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Nazik al-Mala'ikah (1922-2007; also Nazik Malaikah)


Iraqi poet and critic, one of the most important Arab women writers. Al-Mala'ika was a major advocate of the free verse movement in the late 1940s with Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. Her poetry is characterized by its terseness of language, eloquence, original use of imagery, and delicate ear for the music of verse.

Stay as you are, a secret world our souls can't comprehend,
weaver of poetry's remnants in worlds of darkened mirrors.
You make each song mellifluous by shimmering in its folds,
You give music its flavor, pulsing meter through its curves,
Stay as the fantasies sustaining life -
love, poems, God.
(in 'A Song for the Moon', Revolt Against the Sun: The Selected Poetry of Nazik al-Mala'ika, edited and translated by Emily Drumsta, 2020)

Nazik al-Mala'ika was born in Baghdad into a cultured and literary Shia family. She was the oldest of seven siblings. Her father, Sadiq al-Malaika, was a poet and the editor of a 20-volume encyclopedia. Um Nizar al-Mala'ika, her mother, wrote poetry against the British rule under the pseudonym Omm Nizar al-Malaika. Al-Mala'ika published her poems and articles under her own name. She started to write already in her childhood, and at the age of ten she composed her first poetry in Classical Arabic. All her life, al-Mala'ika kept a diary. Her mother's poetry she collected and edited in Unshudad al-majd (1968).

Al-Mala'ika was educated at the Higher Teachers' Training College in Baghdad, earning her B.A. in 1944. While still in college, she published poems in newspapers and magazines. As a student she registered in the musical instrument oud (the Middle-Eastern lute) department of the Fine Arts Institute, and attended classes in the acting department. Many of her early poems contrasted the oppressiveness of the city and the beauty of the countryside and nature. Musical metaphors repeatedly surfaced in her writings.

Upon winning a Rockefeller scholarship to Princeton University in 1950, al Mala'ika spent a lonely year there – she was the only female in the male-dominated environment. In 1954 she continued her studies on Iraqi government scholarship at the University of Wisconsin, obtaining an M.A. incomparative literature. On her return to Baghdad al-Mala'ika worked as a university lecturer and professor. In 1961 she married Abdel-Hadi Mahbouba, her colleague in the Arabic department at the Education College in Baghdad. They had one son. With her husband, she helped found the University of Basra in the southern part of Iraq.

As a writer al-Mala'ika made her debut in 1947 with A'shiqat Al-Layl (The woman lover of the night). In these poems, 'Night' represents a friend, who has to power to ease her pain. The themes of despair and disillusion were familiar from the Arabic literary romanticism of the 1930s and 1940s, but she also drew inspiration from the English Romantic poets, exemplified in her version of Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale'. 

Shazaya wa ramad (1949, Splinters and ashes), al-Mala'ika's second collection, helped launch free verse as a new form for avant-garde poetry. For fifteen centuries, the old two-hemistich mono-rhymed form had flourished unchallenged. Experiments outside the rigid structures started in the beginning of the 20th century, but it was not until the mid-forties that poets succeeded in creating an acceptable form of free verse. Al-Mala'ika's book contained eleven poems and an introduction, in which she explained the advantages of the new rhyme patterns as opposed to the old. The critic 'Abd al-Jabbar Dawud al-Basri called the introduction "the first manifesto" issued by the free-verse movement. 

Qararat al-mawya (1957), al-Mala'ika third collection, contained poems written between 1937 and 1953. In the 1950s al-Mala'ika secured her place as one of the most prominent figures of Iraqi modernism in literature. She backed the free-verse movement with her critical writings, when arguments were thrown for and against metrical poetry.

One of her best-known poems, 'al-Kulira' (The Cholera, in Sparks and Ashes),  took the subject from recent history - it was based on the emotional effect of the cholera epidemic that arrived from Egypt to Iraq in 1947. "The night calmed down / Listen to the fall of the sighs' echo, / In the deep darkness, under the lull, on the dead." (Listen to the Mourners: the Essential Poems of Nāzik Al-Malā'ika, edited and translated by 'Abdulwāḥid Lu'lu'a, 2021) Although this poem still followed a certain rhyme scheme, the lengths of the  lines vary. With this poem she demonstrated the possibilities of the modern verse. Her father did not like the new direction she had taken. Moreover, the Arab modernist Jabra Ibrahim Jabra criticized her argumentation on the new style. Al-Mala'ika's collected articles, Qadaya 'l-shi'r al-mu'asir (1962), continued the debate for more sophisticated expression, and developed further some of the principles formulated in the introduction of Shazaya wa ramad. Yughayyir alwanahu al-bahr (1977) and Lil-Salah Wa-al-Thawra (1978) were written entirely in free verse.

