Today is Nazo Heydo’s wedding day, and today she will set herself on fire. Gharbi M. Mustafa
The “Book set in the Middle East” challenge seemed simple. I picked up a seemingly simple book. What Comes with the Dust sports an ambiguous title, lives in the young adult section of the library, and at 189 pages didn’t seem like a difficult commitment. And yet.
Mustafa begins his tale with the origin story of Ta’us Malik, the Peacock God, a central figure to the Yazidi people. Ta’us Malik’s creation story shares similarities to Lucifer’s, leading some to accuse the Yazidi people of worshiping Satan and persecuting them for their beliefs. Ta’us Malik’s story differs in important ways. Prior to Adam’s creation, God forbids Ta’us Malik from bowing to any other being, since he was made from God’s illumination. Later, when He creates Adam from the dust, he orders all the angels to bow before him. Ta’us Malik refuses, reminding God of His order. God rewards Ta’us Malik by making him the leader of the arch angels. The Yazidi’s celebrate Ta’us Malik for his obeyance of God.
The book follows two young Yazidi characters from Iraqi Kurdistan as they navigate the new landscape of their country after ISIS gains control.
Nazo, a beautiful teenage girl, plans to elope with her beloved, Azad. Nazo’s parents arranged for her to marry her own first cousin, Chato. Nazo, afflicted with hip dysplasia she believes resulted from her own parents being first cousins, fears her children will suffer a worse fate if she marries Chato. Nazo and Azad know they must flee the village if they plan to have a life together.
The second character, Omed is a bitter and lonely young man who’s lost his family to violence and deals with the pain by cutting. He loves Nazo from afar, knowing that he will never win her away from Azad.
Their lives change quickly and permanently. On the night Nazo and Azad plan to leave, ISIS soldiers occupy their small remote village. They take the girls and women to sell into slavery. Omed and the other men are forced to convert to Islam or die.
Nazo and her deaf and mute sister Sarah cling together. Sarah’s safety motivates Nazo as she tries to keep them safe and together and untouched. Through the course of the book Nazo and the other girls and women endure beatings, rapes and violence. Nazo and Sarah are separated when Nazo sends Sarah away with an ally. Nazo’s life becomes a series of escapes, near misses and recaptures.
Omed suffers humiliations and violence until he meets up with a group of resistance fighters. As he trains to be a soldier, he becomes a new man. Ironically, training to take his country back helps ease his anger and hatred. He even finds love with a woman named Soz, his commander. His love for her and his newfound love for himself instills a surprising sense of mercy in him.
Both Nazo and Omed struggle to survive, yet they find joy in the most hostile environments.
It’s difficult to read a translated work without feeling like some of the nuance and beauty of the original language has been lost. There are times when the writing feels blunted. In some cases, it’s a blessing as when Nazo endures her violations. Perhaps because the book is considered Young Adult fiction, Mustafa doesn’t go into gory details, which is fine. Yet, there are times when the characters’ emotions aren’t given the depth they deserve.
I don’t know if there’s a name for the phenomenon of finding pleasure in something that leaves you uncomfortable. What Comes With The Dust can be painful. The ending is heartbreaking. But it also feels necessary to hear this story and know that it’s taken from the accounts of real women who have suffered at the hands of the Taliban. Mustafa’s work gives voice to the many silenced and ignored victims. It seems like the least I can do is let those voices be heard.