‘The Bird Tattoo’: Between Horror and Peace in the Sinjar Mountains

This week, our series on Iraq’s diverse literary scene — curated by Hend Saeed — focuses on Dunya Mikhail’s 2020 novelوشم الطائر (The Bird Tattoo):

By M Lynx Qualey

The Bird Tattoo opens with a horrifying scene in which its central character, a Yazidi woman named Helen, is told she has been sold off to a new “husband.” The novel builds a universe parallel to her award-winning work of nonfiction في سوق السبايا (The Beekeeper), which was co-translated to English by Mikhail and Max Weiss.

Although she also writes prose, Mikhail is best-known as a poet. Her collection The War Works Hard (2005) was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize, in Liz Winslow’s translation, and was named one of the twenty-five books to remember by the New York Public Library in 2005. Diary of A Wave Outside the Sea (2009) won the 2010 Arab American Book Award for poetry, also in Winslow’s translation In 2014, Kareem James Abu-Zeid won the Poetry magazine translation prize for translations of poetry by Mikhail and Najwan Darwish.

The Bird Tattoo, her first novel, was published last summer by Dar Alrafidain in Lebanon.

When The Bird Tattoo opens, Helen — or “Number 27” — is being informed of her recent sale to a man who purchased her online. In a scene that is darkly Kafkaesque, Helen is handed a marriage certificate by an officious woman sitting behind a desk. It’s been three months since Helen was taken captive, and she has experienced a thousand horrors, and heard about a thousand more from the around 120 other women crammed into the elementary-school building turned prison. After her sale, Helen is sent to Ayash’s house. The book’s first three chapters take us through many of the horrors experienced by Yazidi women captives under ISIS rule of Mosul from 2014-2017.

The novel would perhaps have been unbearably suffocating if the reader were to stay entirely in the present, with Helen and other captive women. However, in the fourth chapter, the reader is allowed to take a breath as we journey back to the beginning of Helen’s relationship with her husband Elias, and her life among the people of Halliqi.

Helen and Elias meet because the recently widowed Elias has trapped a qabaj bird, which he intends to sell. But he is persuaded by Helen to let the bird go. He then climbs with her up the mountain, to her small village. There, he encounters a life unlike any he’s known in the city. Here, there’s no internet or mobile-phone service, no work schedules or locked doors, and people use a whistle language to communicate over long distances. He returns over the period of months in order to help teach villagers who are interested in learning to read. In the quiet, slow-growing love between Elias and Helen, the reader experiences the polar opposite of the slave market and the horrors in Ayash’s house.

The novel moves through time — from the start of Elias and Helen’s relationship, to the war and takeover by ISIS, to July of 2019, when Helen has taken refuge in Canada. Although the reader is left with immense cruelty and pain, we are also left with a lightness of spirit from the village of Halliqi.

Last summer, Mikhail answered a few questions about her novel.

Although based on real events that occurred in Daesh-occupied areas starting in 2014, the opening chapters to The Bird Tattoo have a sharply dystopian feel. I was thus so grateful and relieved when the narrative moved back in time almost two decades earlier, bringing us to the Iraqi village of Halliqi. 

I wanted to freeze time and stay there forever, in that peaceful spot on the mountain, far away from all the noise and violence of the rest of the world, where the biggest problem was Elias accidentally blowing the fire whistle. Is this based on a real Iraqi village, with qabaj birds and fig trees and a whistle language? I have read about a whistle language in the Turkish village of Kuşköy, but perhaps there are many such languages?

Dunya Mikhail: Yes, Halliqi exists in Iraq (in the northwest corner), but even Iraqis don’t know much about it; it’s not even on the map. I myself, who lived in Iraq the first 30 years of my life, didn’t know it existed when I was there. I learned about it and about its fascinating traditions from one of the novel’s characters, who is originally from Halliqi.

Until Daesh arrived in this area (of Sinjar villages) in 2014, Halliqi had no internet and no telephones. Its isolation and geographic uniqueness saved its residents from Daesh. The terrorist fighters probably didn’t know it existed either, and, even if they had known, it would take hours to reach it by foot or by donkey from the closest spot, and there’s no way to reach it by car. The village in August 2014 became a shelter for many people who left their villages as they heard of Daesh coming to their area. Its residents, who are extremely generous and kind, baked bread in their clay ovens to feed hundreds of guests who slept in the open air by the fig trees. They never anticipated suddenly losing relatives and family members. And, as a result of that crisis, they realized how important it was to have cell phones, since that was the tool through which they could hear the voice of someone asking for help or someone offering help to rescue their loved ones. These days, some of them managed having cell phones, but they would still have to go to the top of the mountain to get an internet connection.

