Dunya Mikhail

Acclaimed Iraqi Poet
Arab American Book Award-winner

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • In Her Feminine Sign
  • The Making of The Beekeeper
  • An Evening with Dunya Mikhail

“Mikhail’s style maintains an impressive fragility and delicacy of image that touches the reader’s heart…” —American Poetry Review 

“Stark and poignant, Mikhail’s poems give voice to an often buried, glossed-over or spun grief.” —Publishers Weekly

“Shakespeare would have enjoyed the poetry of Dunya Mikhail, who has spoken of love as a response to a war-torn world—an aesthetic, a value, and a practice. ” —Christian Science Monitor

Dunya Mikhail was born in Iraq in 1965 and was forced to flee in the wake of the first Gulf War when her writings attracted the attention of The Iraqi authorities. Renowned for her subversive, innovative, and satirical poetry, Mikhail speaks about her experiences growing up in a war-torn country, sleeping on the roof of her family’s home during the sweltering summers until the air raid sirens sounded, and losing her father, not to violence but to the lack of adequate medical care.

Mikhail’s book The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq (New Directions, 2018), which was longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Literature in Translation, is a nonfiction account of the capture and enslavement of young girls and women by ISIS who are rescued by an unlikely hero: a beekeeper, who uses his knowledge of the local terrain, along with a wide network of transporters, to bring these women, one by one, through the war-torn landscapes of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, back into safety. She is the author of three poetry collections In Her Feminine Sign (2019), The Iraqi Nights (2014), and The War Works Hard (2005), shortlisted for the Griffin Prize and named one of Twenty-Five Books to Remember from 2005 by the New York Public Library; and the memoir Diary of A Wave Outside the Sea (2009) which won the 2010 Arab American Book Award. She also edited a pamphlet of Iraqi poetry titled 15 Iraqi Poets.

In an NPR interview, Mikhail said, “I feel that poetry is not medicine—it’s an X-ray. It helps you see the wound and understand it. We all feel alienated because of this continuous violence in the world. We feel alone, but we feel also together. So we resort to poetry as a possibility for survival. However, to say I survived is not so final as to say, for example, I’m alive. We wake up to find that the war survived with us.”

Mikhail’s honors include the UN Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing (2001), Kresge Artist Fellowship (2013), and in 2021 she was named a United States Artist Writing Fellow. She writes in Arabic and English and selections of her work are translated into Italian, Chinese, Spanish, Kurshi, Hindi, among other languages. She is the co-founder of Mesopotamian Forum for Art and Culture in Michigan.

Mikhail lives in Michigan and works as an Arabic lecturer for Oakland University.

Dunya Mikhail’s Website

Dunya Mikhail was born in Iraq in 1965 and came to the United States in 1996. Her books include In Her Feminine Sign (2019); The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq (2018), which was longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Literature in Translation; The Iraqi Nights, Diary of A Wave Outside the Sea; and The War Works Hard. She also edited a pamphlet of Iraqi poetry titled 15 Iraqi Poets. Her honors include the Kresge Fellowship, Arab American Book Award, and the United Nations Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing. The War Works Hard was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and named one of the New York Public Library’s Twenty-Five Books to Remember from 2005. She is the co-founder of Mesopotamian Forum for Art and Culture in Michigan. She currently works as an Arabic special lecturer at Oakland University in Michigan.

At the heart of In Her Feminine Sign, Dunya Mikhail’s luminous new collection of poems, is the Arabic suffix ta-marbuta, “the tied circle,” a circle with two dots above it that indicates a feminine word, or sign. This tied circle transforms into the moon, a stone that binds friendship, birdsong over ruins, and a hymn to Nisaba, the goddess of writing. Her “Iraqi haiku” in one section unfold like Sumerian symbols carved onto clay tablets, transmuted into the stuff of our ordinary, daily life and into the digital tablets we carry to Mars. In another poem, Mikhail ponders the Sumerian word for “freedom,” Ama-ar-gi: “what seeps out/ from the dead into our dreams.” With a deceptive simplicity and disquieting humor reminiscent of Wislawa Szymborska, and a lyricism wholly her own, Mikhail slips between her child-hood in Baghdad and her present life in Detroit, between Ground Zero and amass grave, tracing new circles of light.

Since 2014, Daesh (ISIS) has been brutalizing the Yazidi people of northern Iraq: sowing destruction, killing those who won’t convert to Islam, and enslaving young girls and women. The Beekeeper, by the acclaimed poet and journalist Dunya Mikhail, tells the harrowing stories of several women who managed to escape the clutches of Daesh. Mikhail extensively interviews these women—who’ve lost their families and loved ones, who’ve been repeatedly sold, raped, psychologically tortured, and forced to manufacture chemical weapons—and as their tales unfold, an unlikely hero emerges: a beekeeper, who uses his knowledge of the local terrain, along with a wide network of transporters, helpers, and former cigarette smugglers, to bring these women, one by one, through the war-torn landscapes of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, back into safety. In the face of inhuman suffering, this powerful work of nonfiction offers a counterpoint to Daesh’s genocidal extremism: hope, as ordinary people risk their lives to save those of others.