Why do we fear words
when among them are words like unseen bells,
whose echo announces in our troubled lives
the coming of a period of enchanted dawn,
drenched in love, and life?
So why do we fear words?

(in 'Love Song for Words', translated by Rebecca Carol Johnson, The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 110 Poets on the Divine, edited by Kaveh Akbar, 2022)

With her move in Lebanon at the start of the 1960, al-Mala'ika entered a new phase in his literary career. Many of her works were published in Beirut, where she resided for two years. Following the rise of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, al-Mala'ika left her homecountry with her husband. For twenty years, she taught at the University of Kuwait. After Hussein's invasion of the country, al-family fled to Cairo.

By 1978 al-Mala'ika had published seven volumes of verse. A festschrift, entitled Nazik al-Mala'ika, Dirasat Fi'el-Shi'r Wal-Sha'ira, appeared in her honour in 1985. Edited by Abdullah al-Muhanna in Kuwait, it  contained twenty articles on her work. The University of Basrah gave her in 1992 an honorary doctorate.

By nature, al-Mala'ika was melancholic and she avoided publicity. She shared with Schopenhauer (and the British Romantics) the belief that death is a liberator. "I do not remember ever seeing the poet smile, let alone laugh" recalled her colleague professsor emeritus  'Abdulwāḥid Lu'lu'a in Listen to the Mourners: the Essential Poems of Nāzik Al-Malā'ika (2021). When the family's car was stolen in 1992, Hussein gifted them a brand-new Oldsmobile, in recognition of al-Mala'ika achievements. She entered the literary scene again in 1999 with a new book of verse, Youghiyar Alouanah Al-Bahr, which also contained an autobiographical  sketch. The bulk of the poems were written 25 years ago in 1974. For many years, Al-Mala'ika suffered from Parkinson's disease. Early in 1993 the news spread in the Arab press that al-Mala'ika was dead. She died on June 20, 2007, in self-imposed exile in Cairo.

Al-Mala'ika was a strong defender of women's rights. Her two lectures from the 1950s about women's position in patriarchal society, 'Woman between passivity and positive morality' (1953) and 'Fragmentation in Arab  society'  (1954), are still topical. Al-Mala'ika's poem about Jamilah Buhrayd, a young girl and a hero of the Algerian Revolution, who was captured and tortured by the French army, greatly influenced the younger generation of her readers. However, in general she was more concerned with her personal experience or nature than with nationalist issues in the 1950s and '60s. Starting with the collection Shaýarat al-qamar (1968, The moon tree) al-Mala'ika began to distance herself from experimentalism and developed more moralistic, conservative views - she wrote religious poems and often used the two-hemistich form. Iraqi nationalism and solidarity with Palestinian people blended with broader struggles for freedom and social justice. She also wrote about the defeat of the Arab armies in the 1967 Six-Day War.

In the lecture 'Literature and the Intellectual [Western] Invasion ' (1965), presented at the Fifth Conference of Arab Writers, al-Mala'ika argued that the influence of the West and its literature on the Arab culture is an invasion more dangerous than military invasion. Moreover, translations of European literature, done by incompetent translators, weaken the Arabic language. Al-Mala'ika's nationalist views were criticized by the journalist and writer Salama Musa, who said that "'The worst thing that I am scared of is, that we conquer imperialism and drive it away. We conquer the exploiters and subdue them, but we will not be able to conquer the Middle Ages in our life andd return to the call 'Go back to the ancient.'" (Modern Arabic Poetry 1800-1970 by Shmuel Moreh, 1976, p. 274)

