The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

(Katty Huertas/Washington Post Illustration)
7 min

A lot of exaggerated claims are made for poetry, but Dunya Mikhail isn’t being hyperbolic or even metaphoric when she says, “Poetry really saved my life.”

In the 1990s, Mikhail was working in her hometown for the Baghdad Observer. As the political climate under Saddam Hussein grew increasingly dangerous, she needed to get out of Iraq. But to obtain a leave of absence, a female journalist had to be accompanied by a male relative. That’s when a clever friend in the passport office changed her profession from “journalist” to “poet.”

“A poet,” Mikhail writes, “does not need a leave of absence from anything.”

That anecdote appears in Mikhail’s extraordinary memoir, “Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea.” Transformed from Arabic prose to English verse by Elizabeth Winslow, “Diary” demonstrated that Mikhail’s passport wasn’t lying. Since arriving in the United States in 1996, she has published several celebrated collections of poetry, including “The War Works Hard” and “The Iraqi Nights,” which capture precise, intimate moments of brutality in all their lasting trauma. Her work is an acknowledgment of war’s incomprehensibility and a resistance against it, as when she writes,

This is all that remains:

a handful of meaningless words

engraved on the walls.

In 2018, Mikhail turned back to journalism and released a harrowing nonfiction book called “The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq,” which became a finalist for a National Book Award. In scenes and interviews that recall Nazi Germany and the American Confederacy, “The Beekeeper” follows the efforts of an Iraqi business executive who smuggles women out of the system of slavery maintained by the Islamic State. As a record of bravery and ingenuity in the face of organized terror, the book is invaluable.

But perhaps only fiction is capacious enough to contain the kind of cruelty and endurance that overwhelm our understanding of what’s possible. Maybe that inspired Mikhail to return to the testimonies of those enslaved Iraqi women for her first novel, “The Bird Tattoo.” It’s a striking act of imagination that recasts her earlier research with new emotional power. As she writes atop the copyright page, “This is a work of fiction, but resemblance to persons now living with us is not coincidental.”

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“The Bird Tattoo” opens in 2014 with a scene that feels as shocking as anything Margaret Atwood imagines in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But this isn’t dystopian speculation; it’s historical realism. A wife and mother named Helen finds herself held in a repurposed school with more than 100 other kidnapped girls and women. They’ve all been photographed and displayed on an Islamic State website. In the evenings, guards freely beat and rape these captives they regard as merchandise. Suicides are just the cost of doing business, like spoilage in a grocery store.

“If she had not seen it with her own eyes,” Mikhail writes, “Helen would never have believed a market for selling women existed.”

It’s impossible not to recoil from such a story. Mikhail describes a sophisticated organization in Mosul that has normalized rape and pedophilia for the benefit of terrorists. Cut off from their families and friends, women and girls are bought and traded, routinely abused, rented out, and even returned for a refund if they prove unsatisfactory.

One of the many things I admire about this novel is the way Mikhail refuses to let these murderers and rapists frame their atrocities in religious terms. The victims are targeted for their faith, yes, but the perpetrators, she makes clear, have no right to call themselves Muslims.

The hypocrisy of these fanatics only makes their actions more heinous. As though inspired by “1984,” a caliph tells the Iraqis whom his men have kidnapped, “We came to liberate you.” Mikhail repeatedly skewers every claim to holiness among these thugs who are either “taking drugs or reciting prayers, watching clips from pornographic films on their phones or raping captives.” And yet, admonitions to piety are proclaimed everywhere. The city is laced with banners shouting, “The Niqab Is Purity.” Helen notices that even the mannequins in store windows are now chastely veiled — but unlike her, the mannequins are not for sale.

These opening 30 pages of sexual abuse are challenging to read, but hang on. Mikhail has a poet’s sensitivity to what her audience needs and can endure.

During one of Helen’s escape attempts, the story suddenly flies back 15 years to the first time she met the man who became her husband. Falling down an elevator shaft would be less jarring than this transition. But it’s clearly intentional — a juxtaposition meant to give us a visceral sense of what she lost.

And oh, what she lost!

These scenes of her village life in the mountains of northern Iraq are as idyllic as her captive experience is horrific. Mikhail writes of this place with such fond affection that the smell of yogurt drinks and fig pies rises from the pages. Helen’s people, members of the Yazidi religious minority who have lived here for centuries, carry on without electricity or cellphones. “No police, no sirens, no prisons, no car fumes,” Mikhail writes. “Even the wars that had taken place one after the other in their country had not touched the Halliqi valley.”

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For several chapters, Mikhail lets us revel in this paradise and enjoy the tender romance between Helen and a magazine writer named Elias who stumbles upon her village. “Elias felt as if he was in a wonderful dream,” she writes, and readers will feel the same. “It seemed the birds were calling Helen’s name over and over.” She demurs for a time — and there’s a slight complication that reads like an Iraqi version of Jane Austen — but Mikhail leaves no doubt where this charming encounter is leading: “Elias’s looks gave Helen an extraordinary warmth that penetrated her heart, prizing it open like a pistachio.”

But, of course, this sweet love affair — sanctified with matching bird tattoos on their ring fingers — takes place in the shadow of the novel’s gruesome opening. And gradually, the story sinks back into that nightmare as we discover how Helen and Elias were eventually separated. At this point, “The Bird Tattoo” metamorphoses yet again into a terrifying thriller. It’s a complicated but stunningly effective structure, made all the more so by Mikhail’s deceptively simple, declarative style.

Two decades ago, “The Bird Tattoo” might have sounded like a dystopian story about an exotic, faraway place. But religious fanatics raging away in the United States should leave American readers less certain that it can’t happen here. Though members of the Islamic State contort a different sacred text, our homegrown Christian nationalists are pursuing some of the same goals: to prohibit birth control, to muzzle teachers, to outlaw same-sex marriage, to ban books, to control the movement of pregnant people and even to force children raped by relatives to bear their abusers’ babies.

For Western readers, perhaps nothing in “The Bird Tattoo” is more haunting than those moments when the beleaguered Iraqis wonder: “Where had these men come from? And how were they allowed to do all this?”

Suddenly, this novel feels not just heartbreaking but terrifyingly relevant.

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.

The Bird Tattoo

By Dunya Mikhail

Pegasus. 268 pp. $26.95

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