Book review - Disquiet by Zülfü Livaneli and Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus

Turkish author Zülfü Livaneli’s powerful novel, adeptly translated by Brendan Freely, begins with a short parable illustrating the meaning of the old Arabic word harese, from which the words for determination, greed and craving are derived. The fable is about camels who love a particular desert thistle. The thistle lacerates the camels’ mouth and they begin to bleed. But as their salty blood mixes with the chewed thistle, they like the taste even more. They can’t stop feeding on it and if they are not stopped, they would bleed to death. This is harese, a wise old man tells the protagonist. “This is the custom throughout the Middle East…Throughout history people have killed one another without ever realising that they are actually killing themselves. They become intoxicated by the taste of their own blood.”

The tale haunts Disquiet, a devastating critique of the horrific brutality of ISIS and the West’s callous treatment of traumatised refugees seeking safety. Livaneli explores the plight of the Yezidi people (Ezidi in Kurdish) who have been so mercilessly targeted by ISIS militants and the circular nature of violence. He focuses on the fate of two women who survive being kidnapped, trafficked and raped.

 The narrator is Ibrahim, a journalist from Istanbul. Disturbed to learn of the brutal murder of his childhood friend, Hussein, he returns to his hoe town of Mardin, on the border with Syria. There he learns that Hussein had met and fallen in love with a young Ezidi, Meleknaz, while helping in a refugee camp. Despite his mother’s belief that he was bewitched by a ‘she-devil’, Hussein had planned to marry Meleknaz and adopt her blind baby daughter. But Hussein was shot by ISIS supporters in Turkey and had to flee the country and join his brothers in Germany. There he was targeted by members of a Neo-Nazi group and died of his knife wounds. Just before he died, he uttered the words “I was a human being.”

While attempting to untangle the circumstances of his friend’s murder, Ibrahim seeks out anyone who’s willing to talk to him. This includes Hussein’s family and friends and Zilan, another Ezidi survivor living in a refugee camp. She tells him of the horrors she endured, together with her eight-year-old sister and Meleknaz, how they escaped the clutches of ISIS and made the perilous journey over the mountains. Zilan’s sister was so traumatised, after being trafficked and raped by ISIS militants, she could no longer speak. She wanted only death and threw herself over a cliff at the first opportunity. Dying in her sister’s arms she uttered the same words that Hussein would later echo.

As one story leads to another, the more Ibrahim hears, the more he begins to feel “a deep disquiet.” He returns to Istanbul and becomes obsessed with finding Meleknaz, wanting to somehow make reparations for what she has suffered. But Meleknaz does not want his pity; she is beyond that. “Perhaps for someone who had lost everything, honor was the only remaining shelter, the last thing she possessed.”

Compassion is key for humanity’s survival, Ibrahim realises. And yet the camel continues to chew the deadly thistle, and those in power keep failing the desperate. The Ezidi are prevented from entering Bulgaria: “Europe didn’t want them.” Ibrahim observes, and they are left in limbo: “ISIS was behind them, and Europe was in front of them.”

If Disquiet looks at the horror that prompts people to flee their home countries, the Refugee Tales series, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus, explores the injustices they endure once they reach safety.

Refugee Tales began as a large-scale walk intended to call attention to the UK’s indefinite detention of people under immigrant rules. The anthology was published to make this shocking fact more widely known, through sharing the stories of those who have been victims of this inhumane treatment. Inspired by The Canterbury Tales, the idea was for writers to listen to and retell refugees’ stories, preserving their anonymity.

Refugee Tales IV contains some international tales “to challenge detention both nationally and internationally” and to highlight the need for “shared and combined calls”. It also contains stories written by people who have experienced detention first hand. One of the most powerful in the collection is The Advocate’s Tale as told by JB.

His testimony should be distributed to everyone in the Home Office: “Put yourselves in the shoes of those people fleeing their home country, seeing refugee here in the United Kingdom, or in neighbouring countries. Once you make it here you would expect to receive some sort of help or protection, right? Well in my case it was the opposite.” He describes the conditions in which they were detained: “We were held under Class ‘B’ high security, locked in prison cells for long hours, treated as criminals, and sometimes even worse. For an extremely vulnerable person seeking refuge from persecution in his own country, this becomes a form of torture.”  While in detention, JB was denied medication, witnessed his fellow inmates attempting suicide and went on hunger strike. Even though he had a strong case, he was only able to fight his case and be granted asylum after he was released.

In The Hotelier’s Tale as told to Robert Macfarlane, a former teacher and hotelier describes how he was persecuted in his own country for supporting the opposition party.  When he arrived in the UK, he was initially refused asylum. He suggests these life and death decisions often depend on who interviews you: “I had one interviewer who spoke to me for two hours. He had no specialist knowledge of my country.” Like so many asylum seekers, the narrator left his wife and children behind and observes: “What I wanted to tell him, what I wanted to make him see, was the simplest fact of all, the proof of the truth. Why would I leave my children behind if my life was not in danger, if my life did not put them in danger? That is the only truth that is needed for my story.” While waiting for a second judicial review he was given the standard (and appallingly inadequate) £35 a week with which to feed himself: “This is the hostile environment.” he reminds us, “But it is nothing like the hostile environment I will face in my country.”  He pays tribute to all those individuals and charities who showed him kindness but admits that it was distressing to be met with such resistance from the state: “the system is unexpectedly very strong and very unwelcoming.”

It never ceases to shock me that so many vulnerable people arrive on these shores, having fled one hell only to find themselves in another. Refugee Tales highlights this travesty of justice. Sadly, the anthology remains a necessary project – part of an international network, working against detention.  As David Herd reminds us in his Afterword: “Where rights are denied, stories are silenced.” Refugee Tales and Disquiet confront some of the fundamental violations begin committed against vulnerable people, demonstrate the power of words to cross borders and the importance of encouraging tolerance and compassion worldwide. 

Originally published in The Other Side of Hope magazine.