THE IRAQI NIGHTS (Poetry, 2014)

“The Iraqi Nights is a haunting and captivating collection of poetry that will ensnare you into its beguiling spell.” —Absolute Magazine

The Iraqi Nights is the third collection by acclaimed Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail. In this book she person­ifies the role of Scheherazade in the Thousand and One Nights, who saves herself through the telling of her tales. But unlike Scheherazade, Mikhail isn’t writing to escape death but confronts it through grief and love while summoning the strength to endure. Though the nights are dark in this haunting collection, seemingly as endless as war, the poet cannot stop dreaming of a future beyond the violence, of a country where “every moment / something ordinary / will happen under the sun.” Mikhail threads her vivid illustrations of ancient Sumerian tab­lets and her handwritten Arabic through an imaginative sequence of haiku-like poems that provide a powerful visual counterpoint.

FIFTEEN IRAQI POETS (Anthology, 2013)
A collection of dazzling new, contemporary poetry from Iraq, edited by award-winning Iraqi-American poet Dunya Mikhail, Fifteen Iraqi Poets compiles fifteen poems, each written by a different, prominent twentieth-century Iraqi poet. Selected, with commentary by Mikhail, this little anthology is the perfect introduction to a glorious literature that traces its roots back to ancient Sumer—a poetry written by those who have lived through a state of continuous wars and massacres, their laments often opening with a plea to their destroyed homeland, “O Iraq.”


Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea is a peerless record of the Iraq wars. There is much to learn from and reflect upon, especially for those of us who are Americans, in Mikhail’s beautiful and stirring genre-bending poem.” Englewood Review of Books 

Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea covers Mikhail’s earliest sensations of childhood to a more complicated grasp of death, beginning with the death of her father to the Gulf War and the subsequent Iraqi War. Mikhail writes: “Death always looks for us. It comes from beyond the continents. It crosses long distances holding a basket of fire in its hand.” The two halves of Mikhail’s book merge past and present in a lyrical memoir that moves between memories of her childhood, her father’s death, her Iraqi poet-peers and friends, her job as a journalist for the Baghdad Observer, and culminates with the birth of her daughter Larsa.

THE WAR WORKS HARD (Poetry, 2005)

“Dunya Mikhail’s poems differ from most war poems by the simple fact that she writes about war as a woman, mother, wife and friend.” —Poetry International 

“Yesterday I lost a country,” Dunya Mikhail writes in The War Works Hard, a revolutionary work by an exiled Iraqi poet—her first to appear in English. Amidst the ongoing atrocities in Iraq, here is an important new voice that rescues the human spirit from the ruins, unmasking the official glorification of war with telegraphic lexical austerity. Embracing literary traditions from ancient Mesopotamian mythology to Biblical and Qur’anic parables to Western modernism, Mikhail’s poetic vision transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries with liberating compassion.

In the poem “Bags of bones,” she writes:

To give back to your mother
on the occasion of death
a handful of bones
she had given to you
on the occasion of birth?


Through your eye
history enters
and punctured helmets pour out.

Frequent tremors occur in your land
as if invisible hands shake your trees day and night.

They blockaded you and banished the oxygen from your water,
leaving the hydrogen atoms to quarrel with one another.

Shouldn’t the nations be disturbed by the face of a child
who shuts her mouth and eyes
in surrender to UN resolutions?
But they only opened their own mouths slightly,
smaller than a bud,
as if yawning or smiling.

We made room in our day for every star,
and our dead remained without graves.

We wrote the names of each flower on the walls
and we, the sheep, drew the grass
—our favorite meal—
and we stood with our arms open to the air
so we looked like trees.
All this to change the fences into gardens.
A naïve bee was tricked and smashed into a wall,
flying toward what it thought was a flower.
Shouldn’t the bee be able to fly over the fence-tops?

Long lines are in front of us.
Standing, we count flasks of flour on our fingers
and divide the sun among the communicating vessels.

We sleep standing in line
and the experts think up plans for vertical tombs
because we will die standing.

—from Part One


How magnificent the war is!
How eager
and efficient!
Early in the morning,
it wakes up the sirens
and dispatches ambulances
to various places,
swings corpses through the air,
rolls stretchers to the wounded,
summons rain
from the eyes of mothers,
digs into the earth
dislodging many things
from under the ruins…
Some are lifeless and glistening,
others are pale and still throbbing…
It produces the most questions
in the minds of children,
entertains the gods
by shooting fireworks and missiles
into the sky,
sows mines in the fields
and reaps punctures and blisters,
urges families to emigrate,
stands beside the clergymen
as they curse the devil
(poor devil, he remains
with one hand in the searing fire)…
The war continues working, day and night.