Shadow on the Mountain
A Yazidi Memoir of Terror, Resistance and Hope
Shaker Jeffrey and Katharine Holstein
Da Capo Press, New York, 2020, 320 pages
Book Review published on: July 2, 2021
Shadow on the Mountain: A Yazidi Memoir of Terror, Resistance and Hope by Shaker Jeffrey with Katharine Holstein is a first-person account of an Iraqi Yazidi who serves four years as an interpreter for U.S. forces during the surge and then survives the invasion by the Islamic State (IS) that occurs shortly after the United States leaves Iraq. As a Yazidi, an obscure and ancient ethnoreligious group indigenous to Northern Iraq, Jeffrey is regarded as an outsider in his own country. This identity is central to his account of the Iraq War and the genocide by IS that followed.
Jeffrey describes growing up in the village of Khanasour in the Nineveh Province at the base of the Mount Shingal. He led a pastoral childhood in the small village, growing up with ten siblings. He was twelve years old when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Months after the invasion, an American civil affairs team showed up in his village to repair the water pumping station. Jeffrey befriended Sgt. White, an African American soldier from North Carolina, with whom he practiced his English and frequently shared sodas from the local store. White is tragically killed by an IED in Mosul but not before Jeffrey buys into the American dream and the hope for a new Iraq.
Five years later, with his family falling on hard times due to his father’s death, Jeffrey takes a job as an interpreter with the military transition team (MiTT) in Mosul. Over the next four years, he interpreted for different teams as they flew in and out of Iraq. His assignment locations also changed as he moved to Tal Afar and then to Anbar. With each new location came different challenges. He attended classes at the MiTT Academy at Taji where he met Gen. David Petraeus, who later tried to assist Jeffrey to get back to the United States. During his time as an interpreter he was wounded three times; he was shot twice and his leg was shattered by an IED blast.
When the United States pulled out of Iraq in 2012, Jeffrey described the sadness of his American friends leaving and the uneasiness of an Iraq that does not quite seem stable. He maintained contact on social media with his American teammates—a relationship that became crucial later during the IS invasion. In postwar Iraq he met a girlfriend, attended college, and tried to move forward. However, there is always an underlying uneasiness as the IS threat grows across the border and a corrupt, incompetent Iraqi government and military ignore the impending danger.
The IS invasion occurred quickly with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces retreating before them. Separated from his family in the turmoil, Jeffrey fled with thousands of Yazidi to the protection of Mount Shingal. Without food or water, the Yazidis withered away on the mountain. However, at night, Jeffrey and others ventured into the valley to pilfer food and water for those trapped on the hill. Desperate for help, Jeffrey used his smart phone to contact his former MiTT team. They put him in touch with U.S. Central Command where he provided intelligence on IS locations. This led to the Americans air dropping food and water on the mountain to help the besieged population. Meanwhile in the valley, IS wiped out entire Yazidi villages, kidnapping women and children. Eventually the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a Kurdish paramilitary group, extracted the Mount Shingal survivors, including Jeffrey, and took them to refugee camps in Syria. There Jeffrey was reunited with his family who fled during the initial invasion. The family pooled their money to smuggle Jeffrey through Turkey and Serbia into Germany, where he sought asylum and established an organized effort working with international human rights groups to rescue the Yazidi people who had been scattered across the Middle East and Europe. All the while, IS was driven back and defeated by the coalition. The book ends with Jeffrey in Germany still trying to get a visa into the United States while his family slowly gains asylum in Germany.
As a memoir, Jeffrey’s book is not a chronological history but rather a journey from childhood to adulthood during a period of brutal wars. At times, the use of imagery and dream sequences can be distracting and even confusing when describing childhood memories, traumatic events, and accounts of combat. However, this style is effective in contrasting Jeffrey’s bucolic childhood with the horrors of war. Shadow on the Mountain provides insight into the Iraq War from the unique perspective of a military interpreter. It is also a compelling account of the decimation of the Yazidi people by IS and the efforts to rebuild some of that shattered culture. It is worth reading as both a slice of history during the surge in Iraq and a glimpse into the brutality and devastation of the IS invasion.
Book Review written by: David S. Pierson, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas