Reading Dunya Mikhail’s New Book on Daesh’s Survivors
By Hend Saeed
“Staying alive doesn’t mean your survival (staying alive doesn’t mean surviving in its complete sense). What does life mean when the catastrophe survives with you? And if you survive alone? That is the worst kind of surviving.”
Although, in this new book, Dunya Mikhail moves away from poetry to tell us real-life stories, she couldn’t escape her poetic style, which helped to ease the subject and its brutal reality for readers, as though she knew that otherwise readers would not be able to take it all in.
In the beginning of the book, Mikhail thanks the women who survived, the wounded people who came back to tell their stories, the people in the camps, and Abdullah, the book’s hero.
Mikhail reflects that, while teaching her American students the letter noon ن in Arabic, she wondered whether she can tell her students how this letter is now written by ISIS fighters on the doors of Christian people, threatening them that they must leave their homes within 24 hours or be killed. Yet Mikhail says none of this to her students. Instead, she continues the class by giving examples of words with the letter.
For a year, Abdullah, who I like to call Warrior or Angel, told the author stories about how he helped women and young girls to escape, and later he helped Mikhail talk to some of them. Abdullah was a beekeeper before he became a warrior, and while trying to save his niece he ended up saving other women. “Every day I save one, I save a queen, those who ISIS call slaves.”
Through Abdullah and the women and children who tell their stories, we learn that, although there is nothing normal in what Daesh does, there is a routine in their work. They separate out men and old women, and sometimes the grandchildren who don’t want to leave their sides. Young mothers with children and unmarried girls go the other side.
Men and old women, sometimes with the children, are shot and thrown into a hole. Others are segregated according to their prices. Unmarried girls get a higher price, while the married women with children will fetch a lower price.
The woman is called sabiya (enslaved woman) when they take her, and, in their eyes, she becomes a pure Muslim after they rape her. Following that, she becomes a slave.
Abdullah tells Mikhail about the slave market that operates at a certain time every day. They post photos of women or girls for sale, calling them sabaya 1 or 2, and dressing them in modern clothes, not covered in black, so they will appeal to men. Sometimes, they have a Quran recitation competition, and the winner gets a enslaved woman.
All the stories shared in the book are extremely heartbreaking, but there is one in particular that I cannot forget.
The stories of girls and women
It’s the story of Nazik, a nine-year-old girl who found herself alone with Abu Saiaf, an old man who bought her family but decided to sell her mother, brothers, and sister. She saw her mother brutally beaten by Abu Saiaf when she found out that he was keeping Nazik with him. She found herself alone with this horrible, violent man, managing to run away when he went to sleep. She sprinted through the streets with no aim and nowhere to go until she was very tired, and she fell asleep beside a house. A poor family found her and fed her until the father of the family managed to arrange for her escape to Abdullah.
Nazik’s father, who was shot and thrown into a hole, survived and reached a refugee camp, and Abdullah managed to reunite the two. It seems like a positive story of survival, but have they really survived?
In another anecdote, Reem lives with her father, who recently joined Daesh. She spends her days tailoring clothes for other women, and she is protected by her father. When Zuhoor and her children run away from their captor, she asks Reem for help. Reem is able to hide Zuhoor and her children from her father, keeping them in the storage room until they managed to arrange for their escape. Tempted to go with Zuhoor, Reem decided not to in the end.
Badia’a, meanwhile, found tricks to help her escape rape by Daesh fighters, but that didn’t last long. Badia’a was captured with her nephew and another woman. She thought of five tricks to avoid get raped, including not showering, saying she was married — as the men prefer virgins — and saying she was pregnant. When she tried to run away, her excuse was that she had gone out for a walk. And if they asked why she wanted to make a phone call, she planned to say it was only to call her “owner.”
But the “American prince” who bought Badia’a ordered her to have a shower and take a pregnancy test. He raped her that night. To save his face, he told her she could keep the boy she’d claimed was hers, her nephew, but not to tell anyone.
The “American prince” had a wife and a child in America, and he visited them. He told Badia’a how he became a good Muslim, and by being his slave she could be a good Muslim as well: “By me touching you, you will be clean and go to heaven. My touch is a prayer.”
Memories of another Iraq
In another part of the book, Mikhail tells us her memories of these places, and the beauty of these villages. We also hear from Abdullah about cities such as Sinjar, Kujn, and Kajo.
Mikhail remembers times and places at seeming random: “Friday trips to the funfair city, the dress she hated because it was more elegant than it should be, the blacklisted books that were dressed with popular book jacket on al-Mutannabi Street, and the chickpeas trolleys.” Her descriptions take you back to these places with a different life and a happier people.
In Zakou, they celebrate spring in April by hanging red anemone flowers on the doors, believing that this will keep evil away. The secret of this flower is that it gets smaller when the heavy rains come, and opens again when the sun shines. We wonder if Kurdistan is like Narcissus: withdrawn for a while, but will come back to life again.
Abdulla tells her about the gobj bird, a poplar bird in Kurdistan. When this bird sings, the hunters forget themselves and follow the bird, leaving everything behind.
She remembers her grandmother’s stories, and particularly when they slept outside on the roof. In one of Mikhail’s poetry collections, the author writes about her grandmother. “My Grandmother’s Grave,” begins, in Mikhail’s translation:
My Grandmother’s Grave
When my grandmother died
I thought, “She can’t die again.”
Everything in her life
happened once and forever:
her bed on our roof,
the battle of good and evil in her tales,
her black clothes,
her mourning for her daughter who
“was killed by headaches,”
the rosary beads and her murmur,
“Forgive us our sins,”
her empty vase from the Ottoman time,
her braid, each hair a history —
First were the Sumerians,
their dreams inscribed in clay tablets.
They drew palms, so dates ripen before their sorrows.
They drew an eye to chase evil
away from their city.
They drew circles and prayed for them:
a drop of water
a wheel spinning faster than Earth.
They begged: “Oh gods, don’t die and leave us alone.”
Twenty years after leaving her country, the author decides to visit the north of Iraq. Once, this was considered a summer resort area. Now, Mikhail goes back to meet the survivors and visit the mass graves.
Her first stop is a Yazidi temple.
She tell us about her visit: “The temple looks small from outside but, when you walk in, it opens its walls. We enter with bare feet as everyone does, and our feet walk on 400-year-old stones. As we walk inside this mountain, another world between reality and myth opens before us. The mountain strait that is surrounded by three mountains opens slowly, with all it an give, generous like its people. And sometimes it closes on itself, like the Yazidi religion. For them, doorsteps can’t be trod on: You have to cross over them.”
The book asks: Will those women, men, and children ever have their lives back? How can they recover from this brutality? And if their bodies recover, will their souls do the same?
Hend Saeed loves books and has a special interest in Arabic literature. She has published a collection of short stories and currently works as Arabic Program Manager at the Emirates Literature Foundation. She’s also an mBraining Coach and book reviewer.
Translations are by Hend Saeed unless otherwise noted.