By Anna Della Subin
January 18, 2018
THE LAST GIRL
My Story of Captivity, and My Fight against the Islamic State
By Nadia Murad with Jenna Krajeski
Illustrated. 306 pp. Tim Duggan Books. $27.
How to approach a memoir of a war still being waged? “The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State” contains open wounds and painful lessons, as the Yazidi activist Nadia Murad learns how her own story can become a weapon against her — co-opted for any number of political agendas. In August 2014 Islamic State militants besieged her village of Kocho in northern Iraq. They executed nearly all the men and older women — including Murad’s mother and six brothers — and buried them in mass graves. The younger women, Murad among them, were kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery. Raped, tortured and exchanged among militants, 21-year-old Murad finds an escape route when she is sold to a jihadist in Mosul who leaves a front door unlocked. She flees into Kurdistan by posing as the wife of a Sunni man, Nasser, who risks everything to escort her to safety.
Just when Murad, and the reader, expect a flood of relief, there is another sinister turn: Murad and Nasser are detained by Kurdish officials who force them to testify about their escape with cameras rolling. The officials are eager to hear how Peshmerga fighters from a rival Kurdish faction — the two groups fought a civil war in the 1990s — had abandoned the Yazidi communities they were supposed to protect. The officials swear no one will ever see the tape, but it appears on the news that same night, putting Nasser and his family in grave danger. “I was quickly learning that my story, which I still thought of as a personal tragedy, could be someone else’s political tool,” Murad writes.
Freed from captivity, Murad remains trapped inside politics. To publish “The Last Girl” right now, in the United States, means there are tricky issues of sensationalism to navigate; in a threatening climate of Islamophobia, Muslims of all kinds are vilified for the actions of one group. Yet Murad, and the team of translators and writers with whom she worked, hedge against this response with a book intricate in historical context. Visible throughout are the disastrous legacies of the American intervention that dismantled Baathist institutions and bred a generation of Iraqis raised on violence and with few prospects. In a childhood flashback, a young Nadia receives a ring from one of the many American soldiers who arrived in Kocho in the mid-2000s bearing trinkets and empty promises. During the Iraq war, Yazidis became increasingly isolated from their Sunni Arab neighbours, caught in cross hairs of sectarianism in the wake of the “coalition of the willing.”
“The Last Girl” is also a primer on the ancient Yazidi faith that sustains Murad throughout her ordeal: its creation myths, visions of the afterlife and idiosyncratic customs. (Many Yazidis avoid eating lettuce, and consider blue a colour too holy for humans to wear.) Yazidis pray to Tawusi Melek, an archangel who, at the creation, took the form of a peacock, and painted a desolate earth with the colours of his feathers. Over the centuries, misunderstandings surrounding the mysterious religion have fuelled genocide — 73 times, Murad writes, a figure eerily exact. According to a pernicious myth, Tawusi Melek refused to bow before Adam and was condemned to hell, echoing Satan’s behaviour in the Quran. Branding them “devil worshipers,” ISIS legitimized the massacre and enslavement of Yazidis, singling them out among Iraq’s many minorities for particularly inhumane treatment.
“I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine,” Murad concludes. Despite recent gains against ISIS in Iraq, many Yazidis still remain in captivity. As a story that hasn’t yet ended, “The Last Girl” is difficult to process. It is a call to action, but as it places Murad’s tragedy in the larger narrative of Iraqi history and American intervention, it leaves the reader with urgent, incendiary questions: What have we done, and what can we do?
Anna Della Subin is the author of “Not Dead but Sleeping” and a contributing editor at Bidoun, a publishing and curatorial initiative focused on the Middle East.