Dunya Mikhail on “The War Works Hard”

Photo credit: Nina Subin

I WROTE THIS POEM in Arabic in 1994. In mind was the war I lived since my teenage time in Baghdad. However, it’s not about a specific war but about war itself. Every time, the war came with a different name (the Iraq-Iran War, Desert Storm, Mother of All Battles) but it was doing the same things. It was so familiar, actually it had a room in our home in Baghdad. My mother called it “the war room.” It was designed in a special way, with tapes on the windows so they don’t hurt us much if they shatter, and with shelves for canned food, an opener, and extra batteries for the radio. We stayed in that room during sirens and explosions. So is that why the war was personified in my poem? Maybe. I remember that I wrote it in one sitting, having in mind the war-related activities that I saw on daily basis which seemed like any other worthwhile human activity.

The poem was first published (in my translation into English) in 1997 in a newsletter of the Institute of Near Eastern and African Studies) and then in 2000 as a title poem in my fifth poetry book (in Arabic) published by Al-Mada. I was new in the country and felt like a fish in a big ocean. But Saadi Simawe who was a professor at Iowa University paid a special attention to the book and gave a copy to Elizabeth Winslow who was a student of Arabic.  After a few sessions back and forth with me of questions and discussions, she translated it into English. She understood my style and tried her best to keep it as simple as it is. I loved it and submitted it to a few publishers. I said to myself “at least one publisher will love this manuscript and will tell me so.” I did receive one response but it was a nice rejection letter. Liz, however, submitted it later to PEN poetry translation grant and she won. Barbara Epler, New Directions publisher, did love the manuscript and published it in 2005.

Dunya Mikhail

The War Works Hard

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 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
(while the poor remain
with one hand in the searing fire).
The war continues working, day and night
it inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches
awards medals to generals
and themes to poets
it contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs
provides food for flies
adds pages to the history books
achieves equality
between killer
and killed
teaches lovers to write letters
accustoms young women to waiting
fills the newspapers
with articles and pictures
builds new houses
for the orphans
invigorates the coffin makers
and gives grave diggers
a pat on the back
paints a smile on the leader’s face.
It works with unparalleled diligence!
Yet no one gives it
a word of praise.

Translated from the Arabic by Elizabeth Winslow

”The War Works Hard” by Dunya Mikhail, translated by Elizabeth Winslow, from THE WAR WORKS HARD, copyright ©2005 by Dunya Mikhail. Translation copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Winslow. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. 

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