In The Beekeeper of Sinjar, the acclaimed poet and journalist Dunya Mikhail tells the harrowing stories of women from across Iraq who have managed to escape the clutches of ISIS. Since 2014, ISIS has been persecuting the Yazidi people, killing or enslaving those who won’t convert to Islam. These women have lost their families and loved ones, along with everything they’ve ever known. Dunya Mikhail weaves together the women’s tales of endurance and near-impossible escape with the story of her own exile and her dreams for the future of Iraq.
In the midst of ISIS’s reign of terror and hatred, an unlikely hero has emerged: the Beekeeper. Once a trader selling his mountain honey across the region, when ISIS came to Sinjar he turned his knowledge of the local terrain to another, more dangerous use. Along with a secret network of transporters, helpers, and former bootleggers, Abdullah Shrem smuggles brutalised Yazidi women to safety through the war-torn landscapes of Iraq, Syria, and Eastern Turkey.
Photo credit: Nina Subin
Dunya Mikhail was born in Iraq (Baghdad) and came to the United States thirty years later. She’s renowned for her subversive, innovative, and satirical poetry. After graduation from the University of Baghdad, she worked as a journalist and translator for the Baghdad Observer. Facing censorship and interrogation, she left Iraq, first to Jordan and then to America (Detroit). Her first book in English The War Works Hard (translated by Elizabeth Winslow) was shortlisted for Griffin and named one of “Twenty-Five Books to Remember from 2005” by the New York Public Library. Diary of A Wave Outside the Sea won the Arab American Book Award.
Q and A
What made you write this story?
As a woman, I felt so insulted to hear that a market was open for buying and selling women. They called it “souk al-sabaya” meaning “female slaves market.” I made contacts with friends and relatives back home asking them what on earth was going on. I learned that thousands of men were killed and thousands of women and children were taken as spoils of war. People were marching in a long caravan, some with elderly people on their backs, kicking up the dust behind them because Daesh came, their black flags on the carts of the caliphate. It was the summer of 2014 and I was in a break from my teaching job but I couldn’t relax nor could I mind my own business. I kept following up day and night. A few months later, I heard that some women escaped the grip of Daesh. When I listened to them, I wished that the whole world would come and listen with me. That’s why I wrote this book. Their stories didn’t kill me but I would die if I didn’t tell them to you.
We have heard terrible things about the fate of the Yazidis, in your opinion will their culture survive?
The Yazidis are the keepers of the Mesopotamian rituals and I personally found them so attached to the land. They have been the most vulnerable and the most persecuted throughout history. I don’t blame them if they lost trust in the world after the catastrophe of 2014 when they needed protection, needed it so much, and only the stones of their mountain responded to their plight. But their resilience is phenomenal. At Lalish (the temple which is considered the heart of the world for the Yazidis), they gathered to celebrate their new year (which is in April) by lighting 365 lanterns to usher with light and give hope to each day in the new year.
You are a poet, how has writing poetry helped you in your life?
In my opinion, poetry is so useless and so influential at the same time. It’s something similar to the trace of the butterfly, delicate but powerful. The readers immigrate to our poetry and we welcome them. What excites me the most is how a poem opens a space of discovery for me and then it expands into the meanings added by the active readings of others. With poetry, we are connected not only to the people we love but to strangers, to everyone.
‘A pessimist is sometimes an optimist with more information’- how do you feel about this in relation to Iraq today?
There’s always a possibility that things may not turn out as planned. This thinking is logical when your life is not planned by you as an individual but by the urgent rules of government during the times of war. Hard experiences, however, are not without benefits. They make you more creative in finding opportunities and more appreciative of the ordinary. After all, pain is like air; it’s everywhere. But everyone thinks their pain hurt the most.