Books such as these can, on the surface at least, seem somewhat exploitational. After all, here is the story of a young woman who was abducted, sold into slavery, made to endure unimaginable hardships. She tells her tale gradually to a German journalist who writes a book as if from the young girl’s point of view (hence the young girl’s name, Farida Khalaf, appears in slightly larger font than the person who actually wrote the book, Andrea C Hoffman). Ah, you might say, it’s just ghostwriting, it happens every day. Arguably it’s a bit more up front than any of a number of ghostwritten celebrity memoirs in which the celebrity in question loiters on the periphery objecting to the way certain ‘facts” make them look bad. And yet the close of the book, which features an afterword by Hoffman, does seem to suggest that Khalaf, quite understandably, endured hardships, post the writing of the book, that led her, for a time, to vacillate between wanting to be associated with it and not.
At the same time, this is undeniably a story that calls to our time. A young girl, herself part of a family bound by a faith that may not be known to the majority of readers, is abducted by ISIS, the so called Islamic State (referred to as ‘Daesh’ by Khalaf), and we’re privy to a sense of the ugly chaos in which they operate. She and a group of young women are separated from their families and driven over the border into Syria where they are eventually sold into slavery (with slavery basically meaning that ISIS solders own you and can do whatever they want with you). Throughout her captivity, Farida fluctuates between dark periods in which she attempts suicide and bouts of optimism in which she pushes at the walls of her prison, figuratively speaking, in order to escape. You don’t get much of the sense of tedium in captivity you get from a book like Guy Delisle’s Hostage, but then Khalaf spends much of her time recovering from savage beatings, and her captivity is far more brutal so perhaps tedium doesn’t get to play a part.
The Girl Who Escaped ISIS also does something rather surprising. In the wake of Brexit, we have had to witness a sad growth in racism and hate crime which has led many of the liberal persuasion to attempt to defend Muslims whenever ignorant people seek to denigrate them. It becomes something of a rote response: idiotic racists blame Muslims for all acts of terror, right thinking people attempt to use ‘facts’ to point out that blanket generalisations only tend to increase the hatred in the world rather than diminish it. After all, its unlikely that more hate will make the world a better place. And then the enemy in The Girl Who Escaped ISIS is largely Muslim, whether that is Muslims from neighbouring communities in Khalaf’s pre-ISIS idyll who view her and her community as devil worshippers because they don’t follow ‘the one true faith’ or the extreme Muslims who comprise ISIS or even the frightened Muslims who turn a blind eye because they don’t want the wrath of ISIS turned on themselves. This isn’t to say that The Girl Who Escaped ISIS has turned me into a racist (far from it); what it has done, powerfully, is make me question my beliefs and help me realise that there are fanatic in all faiths, that the world is always more complex than you even suspect it to be and knowledge will always help broaden your horizons. That is more than enough to justify a book’s existence.
Any Cop?: Whilst this isn’t a sturdy piece of nonfiction likely to answer any questions you have about ISIS, it does have the ring of a modern day Anne Frank about it (albeit with a kind of happy ending) – and leaves you thinking about all of the girls that so far haven’t escaped from the clutches of ISIS.