Dunya Mikhail: Translated from the original Arabic into English by Kareem James Abu-Zeid



Dunya Mikhail was born in Iraq in 1965 and came to the United States in 1996. She has six books in Arabic, three in English, and one in Italian. They include 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, the Arab American Book Award, and the United Nations Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing. The War Works Hard was shortlisted for a Griffin, and named one of “Twenty-Five Books to Remember from 2005” by the New York Public Library.  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.


Half American and half Egyptian, Kareem James Abu-Zeid was born in Kuwait in 1981, and has lived an itinerant life across the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and the US. A prolific translator of poets and novels from across the Arab world, he has received numerous prizes and fellowships for his work, including Poetry magazine’s 2014 translation prize, as well as residencies from the Lannan Foundation and the Banff Center for the Arts. He has translated novels and books of poetry by Najwan Darwish (Palestine), Rabee Jaber (Lebanon), Dunya Mikhail (Iraq), and Tarek Eltayeb (Sudan) for New Directions, New York Review Books, and the American University in Cairo Press. His translations of Arabic poetry have also appeared in dozens of journals, anthologies, and newspapers around the world. Kareem also works as a freelance translator from French and German as well as a freelance editor. He has taught college courses (literature, writing, philosophy, and language) in four different languages at UC Berkeley and at the Universities of Heidelberg and Mannheim in Germany. He earned his PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2016, with a dissertation on modern spiritual poetry, a Bachelors from Princeton summa cum laude in 2003, and his Masters from UC Berkeley in 2007. He practices various forms of Buddhist meditation, and generally spends several weeks each year on silent retreats. He is currently translating a second book by Najwan Darwish.

Three Women

That stone is three women,
it was cast there ten years ago.
No one touched its pain,
no one heard it wail,
no one saw it dream of the sun.
Feathers scattered everywhere: its memories.
Another night on the way to the cages,
and the stars, dead eggs glistening, don’t know
the secret of the stone.
They move slowly over
the neighbors entering their homes
and turning off the lights.
Another morning will rise
beyond the three shadows
crammed in the stone.

ثلاث نساء

الحجر ذاك ثلاث نساء.
مرمي هناك منذ عشر سنوات.
ما لمسَ أحد ألمَه.
ما سمعَ أحد أنينَه.
ما رأى أحد حلمَه بالشمس.
ريش متناثر في كل مكان ذكرياتهُ.
ليلة أخرى في طريقها الى أقفاص الطيور.
النجوم تضيء بيوضاً ميتة، لاتعرفُ
سرَّ الحجر.
تسير ببطء
فوق الجيران الذين دخلوا بيوتهم،
أطفأوا الأنوار.
صباح آخر سيشرق
خلف الظلال الثلاثة

The Plane

The plane arriving from Baghdad
carries American soldiers:
it rises above the moon
reflected on the Tigris,
above clouds piled like corpses,
and an ancient harp,
and the beaten breasts,
and the ones who were kidnapped;
it rises above
the destruction that grows with the children,
and the long lines at the passport office,
and Pandora’s open box.
The plane and its exhausted passengers
will land six thousands miles away
from an amputated finger
lying in the sand.


الطائرة القادمة من بغداد
تحمل جنوداً أمريكيين
ترتفع فوق
فوق القمر المنعكس
على مياه دجلة
فوق غيوم مكدّسة كالجثث
فوق قيثارة قديمة
فوق صدورهم الملطومة
فوق أناس مخطوفين
فوق خرائب تنمو مع الأطفال
فوق طوابير طويلة في دائرة الجوازات
فوق صندوق بندورا المفتوح.
بركابها المنهكين
ستحطُّ على بعد ستة آلاف ميل
من إصبعٍ مبتورٍ في الرمل.

At the Museum

A small Sumerian goddess
stands behind the glass,
her raised hands
touching the sky.

On my second visit
the goddess has grown:
She’s slightly bent over,
her lowered hands
pointing to the earth.

On my third visit
she lays down,
her hands to the side
in preparation for sleep.

On my last visit,
she closes her eyes,
her hands across her chest:
Is she hiding a secret?