Al-Mala'ika also translated poems by such writers as Byron, Thomas Gray, and Rupert Brooke, but in the 1960s she criticized young writers who have embraced too uncritically Western models. Al-Mala'ika played the oud she had studied in her youth, and sang the songs of Omm Kulthoum and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab. In the poem 'Lament of a Worthless Woman'  (1952) she expressed her sorrow for women whose fate is to fall into oblivion: "She left, no cheek turned pale, no lip trembled. / The doors did not hear the story of her death... / The news tumbled down the avenue its echo not finding a shelter / So it stayed forgotten in some hole, its depression the moon lamenting." ('Nazik al-Malaika, 83, Poet Widely Known in Arab World, Is Dead' by Alissa J. Rubin, The New York Times, June 27, 2007)

For further reading: 'Nazik Al Malaika's Life and Her Poetic Common Themes with ParvinEtesami' by Ashraf Roshandel Pour, Azam NikAbadi, Fariba Hemati, in International Journal On New Trends In Education And Literature, Vol 1, No 3, Sep (2014); Nāzik al-Malāʼikah: ḥayātuhā wa-shiʻruhā by Yūsuf ʻAṭā al-Ṭarīfī (2011); 'Ambivalent Attitudes Toward Nature in the Early Poetry of Nazik Al-Mala'ika' by R. Husni, in Journal of Arabic Literature, Vol. 38, Numb. 1 (2007); The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by Nathalie Handal (2000); Zwischen Zauber und Zeichen. Moderne arabische Lyrik von 1945 bis heute, ed. by Khalid Al-Maaly (2000); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature: Volume 2: L-Z, edited by Julie Scott Meisami & Paul Starkey (1998); 'Nazik al-Mala'ika's Poetry and Its Critical Reception in the West' by Salih J. Altoma, in Arab Studies Quarterly (09/22/1997); 'Death in the Early Poetry of Nazik al-Mala'ika' by Ronak Hussein and Yasir Suleiman, in British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1993); Reflections and Deflections by S. Ayyad and N. Witherspoon (1986); Women of the Fertile Crescent: Modern Poetry By Arab Women, ed. by Kamal Boullata (1981); Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak, eds. E.W. Fernea and B.Q. Bezirgan (1977); Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry by Salma Jayyusi (1977); Modern Arabic Poetry 1800-1970 by Shmuel Moreh (1976); 'Convention and Revolt in Modern Arabic Poetry', by M.M. Badawi, in Arabic Poetry: Theory and Development, ed. G.E. von Grunebaum (1973); Literatura árabe by J. Vernet (1968) - See also: 'Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati 

Selected works:

  • A'shiqat Al-Layl, 1947 (The woman lover of the night)
  • Shazaya wa ramad, 1949 (Splinters and ashes)
  • 'Al-mar'a baina 'ltarafain, al-salbiyya wa 'l-akh-laq', 1953
  • 'Al-tajzi'iyya fi 'l-mujtama' al-Arabi', 1954
  • Qararat al-mawya, 1957 (The bottom of the wawe)
  • Qadaya al-shir al-muasir, 1962 (Issues in contemporary poetry)
  • Unshudat al-majd, 1965
  • Al-Sawma'a wal-Shurfa Al-Hamra', 1965 (The monk's cell and the red box) 
  • Shajarat al-qamar, 1968 (The moon tree)
  • Masat al-hayat wa-ughniyah lil-insan, 1970 (The tragedy of being and a song of man)
  • Al-Tajziiyah fi al-mujtama al-arabi, 1974
  • Yugayyir alwána-hu l-bahr, 1976 (The sea changes its colours)
  • Al-Salah wa-al-thawrah: shi'r, 1978
  • Lil-Salah Wa-al-Thawra, 1978 (For prayer and revolution)
  • Saykulujiyat Al-shi'r, 1979
  • Saykulujiyat Al-shi'r, wa-maqalat ukhra, 1993 (The  psychology of poertry)
  • Al-Shams allati waraa al-qimmah: qisas qasirah, 1997  
  • Youghiyar Alouanah Al-Bahr, 1999
  • Al-Aamal Al-Nathriya Al-Kamila, 2002 (2 vols.)
  • Rasail Nazik al-Malaikah: rasail makhtutah lam tunshar (1948-1985), 2002
  • Al-Aamal Al-Shi'riya Al-Kamila, 2002
  • Revolt Against the Sun: The Selected Poetry of Nazik al-Mala'ika, 2020 (edited and translated by Emily Drumsta)
  • Listen to the Mourners: the Essential Poems of Nāzik Al-Malā'ika, 2021 (edited and translated by 'Abdulwāḥid Lu'lu'a)

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