Collection Brings Pioneering Iraqi Poet to New Audiences

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

For more than a thousand years, Arabic has had a vibrant tradition of poetry, but very little of it has made its way into English translation. When instructors look to teach Arabic poetry in English translation, they are hard-pressed to find even some of the greatest 20th-century innovators, such as Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. But this absence is even more marked when it comes to works by women.

That’s one reason why Emily Drumsta decided to bring together a bilingual edition of selected poems by the Iraqi writer Nazik al-Mala’ika (1923–2007). The collection, Revolt Against the Sun, was recently published by Saqi Books.

“My big thing is that the women are always anthologized (Women of the Fertile Crescent, The Poetry of Arab Women), but each of the poetry collections by Darwish, or Adonis, gets its own volume,” Drumsta said over email. “So we get only a snapshot of ‘one’ Nazik or Fadwa Tuqan or whoever, and yet these are poets who made major contributions and transformed many times over the course of their long careers.”

Drumsta added: “This makes them harder to teach, yes!”

Little-Known in English

In a powerful essay in Raseef22 about working for the New York Times’ Badhdad office, the journalist Ali Adib recalls the day Nazik al-Mala’ika died. He writes that, “An American reporter who had just recently began working came to me with a piece of paper in her hand. She gave me the paper and said, ‘Do you know this name?’ The paper had the name ‘Nazik al-Mala’ika’ written on it in English. I replied, ‘Of course I do.’”

Adib said he rose from his desk to deliver an “enthusiastic and lengthy spiel” on al-Mala’ika’s poetry. He informed the obituary that ran in the New York Times and even translated a few of al-Mala’ika’s poems.

But although this gave English-language readers a fleeting taste of al-Mala’ika’s work, it was hardly enough to understand her poetic journey or the reasons why Drumsta calls her “one of the most significant Arab writers of the twentieth century.”

A ‘Free Verse’ Pioneer?

Like many brief overviews of al-Mala’ika’s work, the New York Times obituary calls her an “early exponent of the free verse movement” in Arabic. Yet as Drumsta notes in her introduction, that description should be qualified.

In her 1949 collection Shrapnel and Ash, a fiery young al-Mala’ika presented free verse as an important break with the past, writing that Arab poets should no longer be “shackling our emotions in the chains of old meters and creaking, dead expressions.”

In her 1949 collection Shrapnel and Ash, a fiery young al-Mala’ika presented free verse as an important break with the past, writing that Arab poets should no longer be “shackling our emotions in the chains of old meters and creaking, dead expressions.”

But soon, she began to see some verse as overly free. By the 1960s, unlike many of the other acclaimed poets of her generation, she spoke against what she deemed “prose with line breaks.” She wrote that an “artificial European spirit” had come to overly influence Arabic poetry.

That is, although she was a poetic innovator, al-Mala’ika was also committed to the Arabic poetic tradition.

[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]

Her central critical work, Issues in Contemporary Arabic Poetry, came out thirteen years after Shrapnel and Ash. In it, she wrote that, “Many of [our Arab critics] resolutely believe that we are less gifted than Western poets, and that we must be spoon-fed their theories if we want to develop Arabic poetry and criticism. I, on the other hand, would say that the material of our Arabic poetry and our Arab life is even richer and more fertile than the material of contemporary European poetry.”

Elegies for Unexpected Subjects

Al-Mala’ika is also often remembered as a sad poet who wrote poetic laments full of pain, suffering, and death. Historically, the Arabic-language elegy has been linked to women, perhaps even before the time of al-Khansa (575–645), who was famous for the poetry she wrote mourning her brothers.

However, while part of this tradition, al-Mala’ika’s elegies also broke with it. First, sadness was reclaimed as not a passive act, but a political one, as in her early poem “Revolt Against the Sun.” In it, she writes:

This sadness is the form of my revolt,
To which the gods bear witness every night.

“This sadness is the form of my revolt,

“To which the gods bear witness every night.”

Nazik al-Mala’ika
in an early poem, “Revolt Against the Sun”

Her elegies also have unexpected subjects, as her “Elegy for an Unimportant Day.” At times, they mourn the lives of ordinary women, as in, “Elegy for a Woman of No Importance,” where al-Mala’ika writes:

She died, but no lips shook, no cheeks turned white
no doors heard her death tale told and retold,
no blinds were raised for sad eyes to behold
the casket as it disappeared from sight.

And in her signature 1947 poem “Cholera,” it is the Egyptian people who are mourned as they succumb to disease, slowly dying off throughout a poem that particularly resonates in a year of pandemic.

silence, still
nothing left but the trace of Allahu akbar
as the gravedigger too lies in eternal sleep
there is no one to help
the muezzin is dead
who will eulogize them?

Twining Poetry and Music

One of the reasons al-Mala’ika’s poems have been particularly difficult to translate is because of how central rhythm and rhyme are to their construction. Musicality was always important to the poet: Al-Mala’ika was born in a musical home in 1923, and she began playing the oud at a young age. Her earliest poetic attempts were song lyrics performed during social gatherings at the family home in Baghdad.

Drumsta does not try to re-create the rhyme, or the exact nature of the rhythm, which would be quite a feat in English. Instead, she works to make the poems musical without being sing-song.

In the end, the translator is humble about her project: “On a good day, I feel as if the formal experiments of these translations do something worthwhile for the translation of Arabic poetry, bringing al-Mala’ika to new readers in a way that she might have appreciated and even respected. On a bad day, I fear these poems read as little more than English ditties.”

Not every moment of the translations works. Yet the poems do rise up to remind us of al-Mala’ika’s power, as in “Cholera”:

voices weep everywhere
this is what death has done
they are dead, they are dead, they are dead
let the screaming Nile cry over what death has done


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button