In her first novel ‘The Bird Tattoo’ (Washm AlTaeir), Iraqi poet and writer Dunya Mikhail narrates a fascinating and painful journey of a Yazidi woman who is held captive by the Islamic State in northern Iraq. She escapes the clutches of the organisation and is reunited with some family members, but her life is forever changed.
Dar AlRafaidin published the first edition in 2020 and the second edition this year. “The Bird Tattoo” was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
Mikhail was brought up in the mid-1960s in Baghdad, where she lived, studied and worked as a journalist and writer, until fleeing the country in the mid-1990s over the controversial poem ‘Diary of aWave Outside the Sea,’ which did not conform to the dominant narrative on good and bad in the Iraqi wars.
She first moved to Jordan and then to the US where she has been living, teaching Arabic and writing.
Ahram Online: This is your first novel. Why did you decide to embark on this particular project when you had so far been committed to poetry?
Dunya Mikhail:Poetry took a different identity in this novel. It is present, I hope, as an energy that charges the text with images and metaphors. The motivation for this work of fiction was to liberate the captives artistically, investing more in imagination along the way of telling their story. I had to create so much beauty to make some balance with all that pain. The fundamentalists [of IS] claimed women as property. For them, the female captives (sabaya) had no human features and no names, just numbers, just bodies. My work (in all literary genres) is a way of writing back. My pen is my best weapon.
Novel Washm AlTaeir cover
AO: This novel tells the horrendous ordeal of the Yazidi women – and Yazidi men for that matter – but it also tells the story of women’s strength and resilience. In a certain sense, isn’t this also the story of the pain and agony of women who live under oppression everywhere?
DM:Exactly. In ‘The Bird Tattoo,’ we learn how the solidarity of women and their standing with each other functions as an endeavour to become visible and to gain back their dignity, voice, and human value. And I agree with you that it’s also a story of injustice anywhere in the world. This doubles the importance of art. When ideology controls the writing of the history of society, the realities that do not serve the idea of the authoritarian group will be marginalised and even falsified, and the most dangerous thing that can happen to the society is for that group to pass its one singular idea on generations, and the latter adopts that one story as the truth, especially since the characters or witnesses who represent the other side of the story, die after the passage of time, and their collective memory disappears with them, and here comes the importance of literature in shedding light on those marginalised lives and transferring their memory from the past to the future.
AO: The ordeal of Yazidi women was also the theme of your first non-fiction book (Fi Souq AlSabaya: In the market of the female slaves) that appeared in Arabic in 2016 and in other languages including English and is going to be published early next month in French by Grasset. How do these two books of fiction and non-fiction relate?
DM:I wanted to present the truth in a different way, that’s why I wrote the novel. The difference between the two books is that in the novel I zoomed closer on the details of one captive woman, Helen, whose name, by the way, means “bird nest” in the Kurdish language. There’s a common note we usually find in novels where it says something like any similarities between the characters and real people are by coincidence. On the contrary, I included a note that “this is a work of fiction, but resemblance to persons now living with us is not coincidental.” Abdullah is the only real character who re-appears in the novel but each of the other characters contributes to the truth in a way or another. Abdullah is a beekeeper whom I came across on the phone in 2015 while trying to reach out to some of the Yazidi women who miraculously escaped the slavery of Daesh. His role was needed in the novel as well.
AO: So how did it happen, in the beginning?
DM:I had managed to get my hands on a few telephone numbers of some of the women who broke free from IS. I called to find the speaker on the other line, [a Yazidi woman who had been liberated], unable to express herself in Arabic, and nor could I communicate in Kurdish. Then, after a few trials, Abdullah came to the rescue and translated between us. I found that he had created a network, similar to a beehive, to help the Yazidi captives regain their freedom. His role in rescuing people is similar to that of Schindler. I call him the Iraqi Schindler, and I believe that what happened to the Yazidis is an Iraqi holocaust.
AO: However, the part of the novel where he helped liberate the Yazidi captives could perhaps serve as a perfect crescendo to this highly poetic text. Is it this part that offers the highest level of intensity in the prose?
