Singing Lessons in Khanke
It’s another hot, fall day in Iraq, and the girls—away from ISIS, who raided their towns in 2014 and sold them into sexual slavery for as little as a cigarette—are learning to sing. The thin linoleum floor vibrates under each tap of Mamo the music teacher’s loafers. Through the window of this makeshift classroom in this makeshift complex, toddlers who might grow up in Khanke camp for the internally displaced play games of make-believe.
I’ve just appalled the students by crooning Adele’s “Hello From the Other Side,” which no one appears to recognize. The girls are only a few classes into Mamo’s three-month course, after which a new group will take their place. Everyone who attends the lessons identifies as Yezidi, an ancient, ethno-religious minority from northern Iraq.
Yezidis revere Melek Taus, a peacock angel. They name olive trees at their holiest site and believe in an afterlife. They take care to step over thresholds in doorways. They drink alcohol and sometimes brag about it to distinguish themselves from Muslims. And many of them say ISIS’ attack is the seventy-fourth genocide they have suffered.
ISIS accuses Yezidis of being “devil worshippers.” They killed thousands of Yezidi men, and with fleets of buses, transported thousands of captured women and children to warehouses before selling them into slavery. The youngest and prettiest girls were chosen first. But eventually, even the less attractive ones were taken. Each sexual act, a twelve-year-old told Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times, was bookended by a kneeling prayer.
Shiny pink songbooks with covers of Ariel the little mermaid and Belle from Beauty and the Beast lay on their desks. “Music makes you forget trouble,” says the only girl in the classroom with blonde hair. “Music takes away psychological stress,” says another. No one else wants to talk about why music matters to them.
I don’t know which girls managed to escape with their families that hot August day in 2014 when ISIS invaded, and which were captured and consigned to an existence from which, in psychological and physical ways, many can never come back. I don’t have the desire to ask. Too many journalists have descended on them for the same gruesome story.
Should they relive it one more time? A few survivors choose to share their experiences widely, like Nadia Murad, who became an activist and UN Goodwill Ambassador after giving testimony of being raped and tortured. But I hope this is not the girls’ only story. So I stay quiet and study them for other details as they sit here, gathered for singing class, in white plastic chairs:
One girl wears cheetah flip-flops. Another—silver, reflective slip-ons. Blue high-tops with old, brown laces. I spot chipped red toenails, black-penciled eyebrows, yellow and pink bead bracelets, and a butterfly hair clip glinting with rhinestones—things that make girls feel pretty. One girl wears a hoodie with the word “Miracle” written on it in English.
Most of them have pulled their hair back into low tufted buns or loose ponytails that fall over their shoulders, like college girls who rolled out of bed just before class. By my count, only five students wear headscarves: a gauzy aqua cotton, a black ruffled one, a soil-colored brown one, and two in red and black plaid. Some of the enslaved girls and women twisted scarves like these into nooses, desperate to escape.
Suddenly the teacher points to his notes on the whiteboard and summons the girls to sing the scales. What comes out of their mouths is soft and high-pitched, like children humming or birds chirping. The sum of these thirty-one voices barely fills the room. It is so achingly quiet.
Then Mamo says something in Kurdish and the girls’ laughter breaks the stillness. They laugh louder than they sing.
Mamo—who was caught in a shootout with ISIS while attempting to defend his Yezidi temple—starts strumming his saz, luring the girls into folksongs they grew up with, like “Daye,” Mother. They sing “On The Leaf of the New Tree” about a groom who buys clothing for his bride, and “Proposal,” a tragic love story about a boy in love with a girl whose family rushes her into an engagement with someone else. They sing a song about a meadow of flowers where a couple used to meet.
The field has dried up.
Who will they be after they leave this room? For the hour, they sing songs that stay the same.
Sasha Ingber is the co-founder and executive director of Music in Exile, a DC-based nonprofit that documents the music and stories of people who have been displaced by war and violence. She visited the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in October 2016.