Monday, June 25, 2007

The Queen of Contemporary Arab Poetry

She was a writer, an innovator, an activist, an artist, a musician, and the least to say about her that she was someone who could speak English, French, German and Latin fluently.

The 20th of June, 2007, marked another sad day in the modern history of Iraq when Nazik Al-Mala'ikah has died at the age of 84 years old in Cairo, Egypt. Mrs Al-Mala'ikah is known as the one who revolutionized Arab poetry in the late 1940s by introducing free verse (or taf'ila) or what formally known as the prose poet. She was born in Baghdad in 1922 from an educated family whom both parents used to write poets and they were distinguished writers at that time. This gave little Nazik the motivation to start writing on a very early age, and when she was in college, her poems and writings were already published in newspapers and magazines.

Nazik Al-Mala’ikah obtained the BA degree in Literature from University of Baghdad in 1944 and the MA degree in Literature in 1954 from the University of Wisconsin. In addition, she has been granted scholarship in 1959 to study at Princeton University, New Jersey, the United States where she studied Latin, French and English. During her years before traveling to the U.S, Mrs Al-Mala’ikah joined the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad where she learned to play the Oud (Arabic Lute) and took lessons in acting too.

Both her early works, the 1947 ‘A'shiqat Al-Layl’ (Lovers of the Nights) and the 1949: ‘Shazaya wa ramad’ (Shrapnel and Ashes) were considered the pillars for changing the 500 years classic form and structure of standard Arabic poetry, but the one and only work which marked the beginning of using the free verse poetry (or the prose poet) was in ‘Cholera’, which based on the tragedy that plagued Egypt (and Iraq afterwards) in the late forties of the twenty’s century. However, there is who dispute this claim and give the credit to another legend in contemporary Arab literature, the Iraqi writer Badr Shakir Al Sayyab.

In the years to follow, especially in the 1960s, Mrs Nazik Al-Mala’ka kept on calling for the modernization of the forms Arab poetry is written and to find new ground for more sophisticated methods. This was clearly illustrated in her work Qadaya 'l-shi'r al-mu'asir (Issues On Contemporary Poetry) in 1962.

In addition to being a poet and a writer, Mrs. Al-Mala’ika was regarded as a strong defender of Women rights and her various articles and lectures in the 1950s are a better witness of her strong stand regarding this issue.

Al-Mala'ika did not limit herself within the boundaries of Arab litreture and poetry, she also expanded her knowledge and her translations of western/ foreign writers such as Byron, Thomas Gray, and Rupert Brooke is another great achievement. I wonder if there is any achievement by writers and literates to translate this legend’s works into other languages!

In 1957, she became a lecturer at the University of Education until the late 1950s she left to live in Beirut, Lebanon, where most of her works have been published. She is also gave lectures at the University of Basra, a place which she with the help of her husband and former university colleague, Abdel-Hadi Mahbouba, both found in the mid 1960s. In addition, Mrs Nazik Al-Malayka taught at the University of Kuwait for many years until 1990 when she was forced to return to Iraq after the invasion of Saddam to that Gulf state, and after the end of the 1991 war, she moved with her family to Cairo where she went through a semi self-isolation till the last day. Despite that, Mrs Al-Mala’ika published in 1999 her last book, called Youghiyar Alouanah Al-Bahr, which in fact a collection of her writings dated back to 1974. Further more, the Egyptian Supreme Council for Culture has published big collection of Al-Mala'ika's work (if not all) in two big volumes. The first includes Qadaya Al-Shi'r Al-Mu'asir (Issues of Contemporary Poetry, 1962) and Sykolojia Al-Shi'r (The Psychology of Poetry, 1979), while the second includes Al-Sawma'a wal-Shurfa Al- Hamraa (The Hideaway and the Red Balcony, 1965), Al-Tajazu'iya fil- Mujtama' Al-Arabi (Disintegration in Arab Society, 1974) and Al-Shams Allati wara' Al-Qimma (The Sun behind the Summit), a collection of short stories written through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Here is a page where it claims to contains all the work and writings of Nazik Al-Mala’ika (in Arabic)

My condolences to Mrs. Al-Mala’ika’s family and May God rest her soul in peace. The 20th of June 2007 is another sad day in the life of Iraqis because another candle that lit the literature domain in the history of modern Iraq is put down!

Al-Mala’ika’s is a pride for all the Iraqis due to her achievements. She became the symbol for many Iraqi women around the years to follow in her steps: full of motivation, carry many dreams, and high hopes for a better future for themselves as individuals as for their country they love. This is another Iraqi woman I am proud of.


kyles said...

Wow, what an inspirational lady, sounds like she was well ahead of her time. I'll definately be looking up some of her works, and I hope to find some. Mrs Al-Mala'ikah seems to be more inspirational because of her work with women's rights, and I agree it is such a shame when luminaries such as this pass on, thank you so much for teaching me about her.

MixMax said...

She is indeed, Kyles,and to this day to many Iraqi women from different life styles and soceity classes.
I will let you know if I find any of her work translated to English so you can have more indepth look into her work :)

kyles said...

That would be much appreciated Mix, as I haven't been able to find anything I could read :(


Sam Kuraishi said...

Although she was a pioneer in what we call in the United States Unmetrical
Verse, which is a free verse,sha owes her talent to the Beat Generation of the fifties Like Ginsberg, Ferlighetti, Amiri Barakat,Jack Kerouac and many other Beat Generation poets. She was in New Jersey at that time to study at Princeton, where Willaim Carlos Williams lived. She was also influuenced by him too and his tiadic form. When she returned to Iraq, she started that movement which was originated in that locality and nearby Greenwic Village in new york where she met some of the Beat Generation Poets and writers. So, the origin of her free verses is the American new movement which she really elevated it to a high level.I tip my hat for her and her talent

Sam Kuraish
Iraqi American Poet and writer who write in English and Arabic.