في المتحف

إلاهةٌ سومرية صغيرة
تقفُ خلفَ الزجاح
ويداها الى أعلى
تلمسُ السماء.

في زيارتي الثانية
تكبرُ الإلاهة ُ
تميلُ قليلاً
ويداها الى أسفل
تشيرُ الى الأرض.

في زيارتي الثالثة
تتمددُ أفقياً
ويداها الى الجانبين
تتهيأُ للنوم.

في زيارتي الأخيرة
تغمضُ عينيها
ويداها على صدرها
تخبيءُ سراً؟

Iraqis and Other Monsters

They are terrifying.
Their heads are dark and tremulous;
They roam the desert
in the form of bulls and lions,
with swords gleaming in their eyes.
They rub their moustaches when they make promises
or threats,
or when they flirt.
Smoke pours out
of their massive noses
and rises to the sky.
They shake the earth with such strength
it wakes the dead.
They live in darkness
without water or electricity.
Dust is their food, clay their bread.
They know neither sleep nor rest.
The war visits them every day
with new baskets of bones.
They have strange customs:
the Sunnis say the Shiites all have tails;
the Shiites carry keys to Heaven in their pockets
in case of sudden death;
the Kurds take to the mountains when they fight
and when they dance the dabka;
the Chaldeans consult the stars in all decisions;
the Assyrians put feathers on their heads
to prove they’ve vanquished the eagle;
the Armenians throw themselves in the river
whenever they’re annoyed;
the Mandaeans celebrate their festivals
by staying home for three full days;
the Yezidis honor the Peacock
and consecrate lettuce;
the Turkomans are always waiting
for the Sultan to return.
When the sun sets
and the guns fall silent,
these Iraqis and other monsters
take out their ouds
and make music for the missing
until morning.

عراقيون وغيلان أخرى

هم كائنات مخيفة.
لهم رؤوس داكنة ومترنحة.
يجولون في الصحراء
بأجساد ثيران وأسود،
عيونهم الواسعة تلمع بالسيوف.
يفتلون شواربهم اذا وعدوا
أو توعدوا
أو تغزلوا.
من أنوفهم الهائلة
يخرج دخان كثير،
يعلو الى السماء.
يهزّون الأرضَ بقوة ينتبه لها الموتى
يعيشون في ظلمة،
بلا ماء ولا كهرباء.
الغبار طعامهم وخبزهم الطين.
لايعرفون نوماً أو راحة.
الحربُ تزورهم كلَّ يوم
بأكياسٍ من عظام ٍ جديدة.
لهم عادات غريبة:
السنّي يردّد بأن الشيعي له ذيل.
الشيعي يحملُ مفتاحَ الجنة في جيبه تحسباً للموت.
الكردي يذهب الى الجبل حين يقاتل
وحين يرقص “دبكة.”
الكلداني يستشيرُ النجومَ في كل القرارات.
الآشوري يضع ريشة على رأسه
ليثبت أنه صرع النسرَ.
المندائي يحتفل بالأعياد
بأن يبقى ثلاثة أيام في البيت.
اليزيدي يحترم الطاووس
ويقدّسُ الخس.
التركماني ينتظر دائماً عودة السلطان.
أولئك العراقيون وباقي الغيلان
(كلما تغيب الشمس
وتهدأ أصوات المدافع)
يُخرجون قيثاراتِهم من الصناديق
يعزفون لمفقوديهم
جميعاً حتى الصباح.

Footprints on the Moon

When I set foot on the moon
all things told me that you too were there:
my lighter weight,
the loss of gravity,
the heart’s rapid beat,
the mind devoid of everyday concerns,
the lack of memories of any kind,
the earth off in another place,
and these footprints….
All of this points to you.

آثار أقدام على القمر

عندما وضعتُ قدمي على القمر
كل شيء أخبرني بأنك كنتَ هناك أيضاً:
وزني الأخف
فقدان الجاذبية
نبضات قلبي المتسارعة
الدماغ المنشغل عن دواراتهِ اليومية
انعدام الذكريات بأنواعها
الأرض في مكان آخر
وآثار الأقدام هذه على القمر
كل ذلك يدلّ عليك.



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