About the Book
WINNER OF THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE
In this intimate memoir of survival, a former captive of the Islamic State tells her harrowing and ultimately inspiring story.
Nadia Murad was born and raised in Kocho, a small village of farmers and shepherds in northern Iraq. A member of the Yazidi community, she and her brothers and sisters lived a quiet life. Nadia had dreams of becoming a history teacher or opening her own beauty salon.
On August 15th, 2014, when Nadia was just twenty-one years old, this life ended. Islamic State militants massacred the people of her village, executing men who refused to convert to Islam and women too old to become sex slaves. Six of Nadia’s brothers were killed, and her mother soon after, their bodies swept into mass graves. Nadia was taken to Mosul and forced, along with thousands of other Yazidi girls, into the ISIS slave trade.
Nadia would be held captive by several militants and repeatedly raped and beaten. Finally, she managed a narrow escape through the streets of Mosul, finding shelter in the home of a Sunni Muslim family whose eldest son risked his life to smuggle her to safety.
Today, Nadia’s story–as a witness to the Islamic State’s brutality, a survivor of rape, a refugee, a Yazidi–has forced the world to pay attention to an ongoing genocide. It is a call to action, a testament to the human will to survive, and a love letter to a lost country, a fragile community, and a family torn apart by war.
This book was a library loan.
This is a book I’ve been kind of waffling on reviewing, and the reason why is because it’s hard to read. Not because the language is elevated or anything like that, but because it talks frankly, and brutally, about institutionalized rape in the Isis operation in Iraq and Syria. It took a lot out of me emotionally to read this book, but I’ve read it twice now and I honestly cannot put it down.
So, trigger warning. If rape and/or brutality bothers you, please skip over this review.
The thing is, if you asked me for a list of things I know nothing about, Yazidi culture would be pretty high up there. I only heard about the Yazidi people due to the war with Isis. If it hadn’t been for that, and news reports floating around about how Isis was imprisoning Yazidi girls and women and turning them into sex slaves (called sabaya), they’d still be relatively unknown to me, and now that I’ve read this book, that’s a real shame.
Anyway, let me tell you a bit about this.
Nadia Murad was born and raised in a small, intimate village called Kocho, in northern Iraq near the Syrian border. Her family, devout Yaidis, were close. She had a lot of siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, and while they were poor and there were, of course, trials and growing pains in her childhood, she does an amazing job of painting the typical Yazidi girl’s life, and how the war with Iraq, the toppling of Saddam, tensions with neighboring villages, religious differences and etc really shaped her life. However, in the midst of all this turmoil, she also does a wonderful job of educating her reader about Yazidi culture, the foundational beliefs, traditions, and their outlooks on life and love.
Perhaps, as a girl, she comes across as a bit of a dreamer. She wanted to open her own hair salon with her niece, and loved going to weddings, where she would help do the hair and makeup of the bride, and then keep pictures of them to use as inspiration when she opened her own salon when she was older. Her father died when she was young, and her family pulled together to make it through. Things were not always easy, but she seems to drift through difficulties with poise and grace.
She was in her teens when Isis became a threat, and due to an honor killing done by a Yazidi family in a nearby village, tensions were already high between the Yazidis and the neighboring Muslim groups. She talks about honor killings, and does not excuse them, but rather is really open about how they happen, and how this particular honor killing turned simmering tensions into a boiling over of violence. Then, Isis comes and lays siege to her village for two weeks, after which point all hell breaks loose.
She does not hide what happens to her, nor does she dance around the bush at all. She doesn’t go into graphic detail, but it is horrific and while I do not cry often when I read books, this one made me cry in a few places. She talks about watching Isis load her brothers onto trucks. Talks about the gunfire, talks about being separated from her sisters, mother, and nieces, the sexual brutalization on the bus all the way to Mosul. She talks about the slave market, and how she, and other girls were bought and sold, forced to convert, signed “marriage contracts” and then were sold again when the men got sick of them. She talks about punishments and finally, her escape, which is nothing short of heroic.
There are some passages that really move me, because they are so poignant and cut to the heart of the human experience, a part of it, at least, that I could never possibly understand in the depth that someone who experiences it has.
“I still think that being forced to leave your home out of fear is one of the worst injustices a human being can face. Everything you love is stolen, and you risk your life to live in a place that means nothing to you and where, because you come from a country now known for war and terrorism, you are not really wanted. So you spend the rest of your years longing for what you left behind while praying not to be deported. Hezni’s story made me think that the path of the Iraqi refugee always leads backward, to prison or to where you came from.”
“At some point, there was rape and nothing else. This becomes your normal day. You don’t know who is going to open the door next to attack you, just that it will happen and that tomorrow might be worse. You stop thinking about escaping or seeing your family again. Your past life becomes a distant memory, like a dream. Your body doesn’t belong to you, and there’s no energy to talk or to fight or to think about the world outside. There is only rape and the numbness that comes with accepting that this is now your life. Fear was better. With fear, there is assumption that what is happening isn’t normal. Sure, you feel like your heart will explode and you will throw up, you cling desperately to your family and friends and your grovel in front of the terrorists, you cry until you go blind, but at least you do something. Hopelessness is close to death.”
Nadia eventually escapes, and that is quite a harrowing story as well. Apparently the man who helped her escape is living in Germany now, and is dealing with his own trials (read more about him here).
The point is, this story is open and honest, it’s brutal and it really, really affected me in ways I have not been effected for a very long time, if ever. Nadia has won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with Yazidi women and refugees impacted by Isis. Her home is destroyed, most of her large family is dead (though some survived through impossible circumstances).
Essentially, The Last Girl is a story that more people need to hear about. It is the story of genocide, of ethnic cleansing, and what happens in the world when evil goes unchecked. It is not an easy book to read, nor should it be. You should not read it if you get triggered by violence, and especially rape and brutality against women. She talks a lot about the rules and “laws” that governed Isis regarding their sexual slaves, and how those rules were often broken. She talks about the logic of these sexual slavery rings, why some were bought, and some given as a reward. She goes into so many cultural things that are horrifying, and just… astound me, I guess. Like the women under Isis who knew everything that was happening, and just kept on letting it happen. The first man who bought her forced her to strip naked their first night together, and spoke on the phone to his wife while he was with her. Another man who raped her lived with his mother, and she was in the kitchen in the room below her when he came into Nadia’s room and started groping her.
And I am just so repulsed by it all that I have no words. None.
I could not put this book down. It haunts me. It really does. But I think it is also an example of how sometimes being uncomfortable is necessary. People need to know the stark reality of this conflict, of ethnic cleansing, of what happens to the voiceless and the overlooked. Witnesses are needed, and being a witness is rarely a comfortable thing.
For every one woman like Nadia out there, there are thousands upon thousands who have stories left untold. She is telling her story, but in so many ways she’s telling the story of all the women who are unable to speak for themselves. Not just Yazidis, but everywhere.