“Living in the Shadows of the Dead”: Cathy Otten’s “With Ash on Their Faces”

By Ryan BoydApril 16, 2018

“Living in the Shadows of the Dead”: Cathy Otten’s “With Ash on Their Faces”

With Ash on Their Faces by Cathy Otten

IN THE SUMMER of 2014 — August, the sun hammering all day on prickly wheat fields — the first Islamic State fighters arrived in Sinjar province, close to the Syrian border in northwest Iraq.

Bearded and mostly young, lugging an array of weapons, they came in pickup trucks and cars, as well as Humvees captured from the Iraqi Army in earlier battles. Soon the black-and-white flag of ISIS, the freshest desert nightmare, would fly along roads and atop buildings in places that rarely (or never) make it onto American television: Tel Azer, Kojo, Siba Sheikheder, Tel Banat, Sinjar City. This last place was home of the Yezidis, a religious minority long accustomed to violent persecution.

The confrontation would have terrible consequences for this already embattled and vulnerable population, and no book has covered it better than Cathy Otten’s With Ash on Their Faces: Yezidi Women and the Islamic State. Otten has been doing lonely work for half a decade now, covering a corner of the world most Westerners have stopped thinking about, if they ever did in the first place. Her book, stitching together individual accounts of displacement and trauma, is the chronicle of a staggering tragedy.

The Yezidi faith is rooted in an oral poetics. Centered around a place called Lalish, where a revered 12th-century Sufi mystic named Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir is buried, their religion is inextricable from significant stories and hymns, linguistic structures passed down through community networks; their understanding of the universe is located not in texts but in spoken narrative and song, particularly those associated with sacred shrines. Yezidism is a monotheistic religion that incorporates elements of pre-Islamic Mesopotamian belief systems; they conceive of their god’s earthly representative as Melek Taus, an angel who takes the form of a peacock. Most speak Kurdish and many identify ethnically as Kurds, but some speak Arabic.

You cannot become a Yezidi. You must be born one. This accounts for the small size of their population, which is under a million globally, with half of those in northern Iraq. Most of the rest are scattered in a diaspora that stretches from Syria to Germany to Texas.

They have endured a staggering 74 genocides in their history, and they remember all of it through oral tradition. Early Muslim rulers considered them devil-worshipping infidels. The Ottomans were especially vicious, massacring hundreds at a time, ransacking villages, and forcing mass conversions to Islam. Saddam Hussein did not spare them his psychotic, industrial violence: after many Yezidis joined the Kurds in uprisings during the 1970s, Saddam responded by razing their villages and relocating survivors to grim concrete towns built by the state, where they were forbidden from speaking Kurdish and forced to register their ethnicity as Arab.

In the 1990s, US sanctions crippled the regional and national economies in which Yezidi communities were tangled, leaving many in poverty. Then came the 2003 American-led invasion and the disasters in its wake.

In response to this deep history of violence and dispossession, Yezidism developed its talking historiography, its poetic defenses. Adherents remember the genocides this way, recording what the German-Yezidi psychologist Jan Kizilhan calls “trans-generational trauma.” But their traditions are more than just an archive of sorrow; they also tell of resistance against evil, of dignified but tenuous lives. There is no Yezidism without these stories. Crucially, they are often relayed by women.

After the initial shock-and-awe of the 2003 invasion, which killed thousands of Iraqis and destroyed the Ba’athist regime, the region collapsed into a civil war of ghastly territorial and ethnic violence. Disaster came in waves. Throughout the mid-2000s, hundreds of Yezidi families were driven from the city of Mosul, which had long hosted a significant Yezidi community. Islamic extremists would have killed them if they had remained, so they fled to Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region to which they already had close cultural, political, and security ties. In the summer of 2007, terrorists detonated four enormous truck bombs in the heavily Yezidi towns of Siba Sheikheder and Tel Azer, killing hundreds and wounding thousands, the deadliest single bombing of the entire post-2003 war. Many Yezidis joined militias during this time, especially the vaunted Peshmerga, whose name comes from the Kurdish for “those who face death.”

Incubated in American military prisons and initially allied with al-Qaeda, ISIS officially went independent in 2013 and set about working on its goal: establishing a radical caliphate across the Middle East. This was bleak news for the region’s Christians, Jews, and Shia Muslims, given that the Islamic State considers only its version of Sunni Islam legitimate. But the Yezidis were in even greater danger. Unlike Christians, whom ISIS considers “people of the book” and thus hypothetically worthy of life, the Yezidis are seen as barbarians. Their lives have no value beyond two brutal functions: butchering their men makes for vivid propaganda in a hyper-mediated century, and enslaving their women gratifies ISIS soldiers while also, as a tangential benefit, humiliating the remnants of an entire people.

With the weak, splintered Iraqi central regime unable to maintain stability across wide swaths of the country, and with the Syrian Civil War burning the world to the west, Islamic State’s power ballooned. ISIS fighters easily overcame the feeble Iraqi Army, taking much of its American-supplied heavy weaponry and capturing Mosul in mid-June 2014. Weeks later, as a holiday consecrated to the Yezidi prophet Sheikh Adi came to a close, as Yezidis broke their fasts, slaughtering sheep and exchanging gifts and gathering to chat with neighbors in the cool of the evening, ISIS was moving toward them. At least 130,000 people fled to a nearby place that had been a Yezidi redoubt for centuries: Sinjar Mountain.

