The War Works Hard (الحرب تعمل بجد) by Dunya Mikhail
Translated by Elizabeth Winslow
Published April 2005, Read January 2017
Rating: ♥♥♥♥ (of 5)
“Yesterday I lost a country.
I was in a hurry,
and didn’t notice when it fell from me
like a broken branch from a forgetful tree.”
This little book found its way into my hands because of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. One of the challenges is to read a translated book of poems. While I decided not to use this one to satisfy that particular list item (I have a beautiful translation of some Pablo Neruda poems I’m planning to read later this year), I decided Dunya Mikhail was someone I ought to read.
As an undergraduate, I studied Arabic language. How I ended up in Arabic is a rather convoluted and boring story, but once I entered the program, I knew it was going to change my life. Sadly, due to disuse, I only have a very basic proficiency in Arabic, but the professors at JMU left an indelible mark on my heart. So when my mom, an accomplished poet herself and a 30+ year veteran of teaching poetry, handed me this collection, I knew I needed to read it.
Dunya Mikhail is an Iraqi poet who is fluent in Arabic, Aramaic (the ancient language of Iraqi Christians like herself), and English. The poems in this collection were written from 1985-2004. Mikhail was forced to emigrate in 1995 after coming under surveillance by Saddam Hussein’s government for her work Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, so half of these poems were written in Iraq, while the second half she wrote while living in the United States as a refugee.
The collection itself is profound. Her poetry, as Saadi Simawe notes in the introduction, is childlike in its perspective and simplicity at times, yet devastating and unflinching. These lines from her poem “Santa Claus” offer an excellent example: “I replied: But the Santa Claus I know / wears a military uniform, / and each year he distributes / red swords, / dolls for orphans, / artificial limbs, / and photos of the missing / to be hung on walls.” Mikhail does not shy away from any subject material. She writes poignantly about subjects ranging from rape to the pregnant guard at Abu Graib Prison.
Her most powerful poems say the least and have a personal and accusatory voice, yet the collection has a global and tender feel. Mikhail walks an incredibly delicate line whereby you are vividly aware of how close these events are to her own personal experience, and yet there is a universality to them that draws even the farthest removed reader deep into the fray. The collection is short (like most books of this kind), but should be read slowly, over the course of several days. I found myself unable to continue halfway through, even though I’d only been reading for half an hour. There was so much packed into so few words, my mind needed an opportunity to fathom them out before battling on.
The only reason I give this collection a 4/5 is something I’m not sure it can help. In it being a translation (and there being no biographical information on or a statement from the translator Elizabeth Winslow), I felt cut off from something vital. The introduction and the poems tell me so much about Dunya Mikhail, and there is almost nothing about Winslow. Saadi Simawe notes in her introductory essay “the translated work…is the product of two creative minds,” but I cannot know Winslow’s mind, and thus cannot gauge the level of her contribution to the poems. How literal was she? What were her priorities in translating? What did she strive to preserve and defend, and what did she feel justified in changing?
Overall, however, this collection, now more than a decade old, is worth revisiting. In light of our new administration’s attempts to ignite fear and hatred against our brown brothers and sisters, Dunya Mikhail offers us a bridge. She shows us the intimate fears and trials of the refugees we are denying safe haven, and through that, we are forced to see their humanity.