Nazik al-Mala'ika. Unknown/Wikipedia. All rights reserved.
“Careful! Do not let the sadness of my features,
My pale color, or the shiver of my emotions deceive you."
Yesterday marked eight years since the death of one of the most celebrated figures in Arabic literary history, Nazik Al-Mala'ika, best known for her free verse transformation of the Arabic poetic canon. Her symphonic and sensuous poetry, with overtones of melancholy, weaves together themes of love, death, feminism, nationalism and Islam.
A breathing legacy
She departed the world aged 83 in Cairo, the city in which her corporeal life ended, and that which closed the doors on her cherished native Iraq. The Mala'ika family fled their homeland and resettled in Egypt after the Ba'ath party's ascendance to power, in search of a more stable future.
Mala'ika is famed not only for her artistry of language, but also her unparalleled contributions to literary theory, which have kept her spirit alive until the present day. Her first book on literary criticism, Issues in contemporary poetry (Qadaya al-shi'r al-mu'asir), published in 1962, examines the linguistic responsibilities of writers and identifies common linguistic inaccuracies across Arabic literature. Even half a century on, her timeless theories inform present generations, and perhaps those to come, about the distinctiveness of Arabic and its various poetic forms.
Transformed, not transcended
As an early exponent and theorist of al-shi’r al-hurr (free verse), Nazik rose to literary acclaim for defying age-old poetic norms, to the dissatisfaction of many traditionalists. Her intervention remains largely misunderstood however. She pioneered a new form of poetry, seeking not to discontinue the literary traditions of classical Arabic, but to reform and thus advance the art of Arab poetry. As Dorothy Benson notes, al-shi’r al-hurr "uses some classical metres but allows for complete freedom in length of line and rhyme and relies for its musicality on repetition and parallelism."
Born into a well-versed literary household in Baghdad in 1923, Malai'ka was the daughter of renowned Iraqi poetess, Omm Nizar, and her father Sadiq was a languages teacher who shared Malai'ka's unquenchable love of poetry. Her poetic prowess revealed itself at the tender age of ten, when she wrote her first poem in classical Arabic. Mala'ika naturally gravitated towards Baghdad's College of Arts, from which she graduated in 1944. A decade later she set sail for America to pursue a masters degree in comparative literature from the University of Wisconsin.
Mala'ika, as Emily Drumstra from UC Berkeley remarks, "was just as much a scholar of English poetry as she was a poet and critic working in Arabic. I think she might have readily admitted this."
A nationalist at heart
It is said that during her departure from Baghdad, Malai'ka familiarised herself with and drew inspiration from a broader literary planet. Malai'ka's translations of western poets, including Lord Byron and Thomas Gray, among others, shaped her own voice as she incorporated aspects of their symbolism into her own poems.
Despite poetic borrowing from the west, Mala'ika wore the badge of her Arabic identity proudly, as her writings testify. She devoted her professional and spiritual energy to reviving classical Arabic literature, underscoring its richness and cultural continuity. She stood firmly against the imitation of western literature, believing it would forever quash the authentic spirit of Arab nationalism, which, as she believed, has no western equivalent.
While Nazik's earlier work preoccupies itself with themes of romance and love, her later poems display an unshakable commitment to the nationalist issues of her time. Viewing language as a universal and necessary tool for the preservation of identity, she dedicates much poetic space to three interrelated concerns: the quest for Arab unity, cultural authenticity, and the question of Palestine. Her political poise as a symbol of Arab nationalism stirs a sense of pride in many—with fewer acknowledging Mala'iki’s failure to recognise the literary interplay between east and west, which gives her work its distinctive flavour.
She advances/she retreats
As an independent writer and thinker Mala'ika—even after death—has become a permanent source of inspiration to women. Her poems, particularly 'To wash away dishonour', transmitted to audiences the bitter truth of womanhood in the Arab world. The poem brings to life the dark tale of a woman who meets an early and lonely death at the hands of her brother, who believes she has dishonoured the family name.
Her most trenchant critique of hegemonic patriarchy is delivered in her essay ‘Women between the extremes of passivity and choice’, in which she reprimands Iraqi society for denying women agency, autonomy and (above all else) choice. Despite engaging in philanthropic activities for protecting women whose choice it was to not marry, Mala'ika herself eventually tied the knot and slid comfortably into the role of housewife—but she never gave up on writing.
Despite her accomplishments, Mala'ika despised attention and shied away from the public gaze, citing loneliness as her chosen path, as her memoirs disclose:
"[U]nable to express my mind-set and emotions like others, I chose loneliness, silence and shyness. When the cycle had to be broken, I was already in a deep struggle with myself. Whenever I made one step forward, I took ten steps back, which meant a complete change took me many long years".
It is rumoured that sadness was an infirmity that had haunted Nazik since she was a young girl, and with age, it only become more ferocious. Benson observes that the "tone of sadness which pervades her poetry she attributes to the pain of being a woman in the Arab world and the political setbacks of the people". Others believe that Mala'ika’s exile may also have precipitated her withdrawal into a world of shyness and darkness.
But eight years since her passing, Nazik lives on in the hearts and minds of millions, as a prized poetic gem, whose instinctive sense of rhyme would forever revolutionise classical Arabic poetry.