Excerpts from 'The Bird Tattoo' debut novel by Dunya Mikhail

Ahram Online , Wednesday 22 Sep 2021

In her first novel 'The Bird Tatto,' Iraqi poet, Dunya Mikhail, narrates a fascinating and painful journey of a Yazidi woman who is held captive by IS, in the north of Iraq

Bird Tattoo

In her first novel 'The Bird Tatto,' Iraqi poet, Dunya Mikhail, narrates a fascinating and painful journey of a Yazidi woman who is held captive  by IS, in the north of Iraq. She escapes the clutches of the Organization and is reunited with some family members. But her life is forever changed.

the novel was published by Dar AlRafaidin, in 2020. It was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

The following text is an excerpt from the novel.

Members of the Organization had taken all the captives’ possessions, including their gold wedding rings. But Helen's wedding ring was not a ring. It was a tattoo of a bird. She was staring down at her finger when someone started shouting “27! Number 27!” 

He sounded angry, and as Helen belatedly realized that she was number 27, she wondered if she was in trouble because she had just left the queue and run to Amina. She hadn't believed her eyes when she’d spotted her dearest childhood friend on the other side of the hall. Amina, too, had opened her mouth in disbelief.

Their tearful hug didn't last more than few seconds when the irate voice announced, 27 is sold.” The speaker was pointing at Helen. In his other hand, he carried a cardboard box filled with all the captives' cell phones.

“Leave her alone!" Amina protested, but her voice was barely audible. All the phones in the box were ringing, their loud tones coming from anxious relatives who kept calling and calling the women captives gathered there, but getting no answers. 

The man, who wore a long black shirt that reached his knees and trousers to just above his ankle, pushed Amina so hard she fell to the floor.

Helen bent down to help her up, but the man pulled Helen away and led her to another room. He threw her to the floor and left, closing the door behind him.

Other women sat there on the floor with their heads down. They too were labeled with numbers, like those distant planets that have no names.

The one woman who had no number sat at a desk. She handed Helen a paper and said: “This is your marriage certificate. Your husband will come soon.”

Helen returned the paper without looking at it and replied: “I’m already married.”

“Abu Tahseen purchased you online, and he's on his way here.”

If she had not seen it with her own eyes, Helen would never have believed a market for selling women existed. What had surprised her even more was that this market was in a school building. Its name, Flowers of Mosul, was displayed on a banner at the front of the building, which looked just like the elementary school she had once attended with her twin brother Azad.

But even their principal, the strict Ms. Ilham, would be unable to comprehend the idea of a market for women. For Ms. Ilham, chewing gum had been immoral, even if it was done during breaks. Azad, who was fond of the Arrow brand of gum, had thought that it was no different from the candies that other students ate without any problem, until the day Ms. Ilham summoned him to her office.

Azad had been frightened that Ms. Ilham would hit him on the hand with the sharp side of her ruler, as he had seen her doing to students who were late to class. They were supposed to be in their seats before the bell rang so that when their teacher entered, they would all stand up in a show of respect. But to his astonishment, when, at the end of her questioning, she found out who had given Azad the gum, Ms. Ilham had smiled and said, “Say hello to your uncle Mr. Murad and tell him that gum is prohibited. Now go to your classroom.”

This room was similar to the principal’s office, with its neat table at which now sat the numberless woman busily managing the sale of captives.

"Put on these clothes. The photographer will come soon,” she said, handing a plastic bag to another prisoner in the room. Helen had been surprised by the contrast in the style of clothes imposed by the Organization. In the beginning, they had been forced to wear the niqab, through which only the eyes are visible. Later, they were forced to change into “promo” clothes for pictures and sale exhibitions. The photographer had asked Helen to wipe away her tears in order for him to take the picture.

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