Zülfü Livaneli: Huzursuzluk (Disquiet)
you know what harese is, my son? Its an old Arabic word. The words for determination, greed, and craving are derived from it. This is the custom throughout the Middle East, my son. Throughout history people have killed one another without ever realising that they are actually killing themselves.
Our hero is called Ibrahim, though we only learn that later in the book. He was originally from the town of Mardin, not far from the Syrian border. He is a journalist in Istanbul and has been, by his own admission, somewhat westernised. One day, at an editorial meeting he learns of the death in Germany of a Turk called Hussein Yilmaz, stabbed to death by neo-Nazis. He had known a Hussein Yilmaz as a child in Mardin and soon realises that it is the same person. Hussein’s last words were the somewhat enigmatic I was a human being. The time is September 2016.
Ibrahim had not visited Mardin for some time. Both his parents had died and he had no immediate family there. He had not kept in touch with people like Hussein whom he had known as a child. Husein was not strong but was very sensitive as a child. When the boys went killing birds, he was opposed. He was also a very good student.
Ibrahim decides to go back to Mardin for the funeral. He notices that the city has changed. Mardin had a relaxed view of Islam when he was a child but now the atmosphere was closed, the city had been darkened by the shadow of a sterner, angrier Islam. The streets they seem darker, less cheerful, more deserted. This was a city living in fear, caught in the middle of the conflicts between ISIS, the PKK, and the state security forces.
Mardin is, of course, at the forefront of the refugee crisis, with refugees streaming in from Syria, fleeing ISIS and the Syrian government forces. Refugee camps have been set up and they are not pleasant places.
However, Ibrahim wants to learn about Hussein. It seems that Hussein had been shot twice when still in Mardin. He had been wounded but recovered before emigrating to Germany.
Ibrahim meets Mehmet, an old friend of his and of Hussein and he fills Ibrahim in on what he knows. We’re all compassionate people, but no one could be as compassionate as he was. He devoted his life to the poor, the sick, and the oppressed, and he wasn’t just kind to people but to all creatures.. Hussein had devoted himself to helping the refugees in the camps. He had a good job as a doctor, a house and was engaged to a fine woman.
Mehmet tells him that the refugees who had suffered most were the Yazidis. (In this book they are initially called Yezidis and then Ezidis. I shall use Ezidis). ISIS raided their villages. They beheaded all males over the age of ten, took the women and girls prisoner and raped them, and then later they sold them. The boys under ten were trained to be ISIS militants. It seems that Hussein had met a Ezidi woman in the camp called Meleknaz. Meleknaz had a baby who was born blind. No-one seemed to know whether the baby was a result of rape or whether she had been married.
Hussein falls for Meleknaz and abruptly breaks off his engagement, to the horror not only of his fiancée but also his mother, not least because Ezidis are not Muslims but have their own, very distinct religion. Their religion is six thousand years old, it’s older than Judaism, or Christianity, or Islam. However, by long tradition Muslims and Ezidis cannot marry one another.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim has a job and his editor keeps calling him – he has his phone switched off – but they finally speak. It turned out that Angelina Jolie is to visit their camp and, of course, the editor wants photos, interviews. Jolie is kept well away from the press, though Ibrahim and his photographer do manage a few photos but no journalist speaks to her. If I got the chance to talk to her, I’d say that these people are all here because of your policies, or rather your government’s policies. What right did you have to send your planes and soldiers and ships across the ocean and destroy these people’s country, to bring more bloodshed to the already bloodstained lands of the Middle East?
He also comments on her role: As for Angelina Jolie, human beings can’t live without mythology. Modern people in a technological age without mythology created a new mythology, and she was a new Olympian goddess. Now, instead of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, Hera, and Aphrodite we have the gods of hip-hop, football, music, and cinema. We watch their loves, marriages, divorces, fights, jealousies, and murders.
However, the story is about Meleknaz and Hussein. Ibrahim tries to track her down and gradually learns her story. It is not pretty. The vicious brutality of the ISIS men and the religious justification the ISIS men give themselves (to the horror of Ibrahim and other moderate Turkish Muslims) is horrific. Livaneli does not spare us the details.
We learn a lot about the Ezidis. They are children of kalam, that is, children of the word, unlike Christians, Jews and Muslims who are children of the Book. We learn a lot about their customs and habits. We also learn of their suffering. We follow Ibrahim’s attempt to find Meleknaz and to find out why Hussein was shot, both in Mardin and in Germany.
Above all this book is about racism and its horrors. Any racism is wrong, of course, but the horrors of the racism that the Ezidis suffer, the sheer brutality of the ISIS men but also the neo-Nazis in Germany and the role of the West in the various wars in the Middle East are beyond outrageous and are superbly brought home by Livaneli.
On the whole, I tend not to like vague one word titles like Disquiet but, in this case, it does work. Ibrahim himself says I felt a deep disquiet. It was different from the disquiet I’d felt in Istanbul. This was a new disquiet. It was almost the opposite, but disquiet is such a basic part of life. Peace is rare and fleeting. In our case, reading this book we will feel disquiet but we will also feel the horror of the treatment they suffered, whatever our own religious views.
Yes, this book is clearly an attempt to help make the world aware of the plight of the Ezidis and in that it succeeds well. It is also a very fine novel as we follow first Hussein and then Ibrahim as they try to help and learn about Meleknaz and her people and their religion. For Ibrahim, Meleknaz is a clearly a figure to be admired and his conclusion about her is also interesting: For years I’d thought about how surprised I was by the strength that some women have: Where do they get this confidence, stubbornness, and decisiveness? What’s the source of their strength? Why were men so much weaker and miserable when it came to emotions?
If you are interested in helping the Ezidis/Yazidis, I dug out a few organisations that are involved in helping them:
First published by Doğan Kitap in 2017
First published in English by Other Press in 2021
Translated by Brendan Freely