What Comes With The Dust by Gharbi M Mustafa

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  This is the first time I’ve come across a novel about the Yazidi genocide of 2014.  Thousands of men who refused to convert to Islam were murdered, thousands of women and girls were taken into sex slavery, and many young boys were forced to become child soldiers.  Despite the wonderful work of Nadia Murad and Amal Clooney, little’s been done to try to bring the perpetrators to justice, and around 3,000 women and girls are still missing.

This actually isn’t a very good book – the main character makes so many unlikely escapes that even the author mentions James Bond, someone is murdered with an overdose of Viagra, and another character apparently has a rare blood subtype shared by only around 40 people in the world – but it’s worth reading because of the subject matter.  It also contains some interesting information about Yazidi culture, and explains why Yazidi religious beliefs have long been misunderstood.

The main character’s a young woman called Nazo, who’s been betrothed to a cousin, wants to marry someone else, and has a secret admirer called Omed.  The Yazidi people live in small communities in NE Iraq, NE Syria and SE Turkey, but mainly in NE Iraq, in the Mount Sinyor area, where most of their holy sites are, and that’s where Nazo’s village is – and it’s where the genocide occurred.  When IS attack, she and her 11-year-old deaf-mute sister Sarah are taken as slaves.  Her lover’s murdered, but Omed manages to escape.

And then we see how Nazo and many other women are sold or given to IS fighters, or to any other men who’ll pay for them, or put into a pool of women for men to take and rape.  Her series of dramatic escapes isn’t really very likely, but that shouldn’t detract from the depiction of the horrors that Yazidi women and girls were put through.  This wasn’t the Trojan War: this was Iraq in 2014.  This happened.

Meanwhile, Omed manages to reach a Kurdish-controlled area of Syria, where he and other Yazidi refugees join the fight against IS, alongside the Peshmerga (the forces of Iraqi Kurds).  He meets and marries a female Yazidi fighter called Soz, the sister of a woman whom Nazo had earlier befriended but seen murdered.  Then Omed is killed too, by someone who’d been at school with Soz – as happened in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, we hear about how people turned against former friends and neighbours.

Naz and Soz eventually both start new lives in Germany.  But many Yazidi women enslaved by IS are still missing, or have returned to their villages but been unable to reintegrate into their communities because they were raped, and, in many cases, bore children as a result of rape.  There doesn’t seem to be much support available for them, and, although the Pope’s brave visit to Iraq recently brought events there back into the news, what happened has fallen a long way from the forefront of international attention.

This isn’t a great book, as I said, but it’s a story that needs to be read.

Arabia with Levison Wood – Discovery

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“Arabia” – a region which used to be associated with dashing explorers and adventurers, Scheherezade’s stories and magic carpets. Iraq – all the history of Mesopotamia, Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Ur and Nineveh. I was really hoping that this programme would get beyond the image of the Middle East as a place that’s all about conflict and terrorism, and show us its history and cultures. Even a few falafels and a bit of oud music would have been a start. Instead, most of what we got was close-up coverage of the war against Islamic State. We see that on the news all the time: I really didn’t need to see it here too.  It was very interesting, although for some reason it made absolutely no mention of the Yazidis or the Assyrians; but it was nearly all about war, and there’s so much more to the Middle East than that.

This first episode started off in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, close to the border with Syria, with the team being stopped from crossing the border into “federal Iraq” as tensions rose due to a referendum on Kurdish independence. The West let the Kurds down very badly after the First World War, and again after the Gulf War of 1990/91. The vast majority of people in Iraqi Kurdistan want independence, and that’s without even starting to talk about the Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere; but it’s not happening. I’d like to have heard more about Kurdish history and culture, but instead it felt more like an Indiana Jones film, with Levison & co making a dramatic dash to get to another border crossing before it closed for the night.  Very action movie, but not very informative.

Their next stop was Mosul. They stayed in a military safehouse – and took a taxi to the front line of the war against Islamic State. As you do. What we did see was very interesting – and very distressing, as we learnt that a man whom Levison interviewed had been killed by Islamic State only a week later, and heard a woman describing about how she’d been separated from her baby several months earlier and hadn’t seen him since. But there was no reference at all to what had been done to the Yazidis and the Assyrians, and, although we saw the horrific destruction wrought by the bombings, we didn’t hear about the damage done to historic/cultural sites – we were just shown piles of rubble. It didn’t even mention that Mosul was on the site of Nineveh – OK, whether or not people believe stories about blokes being thrown off ships and eaten by whales is up to them, but the point is that this is a city so ancient that it’s mentioned in the Old Testament.  Surely that merited at least a quick name check?

Obviously I’m not saying that a legend from thousands of years ago is more important than the terrible suffering of people today, but some background information and context would have been nice. It sometimes felt that the main aim of the programme was to be daring. Getting to the front line of the war against Islamic State. In a taxi!

Not that far from the devastated centre of Mosul, we saw shops and cafes – but we didn’t get to see any Iraqi cuisine. One good point that was made was that there were no women around, only men. That said a lot.

Then on to Baghdad. Things seemed pretty normal there, but all we got was people sitting around and talking about war – nothing about the traditions and lifestyles and history.  We did get to see Saddam Hussein’s bunker, though. But nothing about the city’s incredible history as a centre of learning and culture.  And not a falafel in sight.

The best bit actually came at the end, when Levison visited the marshlands in southern Iraq. He didn’t even mention that this was literally by the rivers of Babylon, though. Even if you’re not into either history or religion, or indeed Boney M, surely you’d mention the fact that you were by the rivers of Babylon?! Apparently not.

I well remember hearing about the Marsh Arabs back in 1991, but, as public attention moved away from Iraq after the war, I don’t think we really heard much about how Saddam Hussein ordered the marshes to be drained, displacing many of the Marsh Arabs and doing horrific damage to the ecosystem. It was good to see that things are looking up now, and to hear interviews with both men and women involved in traditional work in the marshlands. This was more the sort of thing I’d been hoping for.

Next week’s episode will include Yemen, and I very much hope that it might bring some attention to a tragically under-reported conflict – but I’m also hoping to hear more about the people of the places visited, and not just the politics.  Maybe it’s not as dramatic as mad dashes for border crossings, but I think we hear enough drama where the Middle East’s concerned!  Let’s hear about other things as well.