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).
Check out the review by our own ‘divine Ms. O’, coming soon.
‘A masterpiece at the same level as In Cold Blood‘ ELIZABETH GILBERT
Barry Lopez is one of the great ‘landscape – people – nature’ writers of our age. Check out a review of his new book Horizon – sequel to the very excellent Arctic Dreams – by Robert McFarlane, an acclaimed ‘nature’ writer in his own right (reprinted from The Guardian)
I first encountered Barry Lopez’s work in 1997, buying a copy of Arctic Dreams from a Vancouver bookshop because I was attracted by the picture of an iceberg on the cover, and intrigued by its subtitle: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. I subsequently read it while walking the west coast of Vancouver Island over several days. Arctic Dreamswas to me – as it has been to so many others – a revelation. It was a life-changing book. Its braiding of cultural and natural history, archaeology, ethnography, philosophy and something very like prose-poetry was both audacious and graceful. Lopez broke open for me the possibilities of what we still weirdly call “non-fiction” (thereby defining it only in negative and restricting relation to fiction). I was only, of course, catching up with what millions of readers had known for a decade: Arctic Dreamswas recognised as a landmark work immediately on publication in 1986, winning a National Book award and staying in the US bestseller lists for months. It has never been out of print and now, in our fast-warming world, reads as a premonitory elegy for a vanishing Arctic.
Like many who came to Lopez first through Arctic Dreams, I sought out much of his other work, compelled by its stylistic adventure, its ethical address and the secular spirituality of land that it advanced – evident especially in its deference to traditional ecological knowledge, and to animals as tutelary presences. I read Of Wolves and Men(1978), as well as Crossing Open Ground(1988) and About This Life(1998) – two slender essay collections that are, to my mind, stone-cold classics – and I explored Lopez’s fiction, from Desert Notes(1976) to The Grace Note of the Canyon Wren(1994). All the while I waited impatiently for his next full-length work of non-fiction – the follow-up to Arctic Dreams. For almost two decades I waited. Still it did not come. Would it ever? Then I began to hear whispers; there was a title, Horizon. There was a huge typescript, 30 or more years in the travelling and writing, undergoing meticulous revisions.
Now, at last, that book has sailed into view. Anticipation often leads to overdetermination, and overdetermination to disappointment. Not so in this case. Horizonis magnificent; a contemporary epic, at once pained and urgent, personal and oracular. It is being described as Lopez’s “crowning achievement”, but I prefer to see it less teleologically as a partner to Arctic Dreams, and the late enrichment of an already remarkable body of work.
In his memoir Berlin Childhood Around 1900, Walter Benjamin reflected on the possibility of representing one’s life cartographically. Horizoncomes as close as any book I know to realising this ambition. It tells the story of Lopez’s life through six main landscapes – from Cape Foulweather on the Oregon coast to the Queen Maud Mountains of Antarctica, by way of Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic, the Turkana Uplands of East Africa and Port Arthur in Tasmania. Place becomes the means of fathoming time; the book also moves over its course from Lopez as an “unsuspecting boy, a child beside himself with his desire to know the world, to swim out farther than he can see”, to Lopez now – an “elder” who carries a huge cargo of wisdom but is unsure how best to land it or what good it might do. The life journey told here is one from “longing to go” to “having gone”; it may also theologically be characterised as one from hope to doubt.
It has always been among Lopez’s great powers as a writer to bring the natural world to resonate metaphysically, without treating it as just another form of resource. Throughout Horizon, matter is present both as itself and as metaphor – from the great storm that threatens Cape Foulweather in the first chapter, to the tiny, ancient flakes of “debitage” (knapped and discarded flint) over which he stoops in the Thule region of the Canadian Arctic. Again and again, phenomenal presences – birds, elk, rocks, ice – ring like struck bells in the mind. Of these, the most recurrent is that of the horizon itself.
Ralph Waldo Emerson described the horizon as the “point of astonishment”, mischievously converting it to a thing that it is not. For a horizon is always a line and never a point. The word comes from the Greek hóros, meaning “boundary”; whether that boundary seals the eye in or summons it on depends on circumstance. Early on, Lopez describes setting up a telescope on Cape Foulweather and “working the ocean’s horizon from right to left … the beckoning line where the dark edge of the ocean trembled against the sky”. The sweep he makes is a probing of space, but we understand it also to be a prospecting of the future. To look to the horizon has long been – for mariners, explorers and fieldworkers of all kinds – the simplest form of augury. What weather is coming?
The Anthropocene answer to that is, of course: “the worst imaginable – and fast”. The event horizon of climate change is swiftly narrowing its noose. Lopez’s writing throughout this book is pulled taut between his need to register the extreme urgency of the environmental crisis, and his long-held belief in time, patience and the careful observation of other cultures as the basis for a fix: “As time grows short, the necessity to listen attentively to foundational stories other than our own becomes imperative.”
