Nazik al-Malaika: Pioneer of modern Arabic poetry

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Nazik al-Malaika
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“She died, but no lips shook, no cheeks turned white

no doors heard her death tale told and retold,

no blinds were raised for small eyes to behold

the casket as it disappeared from sight.

Only a beggar in the street, consumed by hunger, heard the echo of her life—

the safe forgetfulness of tombs, the melancholy of the moon.”

These haunting lines are from a poem titled Elegy for a Woman of No Importance. The poet is Nazik al-Malaika. Not so well known in the Western world, or even in the East, al-Malaika is considered to be the pioneer of modernist poetry in Arabic literature. She is remembered also as one of the first women poets of the Arabic world. Her poems looked at the world from an unmistakably woman’s perspective. Not only in terms of content, Nazik al-Malaika revolutionized Arabic poetry’s form as well by being the first one to use free verse. She was highly educated in the West. Although her heart and therefore her poetry was deeply rooted in the Arab world’s realities, its challenges, sufferings and beauties.

Education of Nazik Al-Malaika

Nazik Al-Malaika was born in Baghdad on August 23, 1923. In 1944 she received the prestigious Rockefeller Scholarship. She then moved to Princeton University, in the US, to study literary criticism. This brilliant mind received her masters in comparative literature from University of Wisconsin, Madison. She went on to become a professor in the University of Baghdad, University of Basrah and Kuwait University. Nazik Al-Malaika, therefore, learnt and taught literature academically. This surely gave her a command over the craft of poetry-writing, besides her inborn genius.

Her rendering of ‘al-shi’r al-hurr’, i.e. free verse in Arabic is subtle, and deeply rooted in the rich traditions of Arabic poetry. That is to say, while she was cutting lose of tradition on the one hand, she was also carrying the best of her tradition within her poetry. Hers was, therefore, a highly informed rebellion, rather than a gross rejection of the past.

Cultural roots of her poetry

This informed honing of her poetry is noticed in other areas of her poetry as well. For example, al-Malaika was at ease with the best of Western poetry, and even translated them at length into Arabic, including great poets such as Lord Byron and Thomas Gray. Yet she never for a moment allowed her own poetry to mimic, to ape the Western masters. Her voice was totally her own.

Her poetry was not overtly political, but much of her poetic expanse is occupied with three deep-rooted interrelated concerns: the quest for Arab unity, cultural authenticity, and the question of Palestine. This, however, is extremely well crafted and subtle without being vague or suffering from serious lack of commitment. And at the same time al-Malaika’s verses reflect an educated poetic interplay between the east and the west.

She left Iraq in the 1970, spent two decades in Kuwait and finally left for Cairo, Egypt, where she lived until her death in 2007, at the age of 83. Her husband was noted Iraqi academician Abdel Hadi Mahbooba. Among her collections of poems are, The Night’s Lover, Shrapnel and Ashes, Bottom of the Wave and Tree of the Moon.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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