4 Different Covers for ‘In the Sabaya Market’

How to visually present Dunya Mikhail’s Fi Suq al-Sabaya

Let’s say you’re publishing a book — part memoir, part journalism, part poetry — primarily centered around the stories of women who were kidnapped by the so-called “Islamic State.” Suppose these stories, written (let’s suppose) by Dunya Mikhail, take on an almost fable-like tone of resistance and despair. How do you reach the readers you want without falling into front-cover tropes of the exotic, the erotic, the women-needing-to-be-saved?

It’s relatively easy to talk about what a cover shouldn’t do — not unduly prejudice the reader against the book’s project; not evoke ugly frame-stereotypes that will send a reader scrambling down bad interpretive paths; not lead them to thinking it’s a good idea to send more warplanes to Iraq, for instance, or to subject Yazidi to a secondary exploitation. But it seems less easy to talk about what translation work it could do for the book (outside of being a work of art in itself, and selling copies).

The Arabic cover (Al-Mutawassit Publications) is the most  straightforward of the four: Mikhail’s original title, “In the sabaya market,” foregrounds a word that had fallen out of usage, which ISIS brought back. This is a particular word for a woman captured as “war booty” and turned into a slave. The Arabic cover’s background is a solid green of a shade not entirely unreminiscent of the Saudi flag. At the bottom, there are black-clad human heads, and above them a bar code to indicate their sale, the juxtaposition of the traditional and the contemporary, cloth and machine, neither particularly warm or humane. The humans are indistinguishable, unnamed, as they apparently were to their captors. It is certainly a startling cover, standing in juxtaposition to the book’s apparent purpose: to tell women’s stories, to make their realities primary. To see through their eyes, and not their captors’.

The US edition The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, co-translated by Mikhail and Max Weiss (New Directions Books), features what might be an indistinct cloud of bees, or perhaps a cloud of sorrow or ashes, with nothing that’s clear save for two honeybees in the upper right-hand cover of the cover. If the women are anywhere, they are somewhere in or behind the cloud. This certainly avoids the “saving Muslim women” cover image, of a woman clad in black with alluring kohl-rimmed eyes. It also avoids both market and sabaya. Instead, the US title and cover image foregrounds beekeeper Abdullah Shrem, who helped set up a rescue network to assist women fleeing slavery, and also brought their stories to Mikhail.

The UK edition (Serpent’s Tail) keeps the cover image. It differs in that the “rescuing stolen women” subtitle is removed, and the reader is trusted to understand a reference to “Sinjar.”

The Italian edition (Nutrimenti), as Chiara Comito notes, re-foregrounds the images and presence of women. However, they are very different, here, than on the Arabic cover. The Italian title, Le regine rubate del Sinjar (The Stolen Queens of Sinjar), translated by Elena Chiti, also doesn’t have a market or sabaya. The “stolen” is much as in the US subhead. The “queens” of the title calls out to Shrem’s beekeeperly reference to these women within the book.

The art of the Italian cover comes from the stunning, women-centric, sometimes gender-bending work of Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman; specifically, from a series of works called “How Iraqi Are You?” Kahraman’s works are evocative — sometimes playful and sometimes grim; sometimes playfully grim. They’ve been used on at least one other book cover: Sinan Antoon’s The Poetics of the Obscene in Premodern Arabic Poetry: Ibn al-Hajjaj and Sukhf. Yet out of context, paired with a title Le regine rubate del Sinjar, the art also seems (at least to an Anglophone gaze) almost erotic.

Each of them is a different translational act, an opening sentence before the opening sentence, keying the reader to look in a somewhat different direction.