Alia Malek is a journalist and the author of “The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria” and “A Country Called Amreeka: U.S. History Retold Through Arab-American Lives.”
The Islamic State’s attempt to exterminate the Yazidi people of Iraq did not involve only murder. When the militants swept through the north of the country after taking Mosul in the summer of 2014, they executed the religious minority group’s men and elderly women. The children and the other women they took captive. They brainwashed and conscripted the young boys and turned the women and girls into sexual slaves. This enslavement was justified by edicts based on religious interpretations rejected by nearly all Muslims.
In “The Last Girl,” Nadia Murad tells the story of her captivity along with other members of her Yazidi village of Kocho. It is an intimate account of what she calls “a slow, painful death — of the body and the soul.” As an insider, she is able to present a full portrait of her people as more than just victims. She writes with understandable anger but also with love, flashes of humor and dignity. In telling her story, Murad also offers glimpses of what has been wrought over recent decades in Iraq.
The Kurdish-speaking Yazidis live in northern Iraq, largely in underprivileged villages around Mount Sinjar. Most of their Kurdish and Arab neighbors view them with disdain, and they have long been persecuted for their religious beliefs. (Their monotheistic religion has elements in common with many other Middle Eastern faiths, including Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism.)
The Yazidis inhabit disputed lands that Arabs and Kurds battle over, and they have often been caught between those competing nationalist ambitions. Murad writes that Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party pressured Yazidis to embrace identities as Arabs and Kurds, respectively, in their bids to assert claims to the land. (Both Arab and Kurdish nationalism imagine a basis for belonging in a most limited sense; their insistence on ethnic homogeneity, in a land where there is none, is doomed to leave out many.)
Internationally and in the region, very little attention was paid to the Yazidis — until the Islamic State came for them. Then they quickly became the subject of much reporting. The interest in the Yazidis, like stories about Middle Eastern Christians, perplexed many who had watched for decades as Iraqis experienced unrelenting horrors that traumatized much larger populations, with little global outcry. Resentment even arose over what seemed like an outsize focus on the suffering of minorities when, in absolute numbers, Muslims make up by far the most victims of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Shiite militias and others committing violence in the name of Islam.
Of course, it’s important to pay close attention to what happens to minorities in all nations: They are the canaries in the coal mine, a gauge of tolerance, inclusiveness and equality in any society. But many observers close to the region are wary of giving a platform to stories of minority persecution in the Middle East, out of fear that such tales can demonize Islam by pinning any shortcomings of majority-Muslim societies on the religion itself. Regrettably, these stories are frequently shared for just such purposes, and those who disseminate them lack a sincere concern for the victims. This is true of both Western Islamophobes and Middle Eastern sectarians.
Murad, herself, fell victim to the politicization of her plight. Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters tricked her into telling her story on video and then released it to the news media without her consent; their goal was to embarrass their political rivals, who are fellow Kurds. “I was quickly learning that my story, which I still thought of as a personal tragedy, could be someone else’s political tool, particularly in a place like Iraq,” Murad writes. “I would have to be careful what I said, because words mean different things to different people, and your story can easily become a weapon to be turned on you.”
No doubt controlling her story was part of her motivation to tell it in this book. She takes the time to introduce Kocho and its people before the arrival of the Islamic State. We meet her resilient mother, who greets each new adversity with a joke, and her brother, who is in love with a girl above his station. Before the Islamic State’s crimes turned Murad into a human rights activist, she dreamed of opening a beauty salon where she’d style village brides on their wedding days.
So when the Islamic State strikes, we know that these are real people — and we know that the stakes are high and the devastation is visceral. During her three months in captivity, Murad was sold and bought, repeatedly raped and beaten. Her depiction of these horrors is unflinching. After her escape, she emigrated to Germany and sought justice for Yazidi victims, aided by human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who has written a foreword for the book.
As part of her mission, Murad seeks to de-weaponize the shame that keeps many victims silent. Her anger at those who destroyed her people’s lives permeates the book — and targets not only the Islamic State. She fumes at the peshmerga fighters who had promised to protect the Yazidis but withdrew from their posts (just as the Iraqi army did in Mosul), abandoning the Yazidis to their fate.
Much of her ire is aimed at Arab Sunnis in northern Iraq, whom she deems either explicit or implicit supporters of the Islamic State. She offers evidence of specific men who committed specific acts and who should be held accountable, if they haven’t already been killed in the airstrikes against the militants. But she also implicates the vast majority of Arab Sunnis who lived under the Islamic State for doing nothing. She believes that even if they couldn’t have stopped the fighters, they could have protested their actions.
Murad does not, however, credit the many people who did protest and were killed for raising their voices. She notes that some dissented but indicts the rest because they didn’t flee the Islamic State. For her, remaining in their homes meant they had no problem with the militants or their crimes. She repeatedly asks: Why else would they stay? What she doesn’t ask, however, is: Where could they go? Fleeing to Kurdistan was dangerous for Arab Sunnis because their ethnicity and sect meant they were viewed as potential threats, since Islamic State fighters claim to be Sunni and many are Arab. (As Murad notes, Kurds and Turkmen are also in their ranks.)
Murad’s presumptions are challenged when a poor Arab Sunni family in Mosul who did not flee takes her in, hides her and devises a plan to get her out of Islamic State territory — at great risk to themselves. What does it mean, then, if both the targets of her wrath and her saviors are Arab Sunnis? Murad’s answer is that such people were merely the exception to a rule that she isn’t ready to reject, even if it means she too easily gives in to scapegoating and collective guilt.
Murad’s anger raises the question (one we confront in other atrocities in the Middle East and elsewhere): How should we judge the bystanders to evil? The question becomes all the more difficult in the case of people who are living under a brutal regime like the Islamic State and are themselves under the constant threat of violence. How fair is it to attribute their failure to act to their religion or ethnicity?
The pursuit of justice and the equally important goal of peace must include vigilance against the temptation to assign collective guilt. Sectarian scapegoating has long been the reason many Iraqis suffered unspeakable ordeals at the hands of their compatriots.
Nonetheless, Murad gives us a window on the atrocities that destroyed her family and nearly wiped out her vulnerable community. This is a courageous memoir that serves as an important step toward holding to account those who committed horrific crimes.
By Nadia Murad with Jenna Krajeski
Tim Duggan. 306 pp. $27