The Captivity Narrative and East-West Understanding in Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies


The American captivity narrative, like John Smith’s account of his rescue by Pocahontas, derives its plot from accounts of captivity in the conflicts with Morocco and the Ottoman Empire. This cross-cultural provenance is reflected in Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies which can be usefully compared with the greatest of the American texts, The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682), in regard to characters, plot, setting and sympathy for the colonized. In The Kindness of Enemies the captivity narrative goes both ways, into the East and into the West, and there are different ways and degrees of being a captive. Reading Aboulela’s novel requires an analytic historical perspective on a Nineteenth Century Sufi rebellion during the Crimean War seen in counterpoint to the present besieged state of contemporary Britain. The novel broadens our common humanity as we share Natasha’s problem of having “morphed into something completely different” on her difficult journey into the West, into history and into her divided consciousness. Aboulela presents, in place of projection, an involving interchange and interpenetration of people, events, imagery and (opposing) cultures. My reading, organized around the motifs of dreams and sword, follows the struggles of protagonist and narrator Natasha with intercultural guilt during her research into the Chechen resistance to Russian colonization.


Charles Campbell


American literature, captivity narrative, imperialism, Orientalism

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