DM:The events take us up and down in emotions and settings. It’s like a roller coaster ride where fear and hope go hand in hand, and the rising action is a series of events not only one. The experiences the characters go through will change them forever.
AO: The novel is not just a documentation of the ordeal of the Yazidi women; there is a lot more there really with this layered combat between hope and fear.
DM:It was not at all meant to be only a documentation of the plight of Yazidi women. It rather shows us the trace of the catastrophe on human souls whose lives were suddenly interrupted. The novel is not concerned with documenting history as much as it is concerned with capturing the shadows of that history. Novel, poetry, or art in general is a compass of soul in its labyrinth.
AO: But the ordeal of the soul is not over by escaping IS captivity?
DM:Survival is debatable especially when one survives alone. When Helen returns from captivity, she learns that her childhood friend Amina is killed by an explosion in Syria while she was searching for Adam, a son she had from a Daesh fighter who raped her. She tried hard to keep him despite the fact that her community refused him. For them, Adam is a reminder of an awful memory. For her, he’s an innocent infant who had nothing to do with what happened to them.
AO: This is perhaps one of the most emotional and in fact poetic scenes… I mean, how Helen mourned the death of Amina…?
DM:Helen went towards the valley. After her first tear fell, the rest poured in abundance. On the road she used to traverse with her friend, Helen imagined herself and Amina. They were fourteen years old, walking together on Eid in April among red anemones and yellow-white chamomiles. The mountain was covered in those three colours, like every spring. She remembered how Amina gathered a bouquet of anemones, braided them flower by flower into a red necklace. She did it as fast as she usually braided her own hair. Amina had put the flower necklace around Helen's neck. Helen collected chamomile flowers in her straw basket as her mother had asked her to do. Ramziya, her mother, would later give them to Umm Khairy, the village healer, as many villagers did, and Umm Kairy would make pain-relieving herbs with them.
Helen stopped walking, touching her neck, trying to trace Amina's necklace.
All of the April chamomile herbs would not be enough to relieve her pain.
AO: There is also the scene where Helen, after having escaped the slavery of IS, is lying on her back looking at the stars through a hole in the tent where she was sheltered?
DM:Through that hole she saw the stars at night, which gave her a sense of hope in that darkness surrounding the tent. Sleep did not come to her quickly so she contemplated her furture life while looking at that glittering spot in the sky.
AO: Ultimately, Helen leaves it all behind and goes to Canada where she meets other refugees/immigrants who had come from other parts of the world, where they too have had their share of atrocities…an end to pain and a new beginning towards happiness?
DM:The end of the novel is neither happy nor sad but rather symbolic. In that scene, Helen imitates the dance of a wounded bird as people do in her old village. That metaphor of pain and beauty is what I meant to conclude the novel with. However, the structure of the novel is circular. One could start at any point. I wrote this novel many times realizing that it’s like a chess game. There are many probabilities, and the best move is the one that’s examined well.
AO: What about you? How did you take up writing?
DM:Actually, writing took me first. During my childhood, there were no books in our home, but my grandmother used to tell me bedtime stories in Aramaic, the language we spoke at home. I had a notebook in which I was writing those stories in my own way in Arabic, the language I learned in school. I was born into a middle-class family as the first child. My advent to this world came as a somewhat disappointment to some relatives who felt that my father was kind enough to deserve a son. But my father was happy that I came to this world. He named me ‘Dunya’ (meaning ‘the world’ in Arabic), and he later told me I was the world to him. However, learning of that story of relatives’ unease upon my birth as a girl gave me an early awareness of myself as a woman. In secondary school, I discovered Nawal Saadawy [The prominent Egyptian feminist writer] whose books I borrowed from the school library. I realised that what women suffered in our societies was the inevitable outcome of patriarchal norms that I wished so hard to defy.
AO: Patriarchy has persisted so hard though? Today, there is a lot of concern over the fate of women in Afghanistan under Taliban…but it is not just about women in Afghanistan.
DM:It seems that there’s a regular patriarchy (every day patriarchy) under which we are all living, and another patriarchy (an extreme patriarchy) which is the type of Taliban and Daesh ideology towards women. I do believe it’s a matter of ideology rather than religion. Anyway, in all cases, just being a woman is an issue in this world.