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Fluter Interview with Ronya Othmann
“Many had never heard of Yazidis”

Ronya Othmann
Photo (detail): © Hanser Verlag / © Cihan Cakmak

Ronya Othmann’s debut novel, Die Sommer, is about the destruction of a Yazidi village. But what does that have to do with her and life in Germany?

In her debut novel Die Sommer (The Summers), writer and taz columnist Ronya Othmann (27) tells the story of a girl named Leyla who, like Othmann, is growing up near Munich and spends her summer holidays with her father's Kurdish-Yazidi family in a village in northern Syria. Her idyllic life in the village, with her grandmother at its hub, suddenly comes to an end when Islamic State (IS) invade the area in 2014. The terrorist organization, which consider the Yazidis as godless devil worshippers, proceed to murder, rape and abduct thousands of them. Watching the news on TV back in Germany, Leyla wishes she could do something for them and feels increasingly powerless. We talked to Othmann about her connection to Leyla and whether she sees any chance of the Yazidis being able to live in peace again in their ancestral region someday.

fluter.de: One very striking line from your book is about the news of the 2014 Yazidi genocide reaching Germany: “It's odd,” says Leyla's father, “but now, for the first time, Germans know who we are.” Do you feel that’s true?

Ronya Othmann: At least they know we exist now. Before the genocide, many of them had never even heard of Yazidis. Today, many can still remember the images of the 2014 Islamic State massacre in Shingal, Iraq, for which the place is now infamous. But that doesn't necessarily mean everyone now knows who or what Yazidis are – many still think they’re a Christian or Islamic sect, neither of which is true. Germany happens to have the largest Yazidi diaspora community.

In Seventy-Four, which won the audience award at the Festival of German-Language Literature in 2019, you approached the subject from a nonfictional first-person perspective. Die Sommer, on the other hand, is told through the eyes of Leyla, a fictional character, although your biographies roughly coincide. Why did you choose fiction?

Ronya Othmann: In Seventy-Four I recounted my own impressions of a trip to Iraq and the camps where many Yazidis live today. It was very intense, right up close, something I couldn't fictionalize at all. I’d already written the book, which is largely about my memories of Yazidi villages that no longer exist. Here I wanted an observer who gives the other characters room to tell their stories.

Back in Germany, when Leyla hears about the Yazidi genocide, she feels powerless and even guilty because all she can do is sit there and watch. How did you cope with this feeling of helplessness yourself at the time?

Ronya Othmann: I felt very much the same way. Everyone was shocked by the images, and many of us in the diaspora felt ashamed about watching it all happen from a safe distance. Sure, we could go out and protest in Germany, calling attention to the genocide and raising money – but we just couldn't really do anything about the situation. I focused mainly on gathering reports and details so I and others could get a sense of the situation on the ground.

In the book, Leyla's father advises her not to tell anyone exactly where she’s going when she visits her grandparents. As a Yazidi or Kurd in Germany, is there any reason to be afraid or keep your identity a secret?

Ronya Othmann: The father's advice actually concerns the journey itself, that she’d better not tell anyone in Turkey or Syria where she’s headed because Yazidis and Kurds tend to be unwelcome in the region. But this is a problem in Germany, too. Salafists and IS sympathizers actually attacked Yazidis here back in 2014 – attacks by the Turkish ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves are nothing new. What is new is that IS militants are coming back, which means not only are there many victims, but also many perpetrators here in Germany.

The central cataclysm in your book is the 2014 genocide, as a result of which the little village in which Leyla spent her summers seems to be gone forever. But thanks to subsequent developments in the region, Islamic State – at least in the form it took at the time – is now history, and large swathes of northern Syria were subsequently under Kurdish administration. How do you know where to stop when writing a book?

Ronya Othmann: I could have covered developments up to the present, especially as the years since 2014 have brought many further changes to northern Syria. All the same, the history of this Yazidi village – which really did exist and where I spent some of my summer holidays – is over now. And so is the history of the entire region. Many men were murdered, women raped, cemeteries destroyed. Those who could, got away. So there’s no Yazidi life there anymore. And the normal village life I describe in the book won’t be back anytime in the foreseeable future, so that’s exactly what I wanted to preserve in writing.

What, then, are the prospects for the locals? Can a country like Germany help reconstruct there?

Ronya Othmann: For one thing, you need stability first. Shingal, Iraq, where the genocide by and large occurred, is now being ravaged by Turkish air strikes. And it still lacks basic infrastructure: during their retreat, Islamic State left mines all over the place, so there’s no returning there safely for the time being. Thousands have been living in makeshift tent cities for years. Similar situation in Syria, where there’s little chance of peace for the time being – in my opinion, peace isn’t possible as long as President Assad remains in office. From a German perspective, I think it's important not to accept this state of affairs as normal or to simply ignore it. What’s also important in Germany is the trials that are just getting started: torturers from Assad’s regime are being tried, but so are IS militants. That’s a start. But there will have to be many more trials for the Yazidis to obtain any form of justice.