February 14, 2020KR Reviews

On Dunya Mikhail’s The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq

Translated by Dunya Mikhail and Max Weiss. New York, NY: New Directions, 2018. 211 pages. $16.95.

In his 2014 critique of Here, Bullet—written by the American veteran and poet Brian Turner, and arguably one of the most lauded and reviewed texts about the Iraq War—Sinan Antoon, the Iraqi writer and critic, describes his reaction to news of Turner’s book being translated into Arabic and published in Iraq: “. . . Why the rush,” he writes, “to translate poems written by a soldier in an occupying army while we had barely begun to read . . . about how Iraqi civilians themselves had coped with and were still living the ongoing effects of that horrible war?” Almost seventeen years after the American invasion, very few texts—especially nonfiction—written by Iraqis have reached mainstream American readers.[1] Dunya Mikhail’s The Beekeeper is a much-needed exception.

Documenting the story of Abdullah Shrem, who is described in the New York Times by Deborah Campbell as “a Schindler for Iraq,” Mikhail’s work recounts dozens of stories involving Iraqi Yazidi women kidnapped and enslaved by Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) beginning in 2014. “Daesh are allowed to return and exchange women like we would something at the shopping mall,” Shrem explains to Mikhail during one of their many phone conversations. Mikhail, who is an acclaimed Iraqi-American poet and translator, learns how Shrem, a beekeeper and businessman from Sinjar, Iraq, establishes various networks—or “hives”—of smugglers to rescue some of the thousands of women kidnapped by Daesh. Often, Shrem explains, the women are bought and sold through the messaging application Telegram, and in the “sabaya market”—sabaya, or “female slaves”—which Shrem frequents in order to find women and, through various smuggling methods or by purchasing himself, help them get back to their families.

One formal feature of Mikhail’s work speaks to the remarkable challenges and obstacles she faced documenting these stories. First, the majority of what she hears occurs over the phone—Mikhail lives in Michigan. Stylistically, much of the writing simply shows Mikhail’s questions and Shrem’s lengthy, detailed answers, which sometimes go on for pages as he narrates. Other times, we read pages of dialogue written in a Q & A format to capture Mikhail’s conversations with women who have escaped Daesh. Using this feature, it seems, Mikhail intends for us to feel both the immediacy of the stories and, as best as she can, the actual voices of Shrem and the women themselves. Second, although we are “hearing” these stories, often word for word like Mikhail does, the language barriers we move through suggest the tremendous translation work to make this happen; in one early scene, Mikhail recounts a Yazidi woman’s story for us in English, but only after the woman’s cousin has translated it for Mikhail—all while over the phone—from Kurdish into Arabic. Third, Shrem frequently hangs up since he’s often driving through various parts of northern Iraq and juggling what seems to be constant incoming calls from other smugglers, distraught family members, and women trying to escape. While inside a Michigan grocery store, Mikhail says, “I was putting an orange in my shopping bag when Abdullah called.” Mikhail promptly leaves her shopping cart, along with other items, and, within seconds, listens to Shrem recount helping “another escaped woman on the run” and how “the man who raped her also got her pregnant.” This juxtaposition—the mundanity of buying American grocery store fruit while a modern-day “Schindler” calls from 6,000 miles away to discuss these details—is jarring, often overwhelming, but it speaks, I think, to the larger layers, literal and metaphorical, between Americans and these wars. Perhaps we would have preferred to keep shopping for more oranges. Mikhail rattles us from complacency.

Another detail Mikhail emphasizes is the significant role contemporary technology plays in maintaining the “hives” of communication: “All those numbers were saved in her cell phone, which they’d taken from her,” Shrem says as he tells the story of a woman named Zuhour. After she’s sold with her children from one Daesh man to another, Zuhour escapes and hides with a local seamstress. After two months, Zuhour and the seamstress dial random numbers of families in Kurdistan; they speak to someone who gets ahold of Zuhour’s family, and things happen quickly: her uncle calls, her family gets ahold of Shrem, and within minutes, Shrem calls Zuhour to arrange “a taxi that will be waiting” two days later. In short, each escape is dangerously risky, complicated, and often involves dozens of phone calls. In another moment, a woman is saved after her uncle contacts Shrem on WhatsApp; a woman named Kamy is helped when a local man brings her a new SIM card for her phone (though, later, he is punished for this deed when a Daeshi man cuts off his hands); in a more memorable moment, after Shrem arranges a woman’s escape, he blocks the number of a Daeshi man texting him about her whereabouts.

By far, the most crucial aspect of Mikhail’s project is her commitment to document, without euphemism, the many marginalized voices of civilians—regardless if they’re Iraqi Christian, Iraqi Yazidi, Iraqi Muslim—and their lives in the chaos of Daesh-controlled towns in the aftermath of the war. Shrem describes a horrible, yet typical, account of what happens when Daesh divides up women, children, men, and elderly: “. . . the Daeshis dumped dozens of men into pits, then opened fire on them.” I lost track of how many times characters observed mass graves. At one point, Shrem even relays a story of Daesh burying the elderly alive. When Mikhail visits Iraq in 2016, one man she interviews, Sa’eed, is left for dead after being shot in a mass grave but survives his wounds (remarkably, Sa’eed’s sister, Nadia Murad, would later escape Daesh and win a 2018 Nobel Peace Prize).[2] However, most stories don’t end like this. The book closes with Jamila’s story: she escapes Daesh after two years and commits suicide when she finds that her husband has remarried.

During the Stalin regime, as the poet Anna Akhmatova waits in line outside a Leningrad prison to get word about her son, a woman “with lips blue from the cold” asks Akhmatova, “Can you describe this?” Akhmatova, as it’s well-known, says “I can.” In The Beekeeper, early in the book, after Mikhail asks Shrem what she can do to help, he responds, “The best thing you can do is write about our suffering.” Across many time zones, over countless cell phone calls, through layers of language, Mikhail delivers with clarity and boldness. In the same conversation, almost seconds later, Shrem says—before he abruptly hangs up again—“Can you hear that ringing? Someone’s calling right now.”


[1] For further reading: The War Works Hard by Dunya Mikhail; Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation by Amal al-Jubouri; City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman’s Account of War and Resistance by Haifa Zangana; Flowers of Flame: Unheard Voices of Iraq edited by Sadek Mohammed, Soheil Najm, Haider al-Kabi, Dan Veach; The Girl Who Escaped ISIS by Farida Khalaf. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi. The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon. The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim. Baghdad Burning by Riverbend.

[2] See The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State by Nadia Murad.