Review: Disquiet: A Novel – Zülfü Livaneli

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As the title suggests, Disquiet (Zülfü Livaneli, Other Press, translated from Turkish by Brendan Freely) is a novel with many layers. On the surface, Turkish journalist, Ibrahim, returns from Istanbul to his hometown of Mardin near the Syrian border, following news that his childhood friend, Hussein, has been murdered by neo-Nazis in Germany. Although the two have lost contact over the years, unravelling his friend’s experiences draws Ibrahim into not just their past, but the region’s ancient history and the conflicts that continue to divide its people.

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Below the surface of the narrative, Disquiet is a reflection on the passage of time and the circular nature of human interaction. Ibrahim’s return to his hometown sees him reminiscing over a past in which Islam meant charity and connection, rather than the violence and fear brought by ISIS. He notices the changes that have come during his lifetime, but also finds himself exploring patterns of violence and persecution spanning centuries as he learns of his friend’s much-maligned engagement to an Ezidi (Yazidi) woman, and delves into the beliefs, culture, and history of her people.

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A Kurdish-speaking minority group residing primarily in Iraq and Syria, the Yazidi follow a monotheistic religion distinct from those of the Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Islam and Christianity). Their religious taboos are unique and unfamiliar to most audiences, but through Ibrahim’s quest they are introduced to the reader both as foreign and as connected to a long history of mystical, almost magical, stories, poetry and folklore. Through this, the reader is encouraged to be curious about a people whose existence has been severely threatened by the actions of the Islamic State, but who have sometimes been viewed as evil and dangerous by the communities to which they have fled.

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Ibrahim’s career as a journalist provides a lens through which he is able to ask questions; although the effect of having the story narrated to him by others is one of emotional distancing. At times, this is important, and perhaps even necessary – the weight of the Ezidi women’s experiences as prisoners of ISIS is heavy even when presented through a young survivor, Zilan’s, flat, emotionless state of dissociation – but at others it leaves Ibrahim as less a protagonist than an observer. The story’s action occurs elsewhere, which prevents the reader from becoming entirely absorbed in it.

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As Ibrahim’s quest to discover the truth shifts focus from Hussein to his Ezidi fiancée, Meleknaz, Ibrahim becomes more active in the story, but his actions can be seen as problematic. For a refugee woman, subject to severe trauma in her home country, to be pursued by an unknown male in a place where she has sought asylum represents significant danger and the threat of further traumatisation. It is not presented this way, however, and instead makes her object, rather than subject, in her own story. So much has already been taken from her by ISIS, so the placement of Ibrahim at the centre of Meleknaz’s story can be viewed as a further affront to her dignity and humanity.

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Despite some difficulties with Ibrahim’s place within the story, Disquiet is nonetheless a worthwhile read. Without recognising the atrocities occurring in the world, and the history that precedes them, we become destined to allow them to continue. The novel explores difference as something to be approached with curiosity and kindness, rather than fear and aggression. In doing so, it both draws attention to the experiences of the Ezidi people and asks questions about the ways in which we can prevent their story from being repeated.

Thanks to Other Press for providing an advance copy of Disquiet for review. It will be publicly available for purchase on 29 June 2021.

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