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Born in Iraq in 1965, Dunya Mikhail worked as Literary Editor for The Baghdad Observer. Facing increasing threats and harassment from the Iraqi authorities for her writings, she fled Iraq in the late 1990s and studied Near Eastern Studies at Wayne State University. In 2001, she was awarded the UN Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing. Mikhail has published four collections of poetry in Arabic (she speaks and writes in Arabic, Aramaic, and English), and one lyrical multi-genre text, The Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea. She currently lives in Michigan.

The War Works Hard

New Directions Publishing
2006 Shortlist
United States

Judges’ Citation

These are political poems without political rhetoric, Arabic poems without Arabic poetical flourishes, an exile’s letter with neither nostalgia nor self-pity, an excavation of the ruins of her homeland

We know that Dunya Mikhail was raised in Saddam’s Iraq and sent into exile to follow the news of its devastation from afar. So the very first line of The War Works Hard comes as a surprise: ‘What good luck!’ The second line crystallizes both the contemporary reality and Mikhail’s sensibility: ‘She has found his bones.’ In her poems, war is a monstrous fact of ordinary life, and her particular skill is the invention of unadorned images that capture the often unexpected human responses. Brecht wrote, ‘We’d all be human if we could,’ and Mikhail, despite all the contrary evidence, shows that we can, and sometimes are. These are political poems without political rhetoric, Arabic poems without Arabic poetical flourishes, an exile’s letter with neither nostalgia nor self-pity, an excavation of the ruins of her homeland where the Sumerian goddess Inana is followed on the next page by the little American devil Lynndie England. In Elizabeth Winslow’s perfect translations, poetry takes on its ancient function of restoring meaning to the language. Here is the war in Iraq in English without a single lie.