I really fell in love with Halliqi, which — as a refuge for both the characters and the reader — comes as an enormous relief, even if we know it is a movement into the past. The contrast between the opening section (in the market of enslaved women) and the village of Halliqi could scarcely be sharper. In one, no one’s autonomy is valued. Everyone must follow a hierarchy, and humans can be bought, sold, caged, and destroyed on a whim. While in the other, even a bird’s lack of freedom is worth weeping over. Why did you choose a village to be such an important character in the book?

DM: As a poet, I am attracted to metaphors. It’s not only that Halliqi is such a unique village that I loved depicting, but also that this village’s traditions — such as the celebration of the bird’s freedom — provides an important metaphor and also an irony when they themselves become captives. The village here is not a neutral setting. It has a semantic purpose and dynamic function in this particular story. You beautifully said “I wanted to freeze time and stay there forever.” Well, I guess the village setting, especially after the opening section, provides a recess for the mind. The residents make sense of the world through their peaceful village and that impression of their first place makes their adaptation later to the bigger and more complicated world more interesting.

You say, “As a poet.” Does this mean you still see yourself primarily as a poet (as a poet writing nonfiction, and a poet writing a novel)? 

DM:  Yes, I see myself as a poet writing fiction and non-fiction.

So what made you decide you wanted to follow في سوق السبايا (The Beekeeper) with a novel? Why narrative fiction?

DM: In the beginning (I mean in August 2014) when I learned that women were being put up for sale in the market, I was too angry to do anything other than present the voices of those women, as raw as they were. I presented their stories as non-fiction because I felt it was important to let the world know that this actually happened, that this nonfiction is stranger than fiction. But their stories affected me so deeply that they lived in me or I in them, and that, as a writer, was a call I couldn’t resist. This time, I presented the truth as a novel. I wanted to be more free in using my imagination.

For me, The Bird Tattoo opened possibilities for healing and redemption that the real stories of في سوق السبايا (The Beekeeper) had not. While reading في سوق السبايا (The Beekeeper) I was filled with a bitter and angry grief, while in The Bird Tattoo there was grief, but I also felt the triumphs (the lives saved, the families reunited) much more. Did you intentionally focus on these?

DM: Some people who read Fi Souq al-Sabaya asked me: “What happened after the women came back from captivity?” That was one of the questions I kept in mind while writing this novel. I think it’s painfully beautiful, that’s what art does when it deals with grief. Another metaphor in the novel is the cracked vases and how the “scar” makes them different and distinguished. Distinguished by pain, however, is debatable. The images they see in their minds are theirs alone. When the protagonist closes her eyes to see her missing loved ones, for example, is a code of survival, but a painful survival.

One of the questions the novel seems to prompt us to ask is, “How did this happen? How did Daesh come to be here, come to take control?” And yet none of the characters seems to be able to get a grasp on Daesh’s arrival, or to know how this happened. Although events unfold from 2000 – 2014, Daesh appears suddenly, and things seem suddenly out of control. Do you — as the author — have your own feeling of why and how? Or were you raising a question to which you don’t have a clear answer?

DM: Like my characters, I was bewildered about all this.

I felt that I recognized — or perhaps almost recognized — some of the characters in The Bird Tattoo. To what extent did you base their stories around interviews that you did with survivors of Daesh? Did you worry about using real people’s stories?

DM: There’s one character who is real and he is aware of his role in the novel. The rest of the characters are imagined, although based on combinations of details and events that I came to know about through my personal experiences and contacts. In other words, the characters are not real as individuals, but each one of them somehow shares something with the general reality in their community. They all contribute to the truth.

In these pandemic times, how does an author launch a book? Are you planning more digital events or readings?

DM: I was not sure about how good or bad of an idea it was to publish my book (the Arabic original at least) during this pandemic time, but I thought: What about the babies who will be delivered now? I know timing a book is easier than timing a life, but we can never guarantee what happens later; there’s always risk no matter what we do.

I am of course looking forward to our three-dimensional world where we meet people face to face, those kind strangers who come to readings and ask questions. On the other hand, my recent online chat and reading organized by the Iraqi Writers Union was moving for me. I was surprised with the attendance of some writers from back home whom I knew when we first started to write or publish. We had not thought to connect (not even virtually) before this time. I suddenly realized that you can be everywhere from your home, but still we need to be with people in crowded cities, without thinking of being six feet apart. More important is the hope that humans get closer to each others in spirit rather than in distance.

Previous Thursdays:

From Abdullah al-Sakhi’s ‘Pathways of Loss’

Abdullah al-Sakhi on Writing His Multigenerational Iraqi Trilogy

‘When Darkness Falls’: On the Shortened, Brilliant Life of Iraqi Author Hayat Sharara

‘Born on the Wrong Side of the Border’: The Journey of Iraq’s Feyli Kurds

Ali Shakir: Translating My Jewish Grandmother

Black Basrans: Mortada Gzar’s ‘Broom of Paradise’