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.