Many probably only know of the Yazidis from occasional news coverage of Middle Eastern conflict. The minority ethnic and religious group, which is mostly based in northern Iraq and neighbouring countries, featured in global headlines for a few scant weeks when they become the target of a genocide campaign launched by ISIL in 2014. Figures vary, but it’s estimated the attacks resulted in the slaughter of roughly 5,000 men and the murder or abduction of up to 10,000 women and children, many of whom remain enslaved in the region. Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis were displaced by the attacks, many starving to death in the remote mountains where they sought refuge.
This ongoing tragedy–formally recognized as genocide by the United Nations earlier this year–is the backdrop for Zülfü Livaneli’s gripping novel, Disquiet. Originally published in Turkish in 2017, it was credited with having a major influence on public attitudes toward the Yazidi refugees flooding into that country, an impact reflected in Turkey’s banning promotion of the book. It’s now available in English in an adept translation by Brendan Freely.
The novel perches somewhere on the fence between journalistic mystery and political thriller, but genre is the least of Livaneli’s concerns. Like much of his work, Disquiet is a vehicle through which to explore the politics of identity and the plight of minorities and refugees.
The story is told from the first-person vantage of Ibrahim, a worldly reporter living in Istanbul who returns to the rural town of his childhood near the Syrian border to attend the funeral of a friend. He learns that his friend had fallen in love with a Yazidi refugee named Meleknaz, to the disapproval of family and neighbours, before fleeing Turkey for Germany, where he was murdered. Ibrahim senses a story here and works to unravel the mystery of his friend’s death and find the Yazidi woman, who has also disappeared.
Livaneli has produced a novel that, despite its brevity, manages to perfectly encapsulate the remarkable diversity of modern-day Turkey. The cosmopolitanism of its protagonist–a secular journalist living a fast-paced life in Istanbulcontrasts with the slow pace of life in the medievalesque rural villages where he pursues the story.
Livaneli depicts to striking effect the changes that have occurred in the country during the past decade of dictatorship. His protagonist remembers the easygoing, tolerant Islam of his youth and contrasts it with the harsh, angry conservatism that’s taken hold in recent years; an Islam that feels it’s got something to prove.
When I was a child, Islam…was something different. It was a tender world…When the children insisted on fasting during Ramadan, the adults would say fine, fast for three days, one day at the beginning, one in the middle and one at the end, then add a zero and it will be thirty. Despite our insistence, we couldn’t wait for the breaking of the fast: we would secretly drink water and eat food we’d purloined from the kitchen. They never chided us for this…But now the atmosphere was closed, the city had been darkened by the shadow of a sterner, angrier Islam.
He subtly underscores how conservatism’s call to heritage is actually a rewriting of that heritage. The traditional local wine and liquor he loved in his youth–famously produced in the region for millennia–are now all but impossible to get. They used to be a symbol of local pride and heritage, available everywhere and widely consumed. But Islamic conservatism has forced this part of the area’s heritage to a final sanctuary in western hotel bars.
Ibrahim contrasts his life in Istanbul a life of fast cars, easy sex, cell phones, and social media apps–with life along the eastern border, punctuated by Syrian refugee camps that seem like they’re from another age. The joie de vivre of the novel’s protagonist contrasts with the horrific stories of rape, slaughter, and genocide shared by these refugees: the impact on the reader is palpable.
What opens as an engaging political mystery suddenly morphs into fictionalized warzone reportage, and so abrupt is the shift that the reader literally feels like they’ve slammed into a wall. The effect is a literary triumph, underscoring how quickly social realities can be transformed, and how seemingly impossible contrasts can co-exist so near to each other. If readers find the atrocities hard to believe, they ought to look up actual accounts of the attacks; they’re even worse than what Livaneli describes.
The fact all these realities co-exist simultaneously is one of the great contradictions of a country like Turkey. At its best, diversity is one of the country’s greatest strengths, but in a time like the present–manipulated by cynical and ambitious politicians at the top–it’s morphed into a divisive conflict.
The clash of cultures is a prototypical theme of Turkish literature, as epitomized by the work of novelist and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. But Livaneli brings the theme fully into the modern moment. There’s no trite quaintness to this clash: it’s imminent in its brutality, and this very moment is costing the lives and freedom of literally hundreds of thousands of Turks, imprisoned by a dictatorial regime that turns more repressive every year. Livaneli himself spent time in prison in the 1970s for protesting a previous military dictatorship and then lived in exile for over a decade. His work depicts the cruelty of Turkey’s culture wars with a literary virtuosity that demands a global audience.
In Disquiet, Livaneli tackles an impressive array of themes for such a short novel. Paramount among these is the racism experienced by immigrants: he cleverly juxtaposes the racism experienced by Turkish immigrants in Germany, victimized by white-skinned neo-nazis, with that enacted by Turks against their Syrian neighbors-turned-refugees in the wake of that country’s brutal civil war. In both cases, the individual becomes irrelevant. They’re instrumentalized into an object of fear, hate, and derision the moment they become immigrants in a foreign land. Ibrahim, the journalist-narrator, gradually excavates the humanity within these stereotyped tropes, which is what good journalism does.
