By Weam Namou
As a tribute to Baghdad booksellers, the Mesopotamian Forum for Arts and Culture hosted an event Friday, February 24 at Ryan Palace, entitled Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here. This ongoing yearly project was started in 2014 by several nationwide nonprofit organizations. Over the years, the event has drawn hundreds of artists, writers, and poets who pay individual tribute in memory of the victims of the car-bombing in the terrorist attack against the literary district of Mutanabbi Street in 2007.
The event honored award-winning poet Dunya Mikhail, who recently published her fourth book, The Sex Slave Market. The book is about a Yazidi beekeeper, Abd-Allah, who helped rescue women captured by the Islamic State. This is Mikhail’s first nonfiction book. The idea for the story came to her while she was teaching an Arabic class at Oakland University, where she is a lecturer.
“The day the Arabic letter ‘nun’ came up, I remembered seeing it written on peoples’ doors where they had lived more than 1400 years ago and where they had to leave their houses within 24-hours,” she said. “I wondered whether I should tell the students about this letter or not.”
For Mikhail, this letter brought forth images of the Islamic State destroying the land of her Chaldean ancestors, important historical monuments, and even the graves.
“I felt I wanted to do more about this subject,” she said.
She considered doing a long poem but when she saw the Yazidi women and their families flee from the Islamic State as if it was “The day of resurrection,” she suddenly wanted to speak to someone Yazidi. She contacted a friend and eventually attained a list of phone numbers. The first number she called, she received no answer. The second number she called, someone answered in Kurdish and then the line got disconnected. The third number she called, a man answered in Arabic. Mikhail asked to talk to Nadia. He said, “She’s not here, but you can call her later.”
When Mikhail got a hold of her, the man she had talked to, translated Nadia’s story. Through the conversation, Nadia told Mikhail, “Abd-Allah rescued me.”
“Who’s Abd-Allah?” Mikhail asked.
“The man you’re speaking to,” she said, triggering Mikhail’s journalism background. She became curious to learn more about this man and discovered that Abd-Allah, a beekeeper by trade, had lost 56 people to the Islamic State. In an attempt to rescue his own niece, he ended up rescuing a number of women who were Yazidi, Christian, and even Muslim. When she first spoke to him two years ago, he had saved 70 women. Now, the number is 312.
“Every time I save a woman, I save a sister,” he told Mikhail.
For a year, they talked on the phone, and with each call, the line would cut off 10 to 20 times.
“With every phone ring coming through, I knew it was a woman seeking help,” said Mikhail.
His phone rings nonstop, even during sleeping hours. Someone once asked him, “Why don’t you turn off your phone so you can sleep?”
“How can I sleep if I turn off my phone?” he responded.
Mikhail ended up going to Iraq in the summer and met Abd-Allah in person. She learned that not only did he save women, but he also adopted a number of children whose parents were killed by the Islamic State.
“I wondered, how did this man go from looking after beehives to rescuing women?” she said.
He told her that, looking back, the foundational skills as a beekeeper helped him with his new work which he’d never imagined he’d be doing.
Mikhail also met with some of the women who Abd-Allah rescued, like Tarween, sold at a low price because she was mute and, therefore, considered handicap. Tarween described the awful conditions she lived under, where everyone including the kidnappers’ wives wore black, and how she was raped, beaten and sold ten times. In her book, Mikhail also includes accounts of how the men – fathers, brothers, husbands – of these women were victimized as a result of the Islamic State’s cruelty.
During the event, three literary critics discussed Mikhail’s book. Dr. Aziz Al-Tamimi felt that Mikhail leaped over her poetry and, using multi-genre – narrative, reportage, and storytelling – did a fantastic job in describing the atrocities happening in Mesopotamia.
Hatam Al-Sager, an author and award-winning literary critic who wrote an essay about The Sex Slave Market in Al-Hayat newspaper, joined the event through a live video. He said, “Dunya pours her heart, blood, sadness, and compassion into these stories.”
Ala Faik noted how the author, through beautiful and humanitarian language, tells the story of a beekeeper that feels he needs to protect and take care of women, treating them like queens.
“The Islamic State is the bees and the honey is the women who are taken away in horrific ways,” said Faik. “The beekeeper is trying to collect the honey for the welfare of the country.”
He used this as a metaphor, that bees sting and can hurt people. They stung the sweetness of Iraq. After the lecture, activist Kamal Al-Saedi stood and asked, “Who are the bees?” Another audience member responded, “The Saudis.”
Mikhail reminded everyone that she wrote the book as a literary project, not a political statement.