Between Love and Honor

Written by Alexandra Lapierre Jane Lizop (trans.)
Review by Waheed Rabbani

The book’s prologue is written much like the opening scene of a movie. A bleak flat landscape, divided by a shallow river, appears. A title emerges: Chechnya, March 1855. The banks of a river, and the dots thereon, enlarge into groups of cavalry: one dressed in Russian uniforms, and the other in the flowing robes and turbans of Muslim warriors. A voiceover describes the scene:

The soldiers of Czar Nicholas and Imam Shamil, the Lion of Dagestan, are gathered for an important exchange of hostages. Shamil is to return the 23 Georgian noblewomen and children captured in a raid eight months ago. The Czar is to hand over sixteen Chechen prisoners, 40,000 rubles, and 23-year-old Lieutenant Jamal Eddin Shamil. Sixteen years ago, little Jamal was offered as a hostage to the Russians by the Imam in return for peace in the region. Subsequently, he was brought up by the Czar as an adopted son; he has enjoyed royal privileges and was allowed to keep his Muslim faith.

The Lieutenant rides out to meet the Dagestani horsemen crossing the river. A horse-drawn wagon rolls behind them, carrying the captives. As Jamal passes the dray, one of the ladies drops her shawl. He stares at her. In a flashback, they are shown in a grand ballroom, dancing and whispering together.

The book’s chapters narrate Jamal’s life story from his childhood in Dagestan to his capture and upbringing in Russia, return, and death in Dagestan. Lapierre’s ingenious use of the prologue, which raises many questions, will provoke readers to read to the ending. Life in the Caucasus Mountains and in Saint Petersburg’s mansions is eloquently shown, and there is much insight presented into the endless conflict in that region.

Since the book is based on a true story, the unrelated use of Natalia Pushkina’s picture on the cover might be questionable.