It gives nothing away to observe that there is a tragic symmetry to the fate of the young man whose story the protagonist pursues. A local gang of ISIL supporters tried to murder him for being an insufficiently devout Muslim. He survives and flees their reach by immigrating to Germany, where he is then murdered by German right-wingers for being Muslim.
Ibrahim becomes obsessed with unraveling this young man’s story, and that of his would-be bride, a Yazidi refugee. What emerges is the story of two innocent, beautiful souls struggling to survive in the midst of a world sliding into violence. “There’s no place left on earth that’s peaceful,” muses the increasingly unsettled narrator. His knowledge of their stories leaves the journalist with a profound disquiet, a sense of innocence forever lost. It’s one the reader can’t help but share, and perhaps that’s the goal.
It gives away slightly more to discuss Disquiet’s conclusion, but I think it’s important to do so. It operates on multiple levels, the least palatable of which is the most superficial. A final chapter that’s set apart from the rest of the narrative tackles Ibrahim’s eventual discovery of Meleknaz, the Yazidi refugee. He becomes obsessed with her, pursuing her to the point of harassment, begging her to let him support her and take her under his wing.
I’d like to think this is more than simply a male narrator sliding into besotted misogyny, and indeed there seems to be more going on here. As the journalist Ibrahim pursues his story, he grapples with that perennial trope of Turkish literature: the struggle between ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ identities. His identity is situated in the first part of the story as firmly grounded in western modernity, his reaction to visiting the eastern villages of his youth, a faint scorn tinged with bemused nostalgia. But as he struggles to reconcile the casual violence of ISIL with the equally casual violence of the western world–expressed as much through its casual disregard of refugees as its active involvement in the region’s conflict–he reappraises this positioning, finding a new identification with his roots in the East.
Or does he? His obsessive fixation suggests he’s entered the most western of all orientations: the orientalist colonizer, determined to make the East love him at all costs. Meleknaz represents the East, and her refusal to accept his aid both mystifies and angers him. He tries different approaches. He cajoles her, begs her, yells at her, tries to bribe her, argues the pragmatism of his position. Nothing he does elicits the response he wants. He refuses to give up, her lack of interest in what he has to offer only aggravates his desire to make her respond to him with obedience and gratitude.
Never in my life had I seen – how can I put it, it wasn’t hatred, it wasn’t defiance (I was trying to find a word to describe what her eyes said), it wasn’t resentment either, perhaps indifference. Indifferent glances that said, ‘I don’t need your compassion, I don’t need anyone’s compassion.’
He begs her to help him by letting him help her. The final chapter, which is disquieting but in a different way, suggests Livaneli’s critique of our motives in offering help and aid. Is it to satisfy our own narcissistic urges? Or does it come from a place not of compassion but of honest desire to engage with our fellow human beings, as equals? This is the motive that drove his friend’s relationship with Meleknaz–less gratifying to one’s own ego, perhaps, but more authentic on a human level.
In his conclusion, Livaneli is urging us to reflect on the ways in which we engage (or don’t) with refugees, and our motives in doing so. (Angelina Jolie even makes an appearance in the novel, swooping in to grace the refugee camps with her fairy tale presence.) Livaneli also offers a gentle and nuanced appreciation of Yazidi culture. He doesn’t pretend to be thorough–his narrator is in a process of discovery as well. This approach allows him to temper an exoticizing western vantage with an appreciation that verges on the mystical and poetic at times.
The Yazidi follow a monotheistic faith with ancient and orally transmitted roots. From the taboo against lettuce (the only other thing most westerners know about them) to the tempered duality of the imperfect ‘Peacock Angel’ who presides over worldly affairs, Livaneli offers tantalizing glimpses of Yazidi faith and culture, the ways it’s been used to demonize and ‘other’ them in the region, and the role it plays during the violent present.
The plight of the Yazidis continues: ISIL’s genocide campaign was only the latest escalation in recurring violence faced by the group. Hundreds of thousands remain displaced in refugee camps on the Syrian border or abroad, unable to return to their home villages. While the western world mostly ignored their plight, for a time the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)–in particular Kurdish militias–attempted to help them, fighting off ISIL and rescuing embattled groups of refugees.
In 2019 Turkey officially entered the conflict, invading northern Syria and pushing back SDF forces. Reports from the region suggest Turkish troops have continued ISIL’s brutal work, forcibly converting Yazidis to Islam, destroying cultural and religious sites, and killing refugees. Little wonder Livaneli’s work has come under government sanction in Turkey.
Disquiet is an important book, both as literature and politics. Grounded in the circumstances of the Yazidis, it speaks to globally transcendent themes of refugees and displaced populations the world over. Most importantly, it forces the reader to interrogate our own complicity in these ongoing tragedies, and what we can and should do to atone for them.