“One of the penalties of an ecological education,” the US conservationist Aldo Leopold famously noted, “is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” The wounding has intensified drastically since Leopold’s remark, but the loneliness has decreased. Environmental anxiety – “psychoterratica” in Glenn Albrecht’s jagged term – is now widespread; at least one has company for one’s fears. Lopez quotes the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski on “the mutilated world”, and speaks himself of “the throttled Earth” that “is now our home”. Horizonis a deeply wounded book. It grieves for harm done and harm ahead. “I want everyone here to survive what is coming,” Lopez says. A lifetime’s training in listening to others has left him vastly empathic – blessed and burdened with a love for all.
A poetry of pity is present here that is recognisable from Arctic Dreams. What is new is the fury. In a startling passage, he excoriates “the hedge fund manager who amasses material wealth with no thought for the fate of the pensioner he cheats”, calling him “a kind of suicide bomber”. Lopez sets forth a running argument with free-market capitalism and fiduciary duty, for causing us to “characterise other people as vermin in the struggle for market share”, to “navigate without an ethical compass”. He reports on the “cultural detonation” under way on the Burrup Peninsula in western Australia, where “25,000 years’ worth of Aboriginal rock art” have been bulldozed to allow industrial development; petroglyphs turned to “construction debris”, “the flayed walls of the caves at Lascaux and Chauvet, dumped in a barrow ditch”.
Lopez is happiest at high and low latitudes. The chapters on the Canadian Arctic and Antarctica are superb sustained pieces of writing set in “siren landscapes”; short books in themselves, really. The “dark threads” of both places are traced and acknowledged, but – more distant from the frontlines of atrocity – Lopez is freer to focus and to roam. He accompanies specialists – archaeologists, native hunters, polar scientists – and learns to read place as they do. Here, as in previous books, his respectful fascination for indigenous communities is apparent; especially their powers of resilience, skilful adaptation and community-based decision making under pressure.
Lopez himself is also a veteran fieldworker, of course; his skills are those of attention and interpretation. In one of the few even faintly comic moments in the book, he recounts how the Inuit hunters refer to him as naajavaarsuk, the ivory gull, a species distinguished by its habit of “standing on the perimeter of the action, darting in to snatch something when there’s an opening”. One might add – though Lopez does not – that he is also an isumataq, a storyteller who “creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself”. The achievement of Lopez’s work has always been ontological before it is political; a “redreaming”, to use his verb, of the possibilities of human life.
Horizon’s brilliant last chapter describes the weeks he spent searching for meteorites in the Antarctic. At 7,500ft in the Queen Maud Mountains, the flow patterns of ice have created a “concentrating mechanism” that causes meteorites fallen on to the ice cap over thousands of years to gather on a “stranding surface”. Here, “fragments from the asteroid belt, from Mars and from Earth’s moon, find their way eventually into the planet’s upper mantle”. Holding a meteorite in his palm, Lopez considers “the history of each one in the gigantic sweep of time … they suddenly seemed wilder than any form of life I’d ever known. Like the wind, they opened up the landscape.” This sense of the vibrancy of more-than-human matter shivers throughout the book; his glittering prose becomes a concentrating mechanism and stranding surface for such moments.
Horizonis long, challenging and symphonic. Its patterns only disclose themselves over the course of a full, slow reading. Rhythms rise and surge across 500 pages; recursions and echoes start to weave. This is a book to which one must learn to listen. If one does, then – to borrow phrases from Lopez – “it arrives as a cantus, tying the faraway place to the thing living deep inside us”. He has given us a grave, sorrowful, beautiful book, 35 years in the writing but still speaking to the present moment: “No one can now miss the alarm in the air.”
Robert McFarlane, The Guardian
I am a Kiwi abroad, a Christchurch native, one of the million or so New Zealanders who have found themselves scattered across the various corners of the globe, my home, for now, Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Yesterday, 15thMarch, started like any normal Friday for me – a run and breakfast, followed by a quick trawl of the websites back home. ‘Home’, it’s a strange concept living so far away. This century I have spent more time away from the plains of Canterbury, the long straight avenues of the Garden City and the parched February hills of Banks Peninsula than I have lived amongst them. But the spirit of Otautahi maintains a hold on me, the sense of home running deeper than the roots of the old-growth totara of Deans Bush.
At 7:00 AM (1:00 PM NZT) the lead stories on the web were of the climate strike and the weekend’s Super 15 games, with a measles outbreak the matter of biggest concern in Christchurch. Two hours later, at 9:00 AM, refreshing the page I was greeted by ‘breaking news’, the note brief, a report of a shooting and fatalities at a Christchurch mosque. I paused and tried to recall my ex-home town’s geography—I knew this mosque—I had run, driven and cycled past it many times, the low slung building with its tall minaret part of the city’s fabric to me.
