All that I know about the resistance of the Caucasian mountaineers to Tsarist Russian expansion into their land comes from two books. The first is Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy, and the second is Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies. Shamil Imam, a minor character in the Tolstoy novella, is the major character of Leila Aboulela’s book. It is an extremely brave author who writes in the shadow of Tolstoy, and Leila Aboulela is up to the task.
Like Hadji Murat, this book is based on the historical facts of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus during the nineteenth century. Shamil, the Imam of Dagestan, led the armed resistance to the Tsarist incursions for a period of some thirty years. And, of course, because the peoples of the mountains were Moslem and the Russians were Christian, this had an aspect of religious war, stretching back to the clash between the Christian Byzantine Empire and the Arab Islamic Empire.
The story is told through the eyes of Natasha, an academic, who is researching the life of Shamil Imam. Natasha had a Russian mother and a Scottish stepfather, following her mother’s divorce. Her father is Sudanese, and the story moves between Aberdeen and Khartoum as she learns more about the story of Shamil Imam through one of her students, Oz. He is descended from the Imam and his mother still possesses the sword that was taken from Shamil Imam when he surrendered. [This, by the way, is not a spoiler as it is a historical fact that Shamil Imam was defeated.]
The story revolves around the Russian kidnapping of Shamil’s 8 year old son, Jamaleldin, who had been given to them as a hostage during negotiations. It is the story of how Shamil Imam captures a Georgian princess, Anna, the granddaughter of the Gregory XI, the last King of Georgia, and her two children so that they can be exchanged for his son. Tactically, this works. Jamaleldin is exchanged for Anna, after he has been at the Russian court, as a favourite of Tsar Nicholas, for fifteen years. Strategically, it is a disaster. Sheikh Jamal El Din, a Sufi scholar and the spiritual leader of the mountaineers, does not approve of the waging of war against women and children. The British and French allies of the Ottoman Sultan are outraged. The possibility of a Caucasian front during the Crimean War withers on the vine. The Russians, having been humiliated, are intent upon revenge. And so the war in the Caucasus reaches its culmination in the defeat of the Imam.
But this book is more than an historical novel. It is a meditation on how the past shapes and defines the present in ways that we do not expect. It looks at the way in which a word like jihad can acquire a new meaning because the events of the past, such as the failed resistance in the Caucasus to Russian domination, determine how we can live in the present, and what our future will be. It deals with the personal relations of people whose worlds collide violently, and how people on different sides deal with each other as they meet through conflict. And so we see Tsar Nicholas I treating the young Jamaleldin as his pet, the respect growing between Shamil and Anna, and Natasha and Oz caught up in a conflict not of their own making.
The scope of this book is enormous because it deals with our individual struggle to do the right thing – what many would argue is the true meaning of jihad. It shows people confronting and dealing with the reality around them, even when that reality is difficult and involves choices that are essentially hard, choices that are not always our own, but choices that force us into making choices of our own.
This is a book that has significant things to say about the dangerous times in which we live. It shows the possibilities that exist for understanding and reconciliation. It takes what is considered to be a small, insignificant event, and shows how events of that kind can have an impact on the world beyond the imaginings of people at the time. It shows how we need to deal with the people around us with compassion and love, not with fear and aggression.
This is a vital book for our time.