Poet, memoirist, and journalist Dunya Mikhail’s biography complicates the vantage point of her poetry while adding variety to the American-fighting-man-centric flavor of post-9/11 war writing. Raised a Christian in Iraq, Mikhail came off age as an artist-intellectual in the difficult last years of Saddam Hussein, the First Gulf War, and the Iraq-Iran War. Attracted to the art and thought of the West, as well as the promises of democracy and strife-free everyday life, she emigrated to America in the 1990s, where she has made a home in Michigan, completed an MA in Near Eastern Studies at Wayne State, and commenced a career teaching Arabic and Arabic Studies at the university level.
The impulse to write fomenting in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mikhail began publishing a series of works, varied in genre, that trace the war’s reverberations primarily among the non-combatant civilian populaces in both her native and adopted countries. In 2005 came The War Works Hard, a volume of poetry, 2009 brought a memoir titled Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, 2013 an anthology titled 15 Iraqi Poets, and 2014 a poetry chapbook titled The Theory of Absence (Islands or Continents). Later this year will appear The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, a series of interviews with Yazidi (a small sect of Iraqi Christians) women who faced torture and death at the hands of ISIS for refusing to convert to Islam. Mikhail’s best-known work, arguably, is The Iraqi Nights, a collection of poems originally written in Arabic and then translated into English by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and published by small-press stalwarts New Directions in 2014.
The title, playing off A Thousand-and-One Nights, casts Mikhail as a contemporary Scheherazade, a spinner of story-poems, if not to save her own life literally, then to make sense of life generally during a period in which death is omnipresent. The title poem, the first in the volume, combines prose, short lyrics, and line drawings to portray the weight of war and conflict in her native country:
after a thousand and one nights,
someone will talk to someone else.
Markets will open
for regular customers.
Small feet will tickle
the giant feet of the Tigris.
Gulls will spread their wings
and no one will fire at them….
A poem called “The Plane,” about a third-of-the-way in, explicitly references American soldiers while also spatially transitioning from Iraq to the States:
The plane arriving from Baghdad
carries American soldiers:
it rises above the moon
reflected on the Tigris,
above clouds piled like corpses,
and an ancient harp,
and the beaten breasts,
and the ones who were kidnapped;
it rises above
the destruction that grows with the children,
and the long lines at the passport office,
and Pandora’s open box.
The plan and its exhausted passengers
will land six thousand miles away
from an amputated finger
lying in the sand.
Mikhail’s homeland floats in-and-out through the rest of The Iraqi Nights, as in “Iraqis and Other Monsters,” a poem that speaks to the contempt and fear Iraqis inspire in Americans, and especially American soldiers:
They are terrifying.
Their heads are dark and tremulous;
they roam the desert
in the forms of bulls and lions,
with swords gleaming in their eyes
They rub their mustaches when they make promises….
It’s one thing, I would say, to bear witness to the horrors of one’s native country and even to flee them and condemn them from abroad, but it’s probably quite another to realize that the inhabitants of your adopted homeland view people much like yourself as monsters and murderers. To escape that treacherous realization, the poems in The Iraqi Nights seek means of accommodation, reconciliation, and momentary escape.
Thus one set of The Iraqi Nights poems reference Chinese and Japanese touchstones, as if Mikhail, something of an exile in her adopted land, had gone globetrotting in search of a poetic vocabulary and cultural sensibility not so obviously infused by violence, misunderstanding, bad memories, and horrible histories. Many short lyrics adopt a mythopoetic style to register a cosmic vision informed by loss, death, the carnage of time, and the fragility of the moment, while others, such as “The Sold Parrot,” are very specific renderings of epiphanies emerging out of the everyday:
Everything is new
for the parrot:
Where’s the silver fish
that used to greet the parrot with its tail,
the bubbles flowing from its mouth?
Where’s the tank with all its stars?
Where’s the little boy
who always stopped
to stare at it
and sometimes even tried to touch it?
And most importantly of all:
where’s the woman who used to feed it from her hand
while he repeated after her:
Habibi? Indeed. The poems in The Iraqi Nights are shot-through, in all meanings of the phrase, with images of love, love lost, and the continuing search for. Or, more precisely, the search for the conditions in which love is possible, or at least not so hard, as in “Footprints on the Moon”:
When I set foot on the moon
everything told me that you were there, too:
my lighter weight,
the loss of gravity,
my heart’s rapid beating,
my mind empty of everyday concerns,
the lack of memories of any kind,
the earth off in another place,
and these footprints…
All of this points to you.
Mikhail knows, if anyone knows, of whence she speaks.
An excellent essay by Sand Opera author Phil Metres, an American-born poet also of Arab-Christian descent, on the continuing existence of Orientalism in American letters, art, and culture here. That Metres, as much a lover of NBA basketball and American punk rock and hardcore as I am, can be so alienated within the land of his birth offers purchase on Mikhail’s “dream of a future beyond violence,” to paraphrase a back-cover blurb from The Iraqi Nights.
Dunya Mikhail, The Iraqi Nights, translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. New Directions, 2014.