This was just the start and through the rest of the day events unfolded like a surreal and violent movie, the stories accompanied by images that featured macabre contrasts: blood stained trousers and the lush green of Hagley Park, white bandages on dark bitumen, bronze coloured bullets across well-cut grass verges. And in the space of a few hours the city I considered quiet, conservative, a bit ‘uptight’ had joined the global ‘atrocity list’—New York, Paris, Marseille, Manchester, Pittsburgh, London—places where hate and weapons have morphed into unthinkable violence against our follow humans.
Across websites various stories spoke of a ‘lost innocence’—supported by the ‘welcome to the real world’ comments of various ‘experts’, a number who seemed unable to contain their smugness at being proven right—as if the events of the day are how life is meant to be. In my heart I am not convinced that Christchurch or New Zealand have ever been as naïve as they suggest, but rather like humans the world over, be it matters of natural disaster or acts of terror, it is only when the ground shakes or when shots are fired that the reality becomes just that – real – and we are forced to deal with the consequences. Yet there is nothing that says it has to be or remain that way. I hope people remember that.
Last evening I sat on my own and tried to make sense of what had unfolded. In between tears the occasional Cambodian friend chose to message me with questions, one asking ‘Is New Zealand a violent place?’ another querying, ‘how come it happened in New Zealand?’ Living in a country where nearly 2 million people perished during the Khmer Rouge I felt unable to reply about violence in my native home. Perhaps I could have told them about the underlying menace that I often felt on the streets of the Garden City or of the people who had threatened, back in my DJ’ing days, to put ‘burning crosses on my lawn’ because I played too much ‘black music’. But these replies seemed insufficient, just snapshots from a larger picture, a picture that will be studied more closely in the weeks and months to come.
From afar there are also things to hold precious about the last 48 hours. The bravery of the country’s police, the professionalism of its health providers, the binding of community— irrespective of race, gender or religion—in displays of compassion and a grief shared; and a PM who, when speaking to a man who has done more than most to foster hate, spoke of the need for love. From here it seems that, as Kiwis, it is only when events tear away our facades, bring us to our true selves, that we become the people we strive to show the world: open and inclusive, a people able to hug and cry in the street.
It is mid-afternoon of the day after and I can hear the chanting of monks, the sound of rosters and a wedding party down my unpaved road. It is 31oand Cambodia rural life goes on outside the window where I type. A mood of disbelief remains with me about what has happened an equator and a tropic line away. But my hope is that one-day, should I return, that the events of March 15th will not have seen Christchurch or New Zealand turn inward; that the quest to find answers and fashion responses has not been tainted by politics or knee-jerk reactions; that in answering the horror of that early autumn day the country has become stronger and better – a place where the seeds of hate, ignorance and prejudice are unable to germinate and flourish. If New Zealand and Christchurch manages this then it will have emerged from this tragedy a better place: a place that I remain proud to call ‘home’.
Otautahi, Christchurch, I am thinking of you.
As a creative enterprise writing tends to be a solitary act, leading to long hours of introspection, occasional bouts of excitement and more than one or two moments of doubt. Yet you are not alone and recent conversations have revealed just how many people are working on books here in Siem Reap. HOWL is working with partners to hold an event where budding writers – or those just interested in hearing what others are working on – can come and share their stories and learn from others. If you are interested in participating in our ‘I’m writing a book’ session please message us through our Facebook page.
HOWL needs writers. So if you have something you would like to share—be it a poem, a review, musings or a ‘word’ event—please drop us a note via our Facebook page and we will get back to you.
Welcome to our first blog
I must admit they I have always had a certain suspicion of blogs. The idea, implicit in the act, that what I write is important enough to unleash on the unsuspecting world. Or, alternatively, the exercise of having to constantly update—to write new posts, to be relevant (and what about the need for editorial prowess)—all things that take time and goodness knows there never seems to be enough of that.
But, then again, there just seems to be so many things—projects, initiatives, workshops etc.—devoted to the power, the craft, the share wonder of words and the possibilities that they offer that the time seemed right. Further, with the challenges facing the planet, from climate change and environment degradation, through to the notions of freedom, respect and dignity there appears a need, more than ever, to promote ‘words’ as a means for shining light on those things that are good, while revealing, in the corners where it often lurks, those things that are not.
Meanwhile, since its inception in the middle 2018, HOWL has been about the collectively, so there is no need for one person to write all the words. Thus this endeavour will be a shared undertaking – the democratic and inclusive output of the HOWL collective. Come and join us today and help us to celebrate the ‘word’.