THE RUMPUS MINI-INTERVIEW PROJECT #128: DUNYA MIKHAIL

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I first became aware of Dunya Mikhail through her poem “The Iraqi Nights, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. The poem begins:

In the first year of war they played “bride and groom”
and counted everything on their fingers:
their faces reflected in the river;
the waves that swept away their faces
before disappearing;
and the names of newborns.

The intimacy and terror of this image blew me away.

Since then, I have learned that Dunya Mikhail is a writer who wears many hats. Trained as a journalist in Baghdad and the author of several books of poetry in Arabic and English, including The War Works Hard, which won the PEN Translation Prize, Mikhail says that when she was young, she wanted to be a prophet because she thought prophets wrote influential books. Later, she fell in love with poetry.

Mikhail’s newest book, The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, which comes out later this month from New Directions, combines many modes. Part-memoir, part-oral history, it’s the story of Yazidi women living under ISIS rule, and their incredible escape with the help of the beekeeper, a man who knows the local terrain and uses his knowledge and connections to bring each of these women through Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, to safety.

Over email, I spoke with Mikhail about her own tale of collecting these interviews, her experience of Iraq as a girl, and her journey towards becoming a writer and translating her own work.

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The Rumpus: The Beekeeper is a collection of stories from mostly Yazidi women who were captured by ISIS and then escaped. Can you tell us a little about how you came upon these stories?

Dunya Mikhail: It started with one letter (N), a letter shaped in Arabic as a half circle with a dot above. ISIS wrote that letter with thick markers on the doors of minorities in the northern towns of Iraq. (N) stood for nasara, or non-Muslim, and was a threat: minorities should leave their homes or get killed. My cousin woke up to that mark (N) on her door and she had to leave her home in which she had lived since birth. The details she told me were horrifying and strange. I didn’t know what to do with my sentiments, but I wrote a poem titled “N.” Then I saw on the Internet a convoy of hundreds of people (mostly Yazidis) walking barefoot, clutching their children or carrying elderly people on their backs. I contacted my friends in the area wondering what was going on. I learned that men were killed and women were stolen and sold in what Daesh called the “sabaya market.” The word “sabaya” means “female sex slaves.” At that point, I felt that writing a poem was not enough. I felt the need to be directly involved. The people I spoke with told me that writing about what’s happening is the best kind of involvement.

Rumpus: The women who have been able to escape slavery under ISIS have done so with the help of a broad network of friends and smugglers. Who makes up this network?

Mikhail: My contacts led me by chance to someone who depended in the beginning on his friends in Syria to help him find his sister and niece and cousins who were captives in Raqa. Before ISIS, he was a beekeeper in Sinjar, trading honey between Iraq and Syria. Without really knowing it, he switched from the bee hives into developing a network of smugglers who were able to save more and more people from the clutches of Daesh. Both jobs (bee hive and smugglers cell) required almost the same skills: care, caution, and step-by-step planning. Some of the smugglers he dealt with used to run cigarettes and they shifted to smuggling captives. The network grew and the risk grew with it. Many men and women in the network were ambushed and killed by ISIS fighters.

Rumpus: In The Beekeeper, you weave interview with autobiographical vignettes, memories of Iraq during your childhood, and even poetry. How did you come to these modes, and how were you able to fit them together?

Mikhail: The captives I interviewed often expressed their feelings in tears. I didn’t mention in the book how much they cried and how much I was moved by their stories. Instead, I wrote poems. I was not sure, during the process of making this book, if I was going to keep those poems as part of the book or not. Also, I didn’t intend to include my own experience. But events and stories reminded me of parts of my life in a way or another. I felt (and I hope) they fit well with the captives’ stories.

Rumpus: Can you speak a little about your writing process as both a poet and a journalist?

Mikhail: One day, when I was a little girl and it was my turn to answer my teacher about what we wanted to be, I said that I wanted to be a prophet. I thought I could do that by writing a good influential book. Anyway, I was totally obsessed with writing poems including those I gave to my friends on their birthdays and I almost forgot about becoming a prophet. When I graduated from the University of Baghdad with a degree in English literature, I was hired as a journalist for the Baghdad Observer. I think that my experience writing news stories improved my poetry so much. I believe that a good poet should be a good journalist first. I don’t mean that s/he should necessarily work as a journalist but should use those skills of making a story interesting. Journalists use a hook in their writing and they know how to start and how to end. They quietly stay behind their piece and not in front of it and I think this works very well for literature in general.

Rumpus: I notice that many interviewees in your book, including the Beekeeper himself, encourage you to write their stories, so that the world may know what has happened. What did you see as your role in writing this book, and what do you think is the relationship (if any) between art, witnessing, and action?

