by Dunya Mikhail
“In action movies, fires are started, walls crumble down all at once, planets shake, birds fly off the trees. But we weren’t in a movie when we saw all that happen. This was our reality.”
The Beekeeper of Sinjar is the true story of Abdullah Sharem, an Iraqi beekeeper who saved the lives of Yazidi women sold into slavery by the Muslim fundamentalists known as Daesh, or Islamic State.
Sinjar is a town in the Nineveh Province of Iraq, close to Mount Shingal. We in the west were mostly ignorant of the region until stories emerged of al-Qaeda causing several explosions there in 2007, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Yazidis (its endogamous, Kurdish-speaking population, whose religion is Yazidism – a combination of several monotheistic beliefs). Seven years later, Daesh (sometimes known as ISIL or ISIS) seized the township and coldly slaughtered 3,000 elderly and male Yazidis, dumping their bodies in mass graves, then forced the women to become sex slaves. This led to the mass exodus of a people who had inhabited the area for thousands of years.
Dunya Mikhail, a celebrated Iraqi-Assyrian poet and journalist from Baghdad, who was forced to flee her homeland during the rule of Saddam Hussein (she now lives and teaches in the USA), has gathered in her book an extraordinary collection of first-person narratives directly from those who survived these horrendous ordeals, and also from their rescuers.
Mikhail begins by thanking the “women who escaped the clutches of Daesh […] for their willingness to speak about the details of their suffering, despite the fact that deep wounds don’t speak, they can only be felt.” She had been fortunate to befriend Abdullah, the apiarist who had traded in honey until Daesh seized his relatives, after which he devoted his every waking moment to finding them. As a consequence, others turned to him for assistance in seeking their missing family members. Because of his many business relationships and detailed knowledge of the roads, he rapidly developed a wide network of contacts willing to risk their lives helping him. He succeeded in rescuing many women against all odds from their brutal captors.
“I used to have a huge garden in Sinjar where I would tend to the beehives for hours on end,” he tells Mikhail. “The movements of the queen bee […], her superior flying abilities compared to the males amazed me, made me profoundly appreciate all the women in my life.” After comparing humankind with his colony of bees, he goes on to say: “In our society women work and sacrifice for others without getting what they deserve. Women are oppressed even outside the world of Daesh, which has nothing whatsoever to do with rational […] life.”
Abdullah is a profoundly humane and likeable character, and without him Mikhail could not have written this book. He put her directly in touch with many brutalized victims, some of whom spoke to her personally of their remarkable escapes from these violent, frequently drugged fighters with their twisted ideologies.
The Beekeeper of Sinjar isn’t an easy read but it is often moving and inspirational. It is also vital, I feel, that we as readers bear witness to atrocities of this sort in order to prevent them from happening again.
Many thanks to Serpent’s Tail for providing an advance review copy of this title.
Categories: Translated Literature
What a powerful, necessary story. I’ll definitely look for this on publication – thank you for putting it on my radar Paula!
You’re very welcome, Madame B.
A very important book although would be too much for me. But thank you for reading and sharing about it.
It makes difficult reading at times, but for all that, I’m glad I stuck with it.
The more I hear about this book, the more I want to read it. Difficult stories must be told. Thank you for this review.
I think you’ll find it worthwhile, though obviously upsetting at times.
This sounds like such an important book and one that needs to be talked about more. Thank you for reviewing this book, I have put it on my own TBR on GoodReads to hopefully read and review in the future.
I’m so pleased to hear you’ve added it to your TBR list, Grey.
I’m glad you found this book noteworthy, Paula. I have been looking forward to your thoughts on it. I agree that we have to bear witness to these sorts of things. We have to acknowledge that they happened/are happening. So many atrocities like this go by unacknowledged. Thanks for another beautifully-written review.
You wonder from where people find the strength to survive such terrible experiences, Jennifer. I never cease to be shocked by the abominations of which humans are capable, but I’m equally inspired by the lengths others will go to in order to help one another. It’s a funny old world.
Fantastic review! I’ve been wondering about this one, it seems so intense but I love the idea behind it, of these women being able to tell their stories. And of what he’s done for so many people despite the danger of that regime. May have to pick this one up! Loved reading your thoughts on it.
Thank you so much, Rennie. It’s a distressing but nevertheless worthwhile read.
I read No Refuge for Women by Maria von Welser, which features the narrative of the women (including Yazidis) in refugee camps. So important, and so harrowing–I had to read the book in small installments.
Thank you, Niranjana. I must look out for that Maria von Weser title. I can understand why you would read a book of this sort in small installments. Sometimes it’s simply too much to take on board.
I have been wanting to read this book for so long! Your review has made it sound even better. Can’t wait to get my hands on a copy it sounds very eye-opening and inspiring.
Yes, it is definitely both eye-opening and inspiring, Katie. It’s well worth the effort if you can bring yourself to read it.
My dad and I were just talking about this incident the other day (he’s a journalist who wrote about this at the time). I know vey little about it myself, so definitely want to read this book.
It tells the stories from the point of view of the Yazidis, which makes the narrative really powerful. Did your dad go over to Iraq, Laura?
IIRC, not at this time, but he had reported previously from Iraq as a foreign correspondent.
You’re right– stories like this need to be told and read so we don’t lose these amazing stories of resistance. This sounds like a difficult book to read. Did this mean you read slower than usual?
I’m glad you agree, Jackie. Well, I’m not a particularly fast reader at the best of times, but I certainly found myself putting it to one side more frequently than is usual. I tended to pick up another book until I felt ready to continue.
I’ve done that with a few books in my day. That’s a great technique to clear your mind and make some emotional and mental space for tough topics. I’m glad to hear that worked for you?
This book sounds so good. Lovely review.
Thank you, Martie! ☺️
I attempted to read this twice and I like to think of myself as a pretty stoic reader – but I had to take a break. I’m not confident I’ll ever get back to this.
Thanks for your comment, MC. It certainly isn’t an any easy book to read (I kept having to put it to one side), but it is moving and in many ways inspiring. However, I fully understand why you are having difficulties picking it up again – it’s harrowing in parts.