Poet Dunya Mikhail, a US resident originally from Iraq, writes in The Beekeeper about the escape stories of women from that country, fleeing the Islamic State/Daesh, made possible by the eponymous beekeeper of Sinjar province. The women were Yazidis, an ethnic minority heavily targeted by IS from a region outside of Mosul. In a place where many were suffering terribly under the war and IS control, Yazidi women were captured and held or repeatedly sold as sex slaves, facing a uniquely terrifying experience.
I cultivated a hive of transporters and smugglers from both sexes to save our queens, the ones Daeshis call sabaya, sex slaves. We worked like in a beehive, with extreme care and well-planned initiatives.
Abdullah Shrem used the money he earned from selling honey in Iraq and Syria to fund his rescue operation. He relied on a network of brave others, including escaped Yazidis and sympathetic Arabs, to conduct the women safely from their captivity in the homes of IS fighters to territory beyond Daesh’s immediate control. Mikhail conducted a series of phone interviews, hearing the beekeeper tell these stories in detail, and eventually traveled to Iraq to meet him. The result has an oral history-esque feeling.
Although the women’s stories are astonishing — harrowing, heartrending, everything you would expect knowing what we know about the regime and its brutal treatment — the book itself is disorienting. She allows for context when Abdullah or the women are laying out their backgrounds, and she hints at bits and pieces of her own story, but it’s all hazy and ephemeral. There’s very little connectivity or background around how the author came to know Abdullah, and although she offers glimpses of her family’s past in Baghdad, they’re fleeting.
The mirror on the wall / doesn’t show any of the faces / that used to pass / in front of it.
We gather that she’s a poet, both because of the poetic tone in her prose that comes across even in translation, and when she finally discusses her poetry writing after interspersing snippets of it throughout the parts of the text written from her perspective. Her poetry is lovely, but I’m only assuming it’s hers as these specific lines are never directly addressed.
But thanks to her writing style, this is always moving to read even if I wasn’t getting the entire story I was curious about: “Their fingerprints on the doorknobs, their fingerprints on those little things like a watch that can tell you the time but can’t tell you when her time was up, when her heart stopped — what time it was when it didn’t matter anymore what time it was.”
It’s entirely worth reading to absorb something of these women’s experiences. Sometimes they relate their narratives so straightforwardly that they’re made even scarier. There’s also the unexpected sadness that accompanied freedom, and the difficulty reintegrating into their former lives and Yazidi society after what they’ve been through.
Mikhail draws several comparisons to Scheherazade, the famous storyteller of the Arabian Nights, who told stories night after night to keep herself alive. The stories that Abdullah tells could easily have the opposite result under Daesh’s harsh control, and his bravery is truly remarkable. He’s humble and casual about it, almost surprisingly so, considering the potential consequences. By letting him speak so much in his own words, Mikhail lets something of his personality come across too, and it’s clear that he’s simply doing what he knew was necessary.
Although his rescue endeavour is extraordinarily brave, and we meet other figures who risked their lives to help, this is not an uplifting book. It’s the reality of it — that even when you survive such unimaginable events you don’t just leave it all in the past, even if you escape with your life. Trauma lingers, and we see it play out again and again in these survivors. Difficult as these stories are to know, it’s important to bear witness. It can be hard to fathom the choices and emotions others are faced with in times that we’re living through right now, in comparative safety. As one person explains to the author, “The best thing you can do is write about our suffering.” An important book, undeniably, but one that also feels somewhat incomplete. 3/5
The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq
by Dunya Mikhail
translated from Arabic by Max Weiss
published March 2018