Q-and-A with award-winning Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail
MF: What is the greatest inspiration for your work? How has your writing changed since coming to America?
Dunya Mikhail: I remember, one day somebody asked me while I was reading, and somebody from the audience said that he started to write, and what was my advice about how to get inspired? As a writer do you have to live and have special experiences in order to write? I said, “Do you need experiences? Yes. But, do those experiences need to be yours? No. You don’t have to live those experiences in order to be inspired.”
My very recent poem I wrote, the title of it is “Earthquake” because of what is happening not necessarily in my country but anywhere in the world. We are influenced by what is happening in the world.
I’m not one of those writers that have certain goals or certain intentions. As a poet, my intention is not anything beyond a bird’s intention – to sing. I don’t think the bird thinks of changing the world, for example. It just enjoys singing, and that’s how I am. I enjoy working with words, and it’s true that it beautifies our world.
MF: What made you first want to start writing poetry?
Mikhail: Maybe I had nothing else to do. There is a saying that says, “A human being is valued by what they do when they have nothing to do.” I started very early … Poetry gave me a similar feeling to when you are in love. You feel like you have a secret, and you smile for no reason.
MF: What were some of the first topics that you wrote about in your poetry?
Mikhail: In Iraq, I opened my eyes to the war. I was a teenager when the Iraq-Iran war started, so I don’t know if it’s a huge war for this age to write about these crises, but that’s how I really started writing about that … My first book that I published when I was at the university, it was mostly war poems.
MF: How did poetry impact your life and cause you to have to leave Iraq?
Mikhail: Poetry saved my life … What happened is that I really needed to leave the country because when my book, “Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea” was published in Baghdad in 1995, there were a lot of question marks … The book was an anti-war document. It was a humanitarian document. It did not take sides…But even that was not acceptable for the regime because they expect from you to praise their side. Even if you don’t take sides, that’s a bad thing. You should take sides – their side.
A friend warned me that there was some negative report. The case in Iraq is that people can write reports about you, and there could be a big investigation, you could get in big trouble, in prison, even killed. They were telling me, “you need to leave as soon as possible.”
How poetry saved my life is that it is hard to leave Iraq quickly because first … as a journalist for the Baghdad Observer, you need a leave of absence, and that takes a very complicated procedure, a long time. But a friend of mine … knew people in the passport office – and used his influence. They changed my profession from “journalist” to “poet” so that I didn’t need a leave of absence … So I could leave fast because of poetry. Although, I also had to leave because of my poetry … but it was like poetry paid me back.
I left in the summer of 1995 in July. I stayed in Jordan about 9 months until the day of my birthday, when left for America. I’ve been in the U.S. ever since.
MF: How did it affect you when the U.S. invaded Iraq, and how do you think that has changed your country?
Mikhail: It’s hard to see it positively … The saying in English, the “ends justifies the means,” I don’t believe in this … I know what the war is. Whatever goal you have, I am against it … For me, the end does not justify the means … Like many other Iraqis, I was dreaming of a change in Iraq, I was dreaming of a democratic Iraq, of having normal life. But that’s not the means that I dreamed of.
MF: What do you write about now?
Mikhail: The difference is not only what [I write] about, but the difference is even in the way of writing. Before I was using more war images, more metaphors, more levels of meaning … Now, it’s more realistic. I don’t feel the need to always hide behind those meanings. There’s no censorship here.
MF: What is the importance of poetry, writing and literary expression to you in today’s society in the Arab world?
Mikhail: In the Arab world, the published word, in general, has a leading role. It has an importance in the life of people … In Arab world … you see them talking, listening – listening to songs, listening to poetry. They gather around for poetry readings. They expect poetry to be tarab – pleasing to the ear.
That is why you see leaders, especially dictators pay big prizes to those who praise them and even kill those who don’t … That’s why censorship is important in the Arab world … A word there may cost one’s life. If you don’t say the right thing, you may pay your life as a prize. I was not ready yet, so you find other ways.
MF: How did you come to receive the UN Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing?
Mikhail: It seems I just got lucky. Many Iraqis deserve this award. Some deserve it more than me. Some ended up in prison. I was not in prison. Freedom of writing was essential in my life. It was essential for me. In Jordan, I wrote. I had a column in the newspaper. But I think some people nominated me, and I got lucky with that.