On August 23, eighty-nine years ago, Nazik al-Malaika was born in Iraq. She was to become one of the Arab world's most momentous writers, an embodiment of the cultural vibrancy that, for so long, flourished in Baghdad.
While she was writing poems in classical Arabic at age 10, in which each verse typically ends with the same rhyme scheme and each line has the same number of beats, al-Malaika become one of the very first Arabic poets -- perhaps the very first -- to embrace taf'ila (free verse), now called al-sh'ir al-hur. She turned a 1,000-year-old literary tradition on its head, and created spaces for new images, new meter, new thinking. "The leap from classical poetry to free verse was very controversial, and she faced intense criticism from not only traditionalists, but also her own family," according to al Jadid, an Arab cultural review.
From Nazik al-Malaika's obituary in the New York Times:
Ms. Malaika was one of a small group of Iraqi poets who broke away from classical Arab poetry, with its rigid metric and rhyme schemes. Influenced by the writing of Shakespeare, Byron and Shelley as well as by classical Arabic poets, these poets took up modern topics and used lyrical language that spoke with the immediacy of life on the Arab street.
In 1947 she published The Lovers of the Night (Ashiqat al-Layl, also rendered as Night's Lover), her first book of poems and much influenced by her study of music. Two years later, she published her first collection of free-verse poetry: Ashes and Shrapnel (or, in Britain, Sparks and Ashes), an enormously significant book in Arabic literature. Per The Guardian:
In her introduction she argued that traditional Arab forms of verse inhibited Arabic poetry from attaining the heights of other world literatures. In her poems she dealt with the themes that moved her contemporaries - nationalism, social and feminist issues, honour killings and alienation.
al-Malaika was also an essayist and literary critic, pushing particularly hard against patriarchal systems that diminished the lives of women. She gave lectures with titles like “Women between Two Poles: Negativity and Morals" and “Women Between the Extremes of Passivity and Choice." She was a particularly passionate advocate against honor killings.
Altogether, al-Malaika put over fifteen volumes of poetry, prose, and criticism into the world. It is difficult to access them in English, though. The poet appears in several antholgies, but her whole collections are damn near nonexistent. (In the optimistically-estimated three percent of translated books published each year in the U.S., a disproportionately miniscule number are translations of books by women.) Even her poems that did get rendered into English -- well, the translations may leave something to be desired.
Adrienne Rich kept a sharp eye on the poet -- and questioned whether translation was suffocating al-Malaika's fire.
(Her) longer poems here suggest an impressive authority of voice which in the English doesn’t quite carry over ... One reads, guessing: is this or that poem actually more remarkable than translation can suggest? is it, in translation, bound, like Prometheus, on the rock of its its language and cultural references? Has the translation been timid, binding itself within the literal, or within an idea of Anglophone poetic language (e.g. “wondrous”) which, to an American eye and ear, seem artificial? How have twentieth century movements in Arabic poetry, from traditional to modernist poetics, with blendings of both, found correspondence in English?
Erica Wright was quite blunt about the limited translation of the poet's work. She wrote in Guernica shortly after al-Malaika's death:
Every news outlet that I can think to check has published an obituary for Iraqi poet Nazik al-Malaika. While her significance in the Arab literary world is concrete, her poetry is little known in the United States. In fact, very few translations of her poems exist in English, making the outpouring of obits seem, to be callous, a day late and a dollar short.
I suspect Wright would not be appeased by Google unexpectedly putting the poet in a spotlight last year.
In one venture to change the eerie void in al-Malaika's legacy, her poem "New Year" was translated by Rebecca Carol Johnson for Words Without Borders. It begins with the line: "New Year, don't come to our homes, for we are wanderers...," and it has an especially striking finale.
New Year, move on. There is the path
to lead your footsteps.
Ours are veins of hard reed,
and we know not of sadness.
We wish to be dead, and refused by the graves.
We wish to write history by the years
If only we knew what it is to be bound to a place
If only snow could bring us winter
to wrap our faces in darkness
If only memory, or hope, or regret
could one day block our country from its path
If only we feared madness
If only our lives could be disturbed by travel
or the sadness of an impossible love.
If only we could die like other people.
Al-Malaika graduated from a teacher's college Baghdad, where she studied both classical Arabic poets and 20th-century modernists. She learned English and French, and spent a scholarship year studying literary criticism at Princeton, where she was the only female student. In 1959, she earned a master's degree in comparative literature from the University of Wisconsin. Along the way, she published Depth of the Wave (alias Bottom of the Wave). She returned to Iraq, and in addition to teaching at the University of Baghdad, she helped found the University of Basra, where she taught Arabic. Her fourth book came out in 1968: Tree of the Moon. She published two other titles in the 1970s, and, in her later years, advocated for a deeper appreciation and practice of Arabic poetry's classical roots.
After the Baath Party rose to power, al-Malaika and her family left Iraq in 1970 for Kuwait. She taught at the University of Kuwait for twenty years, until the Iraq invasion, when she and her family left for Cairo. She lived there until her death in 2007 at age 83. In the last epoch of her life in particular, al-Malaika struggled mightily with depression. (Worth noting here: her pioneering work, as a female, in first-person Arabic poetry with a penetrating psychological focus.) al-Malaika grew more solitary, and she wrote much less. Her last book was published in 1974. Her final poem was a eulogy for her husband, who died in 2005.
There are prizes now, in Nazik al-Malaika's name, for Arab women poets. Magd Aldeen Shehwan of Syria won the top award this year, and she accepted it in a ceremony in Baghdad.