Professor uses life experiences for teaching career

Kaley Barnhill, Staff Reporter

Reporter, poet, professor: Dunya Mikhail has had many different titles over the span of her career. However, through all of her different jobs, she had always had her writing at the forefront.

As Oakland University Special Lecturer of Arabic in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, Mikhail received the 2018 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in the poetry category.

Mikhail also co-founded the Mesopotamian Forum for Art and Culture.

“I felt so happy and honored to receive the Guggenheim,” Mikhail said via email. “Two groups of people always need encouragement: children and writers. It’s a type of celebration of what’s essential for us made possible by the light of others who responded with the kind of love that is made abundant when shared.”

Originally from Iraq, Mikhail was a reporter in Baghdad.

“Working as a journalist in Baghdad was both exciting and dangerous,” Mikhail said via email. “Baghdad [at] that time was boiling with hot discussions and wars and tea. But we used to think that the walls had ears and we had to be careful what we say. We couldn’t always speak our minds. But we used metaphors and jokes to express ourselves. The situation in general was a tragic comedy. But journalism helped my poetry writing. I learned from it how to make a story interesting.”

Mikhail had to leave Iraq and eventually settled in Detroit in 1996.  She furthered her academic studies and attended Wayne State University. She explained that she originally found Detroit “cold and industrial” but gradually was able to discover, “the warm corners in the bookstores’ cafes where I could read and drink coffee.”

At OU, Mikhail finds great pride in being a special lecturer of Arabic.

“As a creative practitioner, I am flexible enough to try new material, and I get easily bored of myself,” she said via email.  “I think that I listen well to my students as I expect them to listen to me. They teach me their games and new stuff.”

Her most recent work is a journalistic biography titled “The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq.” It is about a man named Abdullah and his attempt to rescue Yazidi women and children kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS.

“I spoke with a journalist who is my friend and he connected me with some of the survivors,” Mikhail said via email. “But it was only by chance that I spoke with the person who became the hero in my book. It happened because he translated between me and a captive he rescued (Kurdish Arabic translation) and then I found his own story fascinating.”

Mikhail, who has been writing “for half a century,” said via email. “I think I am a poet first. I believe that poetry is love and prose is marriage.”

For Mikhail, her inspirations came mostly from life experiences. Not only her own experiences, but others as well.

When thinking of what she wants readers to take away from her work, Mikhail said via email that she wasn’t sure, but mentioned, “There’s so much war and so much love in this life. In Arabic language, by the way, there’s one letter difference between love (h-b) and war (h-r-b).”