In 2015, an image of a little boy lying face-down on a Turkish beach, who had attempted to flee the war between the Assad regime and ISIS, went viral in the midst of roiling debates over immigration policy. Then we elected a president who campaigned on closing our nation’s doors to refugees and Americans moved on.
Dunya Mikhail, an Iraqi exile and one of the foremost poets of our time, has not. In The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, Mikhail memorializes three-year old Alan Kurdi:
"On the Turkish shore,
A calm beautiful graceful child is on his stomach
The wave caresses his tiny corpse
He doesn’t seem to protest our ridiculousness,
Though his face turned away from us,
From our lives overturned like a rusty boat."
Mikhail’s book serves as testimony for the victims of ISIS (known in the region as Daesh) who have been brutalized physically and psychologically. Giving voice to the voiceless, she devotes much of "The Beekeeper" to transcribing the stories of the Yazidi women of northern Iraq who have been driven from their homes, sold into sexual slavery, and yet, remarkably, survived. At the heart of the book is the beekeeper Abdullah Shrem, who abandoned his beloved bees to dedicate himself to locating these women and children and transporting them to safety, risking his life daily.
Everyday heroes populate this landscape, many of them Muslim – that is, regular observant Muslims, not the twisted fundamentalist version that Daesh promulgates. One seamstress hides a woman fleeing Daesh, along with her infant son and two daughters, until they can escape to safety. When another victim tries to pay a taxi driver who ferried her home, he responds, “The world isn’t that rotten. Go on, I don’t want anything.” An expectant mother, hearing of Daesh’s invasion of her village, orders her husband to take their four children up the mountain, while she stays behind, hiding in the sheep pen. When he returns days later, he finds her calmly nursing the newborn she delivered on her own.
I found myself thinking of the “righteous gentiles,” ordinary people who took extraordinary risks to hide Jews during the Holocaust. Mikhail draws out historical parallels as well in displacement resulting from ethnic cleansing, whether in the persecution of Jews, Christians, or Muslims (see Myanmar). Hauntingly, she recalls her grandmother’s best friend, driven out of Baghdad after the Farhud, a pogrom in 1941 when Jews from communities established since the sixth century were murdered during two days of riots.
As disturbing is Daesh’s exploitation of children. Children barely more than toddlers are forced to manufacture bombs, while boys in Daesh camps are indoctrinated in violence and fundamentalist doctrines. A bus full of girls will be “used for [sexual] service” or sold for their organs.
Yet. A girl jumping rope suggests the promise of emancipation. A man who adopted a sparrow leads Mikhail to a sacred spring of water deep in a cave, reminding us that tenderness still exists. This is the balance Mikhail strikes in her book, which bears unflinching witness to a world of brutality, even as it testifies to acts of generosity, courage and grace.
When Mikhail pauses to reflect on her own experience, she captures the idiosyncratic grace of the world around her, showing herself an acute observer of its oddities and beauty. Birds in Michigan sing so loudly that the beekeeper, Abdullah, hears them through her phone. In a tone reminiscent of Annie Dillard’s writings on God and nature, she muses on a “chirp” discovered by scientists (from colliding black holes, I read elsewhere) wondering why God “broke his silence,” or recalls a favorite book that taught her, “When a group of elephants faces danger … the rest of the elephants will leave the area in protest.”
Yet with Mikhail, there is always the echo of exile. Books she left in Iraq were eventually used by an enterprising relative to wrap sandwiches. The daffodil, customary for Yazidis to give as gifts, “shrinks away when strong rains fall,” but blooms again when the sun returns, a metaphor, she hopes, for Kurdistan. She is filled with wonder as the refugees in a camp she visits offer her food and drink. “We have to offer you something,” they say, so deeply imbued is their “spirit of hospitality.”
What do we owe each other – one thinks of the cab driver waiving away payment – and what can we offer? Just after her poem memorializing the small refugee boy who washed ashore, Mikhail addresses her readers directly: “The remote control is in your hand.” Her book compels us to listen to these voices and not change the channel. It compels us to open our doors wider to refugees.