The Beekeeper of Sinjar, Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq
Author: Dunya Mikhail (meet the author here)
In 2014 a black wave swept across western Iraq. Salafi jihadists, following a fundamental doctrine of Sunni Islam, moved out from the shadow world of ‘hit and run’ insurgency to launch a full-blown campaign to occupy territory and establish a caliphate. Over the ensuing period, from August 2014 to March 2019, when the last fighters were driven out of the Syrian town of Al-Baghuz Fawqani, the group best known by its acronym, ISIS, became the globe’s most potent force of extreme Islam.
The story of the rise and impact of ISIS has been documented in several excellent books, with Joby Warrick’s Pulitzer winning Black Flags and William McCant’s The ISIS Apocalypse amongst the best (for a journalist’s own account of her experiences with ISIS, including the English accented executioner, ‘Jihad John’, check out I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad by Souad Mekhennet’s, the subject of a forthcoming HOWL review). But across this writing there has been a noteworthy vacuum of words dedicated to the voices and experiences of those who suffered under ISIS rule. This was until 2018 when the English-reading world welcomed the translation of Dunya Mikhail’s The Beekeeper of Sinjar. Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, a book that focuses almost exclusively on the stories of Yazidi women under the caliphate.
Before 2014 most of the world had not heard of the Yazidi, a small religious minority who had lived for centuries under the shadows of the Sinjar Mountains, in northern Iraq. This changed in August 2014 when ISIS fighters starting overrunning their towns and villages, pushing the survivors towards the cold barren flaks of Mt. Sinjar, a mountain that had provided a traditional refuge for this insular people. Down below, away from the drama unfolding on the peaks, ISIS forces moved across the Yazidi homelands, its soldiers engaging in a wholesale campaign to eliminate the Yazidi identity; a group whose religious credo, an amalgam of Christian, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrainism was heretical to the fundamentalists – a blight to be eliminated (see video). The results included the mass execution of Yazidi men, the forced recruitment of children into jihad militias and the wholesale trafficking and sale of Yazidi women.
It is the plight of these women and the efforts made by numerous Iraqis to help and rescue them that forms the basis of Mikhail’s book. Herein, across its short 200 pages the author—herself a refugee, a journalist and poet driven out of Iraq after she incurred the displeasure of Saddam Hussein—draws on first-person accounts to reveal the reality of death, survival and hope under ISIS rule. These stories, as you would suspect, are harrowing; but there are also moments of light, instances of people and events that show how nothing, no matter how evil, can destroy the capacity for human goodness. True to this is the continuing presence of Abdullah Shrem, the ‘beekeeper’ of the title, who has devoted his life to the rescue of Yazidi women from ISIS enslavement. A modest man with a penchant for the romantic—at one point he tells the author of the motivation he receives from bees, comparing the women he rescues to the queen bees of a colony, the loss of which would signal the death of the hive—he is also driven and practical; a man wholeheartedly dedicated to the recovery of ‘lost’ women from their jihadist captors.
Another quality of the book, which serves to sustain the reader through some of the darker passages, are the occasional flourishes provided by the author’s poetry—Mikhail is an award winning poet—the verses serving up imagery and sentiments that connect the reader with the emotions unleashed by her accounts. Some reviewers have been critical of this aspect of Mikhail’s writing, but for me it adds another layer of emotional expression that enriches the stories that her verses touch.
Our girls, our girls, confined in chains, dragging the world along behind them.
Some of them fall to the ground in the water in
the dirt in the air on the ground,
leaving the world without meaning, like a clock with only
a long hand.
Who’s left in the village?
As for the stories themselves, as you would expect they are traumatic, often appalling. The account of Nadia, told in the opening pages, is evocative of those that follow: captured by ISIS soldiers while fleeing her home village; transported to a city and separated from her husband and children; transported to another place and sold at auction; beatings, rapes and enslavement until the day comes when, somehow, she is able to make a furtive call to Shrem. After this – escape, a new life, scars and memories—the fate of her husband and children unknown. All of the stories that follow Nadia’s account share elements of her experience, each tale leaving its own mental stain.
If I have one cavil with the book it is the use of the term ‘rescuing’ in its subtitle. This word gives a feel of passivity around those being saved – as if the women in the book are spectators to their fate. Yet as Mikhail’s stories show it is usually their own initiative—the decision to flee a house or to ask for a phone from a stranger—that starts them on the path to escape. ‘Helping the stolen women of Iraq’ might not be as catchy, but I think it is a more rightful depiction of the spirit of the women that fill this tome.
It is inevitable that a volume recounting the rise and excesses of ISIS will leave one shaken, but in weaving together the resilience and strength of the women featured in her pages and the contributions of those willing to help them, one leaves Makhail’s book with their soul intact (just).
Now as the rains set in I will undoubtedly read many more books, but few, I suspect, will be as fine as this one.
The Beekeeper of Sinjar. Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq is available, now, at Monument, Phnom Penh (Norodom Avenue) and Siem Reap (Heritage Walk, in the downstairs atrium).