of her? Were you surprised by this admission and do you agree with her? Has there ever been a time in your life that you felt you were a coward? Explain your answers.

11. Was Oz unfairly targeted for sympathizing with Islam or was he just expressing curiosity and pride in being a descendant of Imam Shamil? Explain your answer. What do you think of Oz’s decision to leave university and move to Cardiff? How would you have handled the situation if you were Oz?

12. Discuss the significance of Sheik Jamal el-din. What is his role in the story?

13. Discuss the author’s decision to tell the story from a dual timeline. Was this an effective way to tell the story? Did it help you to feel closer to the characters? Why or why not?

14. What affect does Anna’s arrival have on Shamil and his household? Compare and contrast her relationship with Zeidat, Chuanat, and Ameena. Discuss the role family plays in the novel. How is family defined, and what is its significance?

15. What does Natasha discover about herself when she returns to the Sudan for her father’s funeral? What is her greatest challenge there? How are her memories transformed by her visit? Does she come to regret the shame she felt toward her father and his religion? Explain your answer.

16. Imam Shamil is a real historical figure who fought in the Caucasian War. Does knowing this affect the way you read the novel? What are some of the pleasures and drawbacks of reading historical novels?

17. The novel opens with a quote from Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse: ” . . . we have to grope our way through so much filth and rubbish in order to reach home! And we have no one to show us the way. Homesickness is our only guide.” How is this sentiment explored throughout the novel? Discuss how each character defines home. Is home always an actual place or can it also be spiritual? Why or why not? How does the loss of Jamaleldin’s homeland change him? Discuss the similarities between Natasha and Jamaleldin. Both are displaced and in search of a place to belong, do either of them find that in the end? Explain your answer.

Suggestions for Further Reading:
Finding Nouf by Zoë Ferraris
LaRose by Louise Erdrich
A Curse on Dostoevsky by Atiq Rahimi, Polly McLean (Translator)
In the Land of Armadillos: Stories by Helen Maryles Shankman
The Alaskan Laundry by Brendan Jones
Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy
Hunters in the Dark: A Novel by Lawrence Osborne
Youngblood: A Novel by Matt Gallagher