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It’s the Northern summer of 2014. Most teenage girls in the West are planning beach holidays, buying swimwear, nagging their parents about sleepovers or signing application forms to work at McDonald’s and KFC. But it’s not like that everywhere. Elsewhere a ground swell of jihadi rebellion swirls like a tempest above a mountain. Spurred on by the publicity around Al Qaeda and the success of the Arab Spring it forms into its own self-styled “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL or ISIS) and unlike the many other similar groups, it is amassing unstoppable support and undeniable power to do immense harm. In a very short time many of ISIS’s fighters will sweep through north and central Iraq, once the contentious lands under Saddam Hussein and now in the power vacuum left after the departure of invading UN and American liberating forces. They progressively overtake much of the northern territories, including the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and despite backing from the USA, and superior numbers, the official Iraqi forces are overwhelmed.
As Westerners, we follow these distant events in the news. We listen to ill-informed ‘experts’ trying to make sense of this highly complicated conflicts as if it’s all some simplistic chess match. The reality is much, much more complex. In Northern Iraq one 18-year-old girl, Farida Khalaf, also tries to follow the events. She also watches the news. She also listens to the experts. The difference is that the ‘events’ are happening only a few miles from her front door. In fact, her father, a soldier in the Iraqi army, is directly impacted. Although he candy-coats it, he cannot disguise the horrors or the imminent threat occurring just over the border in neighboring Syria.
Khalaf, through German-born journalist Andrea C. Hoffmann, describes her home, in Northern Iraq, and her home life as a complete paradise. But she’s not naive, or dim. She speaks in a clear and concise voice about her dreams to be educated and to succeed as a teacher in her peaceful village of Kocho. Her dreams are supported by her family and her father. In her world, girls have opportunities, partially inspired by Saddam Hussein’s education programme. There is not really any animosity of support for any political movements. Her family are Yazidi, members of a 700,000-strong Kurdish minority who follow a faith based on pre-Islamic traditions. But in the eyes of the puritanical ISIS (or ISIL) this equates to devil worship and therefore it is perfectly rational that these people must be enslaved or worse, exterminated.
I was quite impressed how calmly this rationale and position was delivered. What results, though is an incredibly harrowing story. Hoffmann has crafted an almost neutral account from a series of meticulous interviews with Khalaf. She chooses not to inject her opinions or values into the text. Only Khalaf speaks, so you get a real sense of her voice in this first-person narrative, talking directly to the reader. But make no mistake, that is as gripping as it is appalling. This is not the plot of a Hollywood movie. No soundtrack or happy endings. But there are plenty of many extremely dangerous and heartbreaking moments.
ISIS arrive in Kocho to round everyone up and force them to convert to the jihadis’ brand of Islam. Those who refuse – like Khalaf’s father and oldest brother – are killed, and the unmarried women and girls, including Khalaf and her best friend Evin, are taken to the slave market of Raqqa, in Northern Syria. Girls of 13 or 14 are quickly purchased by high-ranking rebel fighters. At 18 and 24, Khalaf and her friend might be older and less desirable but are, nevertheless, sold. Khalaf risks her life constantly, fighting off rape attempts. She is beaten relentlessly for trying to kill herself. She tries to escape many times. All this while dealing with epilepsy.
I researched ISIS’ ritualized system of sex slavery and was shocked to learn to what extent they went. It is reported that in their own ISIS publications, slave “owners” are encouraged to pray before raping a girl. Girls are then forced to take contraceptive pills, in order not to break Islamic legal injunctions against sex with pregnant slaves, and they are made to pray as Muslims. In the book Khalaf notes that her friend Evin tries to appeal to her captor’s humanity, debating the sensibilities and moralities of this policy, but it proves futile. This is one of the only times when she chooses to debate policy or dogma.
What is so tragic is the normality of this horror to the people of Northern Syria. Even as they are sold in the slave market, there are shops around them selling food and football shirts, as if there is no difference between slavery and any other form of commerce. It is just part of life, and life has no value.
But eventually, after many more adventures, far worse than what I’ve described above, Khalaf is reunited with some of her family in a bleak refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. You would think this was then end but even in freedom there is pain. As an escapee she is stigmatised by her own Yazidi community and tormented by guilt over her inability to stop the rapes and all the resulting “dishonour” to their families. Her community tries to ostracise her, and with little medical and psychological support her only option is to try for resettlement in Europe.
Periodically, I found the story is almost unreadable. I had to put it down several times, as I watched my own children coming and going, arguing about petty things – unaware of what has happened to Khalaf. I almost thought that this is a story I should never share. It was too painful. I don’t wish to shield anyone but I do wonder if this is a book for young adults. Should they be shielded from things like this or will they be empowered and driven to do something about it in the future? If knowledge is power, then there is a powder keg between these pages.
As Europe argues over what to do with the Syrian refuges or how to combat ISIS or ISIL or even if anything can be done, Khalaf waits, in hope that she can find some kind of peace and perhaps opportunity to resume her studies to become a teacher. But she can never return to her homeland. That dream is gone. She can never erase her memories, her experiences. Her testament is a chilling document of how expendable and cheap lives, especially the lives of women is in this part of the world.
Review by Tim Gruar
The Girl Who Beat ISIS
by Farida Khalaf, co-written by Andrea C Hoffman
Published by Square Peg