Both a period piece and an examination of what it is to be Muslim in a post-9/11 world. 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.
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 Strangers reads as a well-crafted but quiet plea for the kind of humanism that once allowed enemies to respect one another.
...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.