In Disquiet, published by Other Press, Turkish author Zulfu Livaneli takes us into the heart of the refugee crises and the horrifying plight of the Yezidi people. Hunted like animals by the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS) and treated with suspicion and disdain by the residents of the border towns in Turkey where they end up, they are the epitome of stateless people.
Livaneli takes an indirect approach to telling their story. Instead of plopping us in the middle of a refugee camp he pulls us into their lives gradually through the eyes of Ibrahim, a jaded reporter from Istanbul. The murder of an old childhood friend, Hussein, takes Ibrahim back to his hometown of Mardin on the Syrian border.
After being shot and almost killed by ISIS fighters for treating Yezidi refugees Hussein had been convinced to leave Turkey and live with his elder brothers in Germany. While he was beginning to settle into life in his new country he was murdered by neo-nazis because he was a Muslim.
Returning for the funeral Ibrahim reconnects with both old friends and Hussein’s family in an attempt to discover what happened to the person he remembers as the most intelligent and least violent person he ever knew. The story turns out to be far more convoluted than he could have believed.
His old friend had obtained a medical degree and was working as a doctor and engaged to be married when he stared going with Doctor’s Without Borders into the refugee camps that were spinning up all along the Syrian border. Here he met a Yezidi woman, Meleknaz, with a blind baby, with whom he fell madly in love.
Hussein’s family, caught up in their prejudice against Yezidi, (some Muslims believe they worship Satan) think she must have bewitched him. How else could she have convinced him to give up his wealthy fiancé for this strange refugee?
The reality is of course far different. However, as Ibrahim delves deeper into his friend’s mysterious obsession with Meleknaz he finds himself going down a similar rabbit hole. Who are the Yezidi really and what was Meleknaz’s story?
As a journalist he has the ability to access people and places out of reach of some people. While his editors back in Istanbul initially don’t have much interest in a story about Yezidi refugees, Angelina Jolie’s decision to visit the camp just outside of Mardin changes their minds.
Using the celebrity’s visit as cover, Ibrahim is able to begin his research into discovering Meleknaz’s story. The more he learns about her, the more he wants to know about her. What happened to her and her blind baby after Hussein went to Germany? Where is she now?
On the surface Livaneli has created a simple story of a person looking to discover what happened to an old friend. Yet, the deeper we follow Ibrahim into his investigation we begin to realize the deep dissatisfaction that permeates his life.
Living in Istanbul, with its European and cosmopolitan nature, he’s become separated from his roots in the Middle East and its people. Returning to Mardin is like travelling to a different country. However, far from being a sentimental trip to a better world, it exposes the deep divides in both his soul and in the country.
Here we find the prejudices and poverty which allow organizations like ISIS to flourish. Give somebody a gun, offer them some financial security, and stoke the fires of their prejudices, and you can pretty much get them to do anything you want them to do. Being at home doesn’t bring Ibrahim peace, rather it creates the feeling of unease that the book’s title of Disquiet implies.
Through Ibrahim, Livaneli manages to not only tell us about the horrors inflicted upon the Yezidi by ISIS, and the casual bigotry they face from the less extreme elements in society, but the underlying disquiet that permeates Turkey as a whole. At times frightening, at times heartbreaking, Disquiet is a masterful work which will do more to explain the horrors of the Syrian war than any news reports.