Review | In Dunya Mikhail’s ‘The Bird Tattoo,’ Iraqi women are sold as slaves



Quite a lot of exaggerated claims are made for poetry, however Dunya Mikhail isn’t being hyperbolic and even metaphoric when she says, “Poetry actually saved my life.”

Within the Nineties, Mikhail was working in her hometown for the Baghdad Observer. Because the political local weather beneath Saddam Hussein grew more and more harmful, she wanted to get out of Iraq. However to acquire a depart of absence, a feminine journalist needed to be accompanied by a male family member. That’s when a intelligent pal within the passport workplace modified her occupation from “journalist” to “poet.”

“A poet,” Mikhail writes, “doesn’t want a depart of absence from something.”

That anecdote seems in Mikhail’s extraordinary memoir, “Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea.” Reworked from Arabic prose to English verse by Elizabeth Winslow, “Diary” demonstrated that Mikhail’s passport wasn’t mendacity. Since arriving in the USA in 1996, she has printed a number of celebrated collections of poetry, together with “The War Works Hard” and “The Iraqi Nights,” which seize exact, intimate moments of brutality in all their lasting trauma. Her work is an acknowledgment of warfare’s incomprehensibility and a resistance in opposition to it, as when she writes,

That is all that continues to be:

a handful of meaningless phrases

In 2018, Mikhail turned again to journalism and launched a harrowing nonfiction guide known as “The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq,” which turned a finalist for a Nationwide Guide Award. In scenes and interviews that recall Nazi Germany and the American Confederacy, “The Beekeeper” follows the efforts of an Iraqi enterprise govt who smuggles ladies out of the system of slavery maintained by the Islamic State. As a report of bravery and ingenuity within the face of organized terror, the guide is invaluable.

However maybe solely fiction is capacious sufficient to include the type of cruelty and endurance that overwhelm our understanding of what’s doable. Possibly that impressed Mikhail to return to the testimonies of these enslaved Iraqi ladies for her first novel, “The Bird Tattoo.” It’s a putting act of creativeness that recasts her earlier analysis with new emotional energy. As she writes atop the copyright web page, “This can be a work of fiction, however resemblance to individuals now residing with us shouldn’t be coincidental.”

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“The Chicken Tattoo” opens in 2014 with a scene that feels as surprising as something Margaret Atwood imagines in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” However this isn’t dystopian hypothesis; it’s historic realism. A spouse and mom named Helen finds herself held in a repurposed faculty with greater than 100 different kidnapped women and girls. They’ve all been photographed and displayed on an Islamic State web site. Within the evenings, guards freely beat and rape these captives they regard as merchandise. Suicides are simply the price of doing enterprise, like spoilage in a grocery retailer.

“If she had not seen it together with her personal eyes,” Mikhail writes, “Helen would by no means have believed a marketplace for promoting ladies existed.”

It’s inconceivable to not recoil from such a narrative. Mikhail describes a complicated group in Mosul that has normalized rape and pedophilia for the advantage of terrorists. Lower off from their households and pals, ladies and women are purchased and traded, routinely abused, rented out, and even returned for a refund in the event that they show unsatisfactory.

One of many many issues I like about this novel is the way in which Mikhail refuses to let these murderers and rapists body their atrocities in spiritual phrases. The victims are focused for his or her religion, sure, however the perpetrators, she makes clear, don’t have any proper to name themselves Muslims.

The hypocrisy of those fanatics solely makes their actions extra heinous. As if impressed by “1984,” a caliph tells the Iraqis whom his males have kidnapped, “We got here to liberate you.” Mikhail repeatedly skewers each declare to holiness amongst these thugs who’re both “taking medicine or reciting prayers, watching clips from pornographic movies on their telephones or raping captives.” And but, admonitions to piety are proclaimed in every single place. The town is laced with banners shouting, “The Niqab Is Purity.” Helen notices that even the mannequins in retailer home windows at the moment are chastely veiled — however not like her, the mannequins usually are not on the market.

These opening 30 pages of sexual abuse are difficult to learn, however grasp on. Mikhail has a poet’s sensitivity to what her viewers wants and may endure.

Throughout considered one of Helen’s escape makes an attempt, the story out of the blue flies again 15 years to the primary time she met the person who turned her husband. Falling down an elevator shaft can be much less jarring than this transition. But it surely’s clearly intentional — a juxtaposition meant to offer us a visceral sense of what she misplaced.

These scenes of her village life within the mountains of northern Iraq are as idyllic as her captive expertise is horrific. Mikhail writes of this place with such fond affection that the scent of yogurt drinks and fig pies rises from the pages. Helen’s individuals, members of the Yazidi spiritual minority who’ve lived right here for hundreds of years, keep on with out electrical energy or cellphones. “No police, no sirens, no prisons, no automobile fumes,” Mikhail writes. “Even the wars that had taken place one after the opposite of their nation had not touched the Halliqi valley.”

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For a number of chapters, Mikhail lets us revel on this paradise and benefit from the tender romance between Helen and {a magazine} author named Elias who stumbles upon her village. “Elias felt as if he was in a beautiful dream,” she writes, and readers will really feel the identical. “It appeared the birds had been calling Helen’s identify time and again.” She demurs for a time — and there’s a slight complication that reads like an Iraqi model of Jane Austen — however Mikhail leaves little doubt the place this charming encounter is main: “Elias’s seems to be gave Helen a rare heat that penetrated her coronary heart, prizing it open like a pistachio.”

However, in fact, this candy love affair — sanctified with matching chook tattoos on their ring fingers — takes place within the shadow of the novel’s ugly opening. And progressively, the story sinks again into that nightmare as we uncover how Helen and Elias had been finally separated. At this level, “The Chicken Tattoo” metamorphoses but once more right into a terrifying thriller. It’s a sophisticated however stunningly efficient construction, made all of the extra so by Mikhail’s deceptively easy, declarative model.

20 years in the past, “The Chicken Tattoo” may need appeared like a dystopian story about an unique, faraway place. However spiritual fanatics raging away in the USA ought to depart American readers much less sure that it could possibly’t occur right here. Although members of the Islamic State contort a distinct sacred textual content, our homegrown Christian nationalists are pursuing among the similar objectives: to ban contraception, to muzzle academics, to outlaw same-sex marriage, to ban books, to manage the motion of pregnant individuals and even to power kids raped by family members to bear their abusers’ infants.

For Western readers, maybe nothing in “The Chicken Tattoo” is extra haunting than these moments when the beleaguered Iraqis marvel: “The place had these males come from? And the way had been they allowed to do all this?”

Instantly, this novel feels not simply heartbreaking however terrifyingly related.

Ron Charles evaluations books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Publish.

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