Censorship in Iraq: Q&A with Award-Winning Poet Dunya Mikhail
By: Marcia Lynx Qualey
Award-winning poet Dunya Mikhail worked at The Baghdad Observer as a translator and literary editor before, under increasing threats from the Saddam Hussein regime, she left the country in 1996.
Several of her books are available in English, including “The War Works Hard” (2005), translated by Elizabeth Winslow and shortlisted for the 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize, “A Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea” (2009), translated by Winslow, and “The Iraqi Nights“ (2014), translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.
Mikhail has written during wars in Iraq and the United States, and she shared her insights on author and writing restrictions in both places.
Marcia Lynx Qualey: You’ve said before that Iraqi censorship, in a way, shaped how you wrote your poetry: “That’s why I used a lot of metaphors and layers of meanings.” Do you think you would be a different writer if you had not grown up in a place where external government censors could reject your work?
Dunya Mikhail: Like chess, life is full of probabilities. You change one move and everything else goes different directions. The white has the initiative and the black responds. In that sense, I am the black. The authority, and its censorship, was the white. I played it safe but had some risky moves; after all, there is no good player, or writer, without risky moves.
I had to use a lot of metaphors to hide my true meaning but didn’t want to hide it totally — I still wanted the true readers to understand me. That challenge perhaps worked to the benefit of poetry. One of my friends from back home said that I was writing better before! After leaving Iraq, I was using metaphors for the sake of metaphors only. I don’t feel, however, that I changed as a writer. My style is one, just growing closer to my true self.
MQ: How have things changed for writers in Iraq — in terms of censorship and self-censorship — from the 1980s through now?
DM: After 20 years of leaving Iraq, I returned last month for a visit. I asked my friends there about the department of censorship. “Does it still exist?” No, they told me. It’s not a building any more, but it’s a mysterious existence like a shadow that follows you and may kill you if you go against the current.
Nobody knows where the red line is any more. You can be guilty merely because of your name. I met an Iraqi artist in Jordan whose name is Saddam. He left Iraq because he was persecuted and threatened because of his name. I don’t like his name either, but it made sense to me when he said that changing his name just because it happened to be a dictator’s name is no different from any of those dictator’s practices.
MQ: Many in the U.S. and U.K. would look at the situation in the U.S. as one of absolute or near-absolute freedom from censorship. What are they missing? What sorts of restrictions are there on writers in the U.S.?
DM: My first impression of Americans was that “they are nice and they don’t tell you something’s inappropriate.”
But thinking of this simplistic statement intellectually, I started realizing that speech here is usually restricted to what is “acceptable.” Censorship in America is implicit and it precedes speech, as opposed to in Iraq, where censorship is explicit and it follows speech.
MQ: How are your considerations now different, living and writing in the U.S. while still publishing with Arabic-language publishers?
DM: It’s the language [that] mattered to me after living in the U.S. I do still think and write in Arabic, but I also try to translate my work. With the second language, my poems always have second lives which make me understand their first lives better.
MQ: Can you tell us about a time when you’ve gotten in trouble for what you’ve written?
DM: When my book “Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea” went to the department of censorship in Iraq, it was approved with some recommendations to eliminate some passages. But I published it [in 1995] as is without taking those recommendations into consideration. I knew that was really risky, but I immediately left my country.
MQ: Is it possible to have a society that is completely censorship-free? What would be the best of all possible worlds, for a writer?
DM: A writer can manage around it but what’s really important for a writer is the style of living. A writer needs to be excused from daily societal duties and that’s not really a luxury. Writing does need time and space of its own.
Marcia Lynx Qualey is a freelance cultural journalist based in Cairo, Egypt. Qualey has written for Al Masry Al Youm English edition, World Literature Today, the Guardian and the Believer, and manages the blog Arabic Literature in English.