Mikhail: In general, I can’t go on living without writing. But this book, in particular, I couldn’t go on living without writing it. How I did it was less important although it did really require me to be several people in one: journalist, poet, novelist, photographer, translator, and yes, witness. Like any other writer, I am a person of words not actions, or more accurately, my words are my action. I witnessed injustice and the only justice I could give in return was to write this to the best of my ability. All art is somehow a kind of witness, whether to beauty or to anything else. But what matters more than reporting realities is how you engage with it, both aesthetically and morally.

Rumpus: Interspersed with escaped women’s interviews are snippets of your own life, including memories of your grandmother, the Iran-Iraq war, and your childhood. What was your experience of Iraq as a girl, and your perception of it now, after living for so long outside of it?

Mikhail: The first stories I heard in my life were from my grandmother. We didn’t have books in our home but she told me folk tales, which fascinated me. I used to write them down in my notebook. She was a wise woman who liked to tell me the moral lessons behind those stories, but she was somehow weird or different, and I liked that about her. In 2014 when I saw Daesh fighters destroying sites and statues and graves, I thought of my grandmother who had lived and died in that area. I felt as if she died again; she whose life events happened once and forever. I was twenty-two when both my grandmother and my father died. I was one daughter (the oldest of five kids) living under a sky spotted with airplanes and missiles but the country was not only boiling with wars but also with discussions of poetry and with tea. It smelled of both gunpowder and the “razqi” scent, a flower that exists only in Iraq. Well, to recall my life in Iraq with all its beautiful and horrible memories is to look through the many sides of a kaleidoscope.

Rumpus: What was it like to return to Iraq in 2016 for the first time in 20 years, in order to meet some of the escaped women whom you’d been interviewing?

Mikhail: When I left Iraq, it was with one goal: to not look back. But just like Orpheus, I broke that commitment. My family was very concerned about me when I decided to go back [in 2016] and tried to change my mind. Well, the trip was short but will last forever. What surprised me the most was the hope people in Iraq tried to give me. One of the women I interviewed in the Al-amal camp (which means hope, by the way) pointed to a picture of nature in her 2016 calendar and said that the next calendar would probably have more green pictures like this.

Rumpus: At one point, you recall being a young girl during the Iran-Iraq war, and learning that all the young men would be conscripted. “I thanked God for being a girl,” you write. This particular vignette speaks eloquently to the vulnerability not just of women in war, but of young men.

Mikhail: I was a teenager and just had my period, so I was terrified by the fact that I had to bleed every month. But as I heard (around that same time) that all boys were called to carry arms and go to the battlefield to fight the Iranians, I thought that I was lucky, at least my bleeding was regular. Theirs was irregular and sometimes with no aid.

Being a woman shaped so much of my life, especially back home. For example, as a kid, I asked an adult relative: where do kids come from? She said they buy them from the hospital. I said “for how much?” She said “The boy for ten dinars and the girl for five dinars.” Well, later I found it interesting to learn that under Iraqi law, girls inherit half of what boys inherit. I wondered if that was where the half-price thought came from? Many other life experiences I witnessed informed my consciousness as a girl. I would need a whole book to mention them all.

Rumpus: I read that you first wrote The Beekeeper in Arabicand then co-translated it into English. Is it difficult (or perhaps joyous) to translate your own words?

Mikhail: Both joyous and difficult. I have the habit of editing my work so many times so when I translate my own work I am free to go back and forth and I make changes in the original, not only in the translation. It was a happy and beneficial experience to co-translate with Max Weiss. He’s so smart and kind. I also learned so much from the book’s editor, Tynan Kogane.

Rumpus: This book begins with a meditation on the Arabic letter ن “noon.” This letter has taken on special significance in recent years, as it has been used by ISIS to signify nasara—that is, non-believers. What’s the relationship between language and memory, and language and violence?

Mikhail: The Bible starts with “in the beginning was the word”, and the Quran starts with the word “Read…” But not only prophets know the power of words. Terrorists know it as well. Ironically, Daesh fighters get high by chanting certain words that raise their adrenaline level to the point where they forget everything but what those words call them to do including praying and raping. The survivors [of terror], on the other hand, are silent. They survived alone and they cannot forget what happened to them and to their loved ones. Giving voice to their silent and painful memory is difficult but extremely important. Bringing their personal memory to the public rather than ignoring it is honors their need to bear witness. To speak about the unspeakable is part of our responsibility as writers.

Rumpus: What has shaped you as a writer?

Mikhail: Life with all its secrets. Every poem is one more secret revealed.


Emily Robbins is the author of the novel, A Word for Love, which was inspired by her experience as a Fulbright Fellow in Syria, where she studied with a women’s mosque movement and lived with the family of a leading intellectual. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times and Literary Hub. More from this author →