No safety awaited. Over the coming weeks 3,000 Yezidis would be killed by ISIS, half during the initial rush away from the burning towns, and half dying of wounds, dehydration, and starvation as Islamic State laid siege to the hills. On August 7, Barack Obama appeared on television to announce that the United States would begin airstrikes on ISIS positions around Sinjar Mountain; American aircraft also dropped food and water, though not nearly enough for 130,000 people. At the same time Kurdish militias began fighting to retake the mountain, and they cut a road through to Syria after two weeks of grisly fighting. By the time US special forces arrived in Sinjar, most of the Yezidis had escaped under the protection of Kurdish fighters. But ISIS took nearly 6,400 Yezidi prisoners, most of them women and children. Awaiting these captives were slave markets, torture chambers, and underground prisons across Iraq and Syria.

Yezidi women were already a vulnerable population, because their patriarchal society emphasizes female chastity and purity and invests much less in educating girls than boys. (Many Yezidi women are illiterate.) Missteps, such as attempting to marry outside the faith, are often punished violently; “honor killings” are not uncommon. Such vulnerability is intersectional: as Otten has it, Yezidi women “become doubly victimized, as women in a male-dominated society, and as part of a religious minority.”

In other words, ISIS tortured them for being women and for being Yezidi. The terrorists developed “a whole theory of property,” Otten remarks, whereby “mass abduction for the purpose of institutionalized rape” simultaneously functions as a weapon of war (a way to humiliate and debase whole communities) and constitutes a complex market in human flesh. Men would be killed. Women would be commodified.

The story of these women is the center of With Ash on Their Faces, and because the text is based primarily on first-person testimony, it participates in the Yezidi tradition of memory, endurance, and recovery. If, to use Teju Cole’s terminology, actual warfare is hot violence, then cold violence entails a failure of language — what Otten calls “the violence of indignity, of forgetting, of carelessness and of not listening.” Blend the two and you have the conditions for genocide. Otten is not sentimental, refusing to treat narrative as a magic elixir. Language has limits:

Though this book engages extensively with this history of storytelling as a means of promoting survival and resistance in the face of captivity, it does so without claiming that the practice is always successful. The telling of individual stories can seem to offer redemption, but it can also work to hide ongoing political failures that prevent redress and renewal and can even lead to further violence.

Or as a former ISIS prisoner puts it, “If anyone comes and asks, I will tell them what happened to me; but no one can bring back the dead.”

ISIS developed a rigorous system for it all. Prisoners were given “slave numbers” to organize things, then offered to bidders. Single women, assumed to be virgins, were most salable, sliding quickly through the churn of bodies and dispersing across Syria and Iraq, wherever ISIS held territory. At a former refinery, for instance, women and girls were chained to the walls, then beaten and raped by multiple men. Their jailers used forced contraception to prevent inconvenient biological developments. “It costs more for one with blue eyes,” remarks one rapist; “Check her teeth,” advises another.

Lest we think that radical Islam rejects neoliberalism altogether, ISIS developed a mobile-phone app to expedite the slave trade and held computerized lotteries for the most beautiful captives. One prisoner observed that the ISIS men selected human beings “as if they were buying vehicles.” They treated their trucks better. Escape attempts — and there were many, because the women fought their captors constantly — were punished by gang rape or execution. Some attempted suicide when they couldn’t get away. Others smeared dirt and ash on their daughters’ faces and their own, an old Yezidi practice meant to make them unattractive to their keepers.

Otten renders all of this in the best kind of humanist journalism: lucid, transparent, grimly realistic. She is a guide who shifts readers from scene to scene, from voice to voice, from disaster to disaster. Although With Ash on Their Faces does have a temporal chronology that stretches from August 2014 to the near present, its structural logic is ultimately more fractured, episodic, looping, dreamlike. This form mimics the recurrent nature of trauma, as the testimonies she collects overlap into a horrifying texture.

Marketizing rape wasn’t the only way ISIS tried to break the Yezidis. Boys as young as seven were taken to camps where they would be brainwashed and trained to fight. Other children were simply killed in front of their mothers; sometimes their bodies were buried in graves so shallow that hungry dogs dug them out. One woman who had been sold multiple times tried unsuccessfully to kill herself and her children by soaking them with gasoline. “I have lost all my other memories,” another recounts. The awful scenes keep accumulating, and it can be tough going for a reader. But Otten’s moral imagination is embodied in her narrative style. Her prose points to these atrocities — it says this happened, look at it.

For the women who have escaped ISIS (and Otten tells their stories of flight in gripping, vivid fashion) these experiences have lasting effects. Some of the fallout is physical. One Yezidi gynecologist estimates that 90 percent of her patients have been raped; their ailments range from chronic urinary-tract infections to debilitating pelvic pain. Then there is the psychological residue of captivity. Another Yezidi doctor has had some success with narrative therapy, which allows people with PTSD to share their ordeals, but most of the women Otten meets have suicidal thoughts, and some go through with it — “Some girls killed themselves because they didn’t want to face their families,” reports an escapee.

Nearly 4,000 Yezidi women and girls remain missing. To date, no one — not the Kurds, not the Iraqi government, not the Americans — has attempted a large-scale rescue mission. In the void, a loose network of businessmen smugglers has developed, often charging families enormous sums of money in exchange for their female relatives. It has been at best a partial success. Meanwhile, after being hobbled by coalition airstrikes and grinding battles with the Peshmerga, ISIS is rebounding. Sinjar City and nearby towns remain in ruins, and the region’s various players are scuffling for geopolitical and military influence. Three hundred and fifty thousand Yezidis are still displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan. The women endure amid all this, ignored (when not exploited) by most Western journalists. “No matter where we are, we think only about those of us who are still in captivity,” a survivor tells Otten. After finishing this slim book, you too may think of little else.


Ryan Boyd teaches at the University of Southern California.

LARB Contributor

Ryan Boyd lives in Los Angeles and teaches at the University of Southern California. Having quit Twitter, he can now be found on Bluesky (@ryanboyd.bsky.social).


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