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Author Dunya Mikhail takes questions and reads from her newly released book, “The Bird Tattoo,” in Detroit’s New Center earlier this month. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Helen grew up in an idyllic village in Iraq surrounded by mountains and goats. Without phones or TV, the neighbors communicated long distances throughout the village by whistle. 

But the innocence of Helen’s world was shattered when her family was taken by ISIS. In her 30s, she was sold into sex slavery, her two pre-teen sons were trained to be soldiers of the terrorist group, and she was forced to leave a newborn daughter in the care of a neighbor.

Several decades of unimaginable trauma for Helen and her Yazidi community, a religious minority group in Iraq, are detailed in a new book, ‘The Bird Tattoo,” authored by Dunya Mikhail, an Iraqi poet forced to flee Iraq in the 1990s. 

https://www.bridgedetroit.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/BIRDTATMOV.mp4
(Video by Quinn Banks)

Mikhail came to America, and settled in metro Detroit. While The Bird Tattoo is fictional, it’s based on true events and builds on an earlier nonfiction book by Mikhail. Helen’s story is one of the thousands of women and young girls that were taken and trafficked by ISIS. 

Mikhail released the book in December with a reading and question and answer session at the Room Project, a co-working and gathering space for writers in Detroit’s New Center. 

Dunya Mikhail is an Iraqi poet who was forced to flee Iraq in the 1990s and now resides in metro Detroit. Her latest work of fiction, “The Bird Tattoo,” details decades of trauma for women taken and sex trafficked by ISIS. Mikhail discussed her book in New Center this month. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

The release of her book, she said, coincides with Iran’s abolishment of the ‘morality police,’ the group that enforces and arrests citizens for things like women incorrectly wearing a hijab. For months, citizens protested the police over the recent killing of a woman detained for incorrect dress code. 

“My protagonist also had similar experience with the morality police and with these types of unfair practices ,” Makhail told BridgeDetroit. “I feel so elated that it’s as if the voice of Helen and in her birth as well, courage and all that – I feel it’s part of this, and as if I’m holding hands with these women through the novel.”

Mikhail wrote on Twitter about Helen’s character and news of the abolishment, “Her bird is singing: Woman, Life, Freedom!” 

To write the book, Mikhail traveled to Iraq and interviewed women who had been held captive by ISIS. 

The bird tattoo theme and title came from a woman Mikhail interviewed for the book, who was formerly held captive. The woman had a tattoo, although not of a bird, Mikhail said. 

“That’s why I wrote it as a fiction,” Mikhail said. “So I could use all the, kind of, the realities that I learned about, as if it’s Play Doh, where you make your own, or shape – that is your art.” 

The book is available for purchase at Pages Bookshop on Grand River in Detroit, or online, and is available in Arabic and English. 

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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