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.