Birth Date: August 23, 1923
Date of Death: June 20, 2007 (age 83)
Place of Birth: Baghdad, Iraq
Place of Death: Cairo, Egypt
Nationality: Iraqi
Occupation/Field of Study Iraqi modernist poet, literary critic and woman advocator. She revolutionized the traditional poetic canon pioneering the Arabic free-form verse.

KEYWORDS: Arts, Nazik Al-Malaika, Literature, Poetry, Iraq, 20th century.

SHE THOUGHT IT

The Arab world has an impressive literary culture. Known as the poetry kings, their poetic tradition is one of the most splendid and vast in the world.

But the tradition came also with rigid schemes and rules for a poem to reach perfection. For a poem to be considered as such, and maybe as a good one, it had to follow some guidelines for its structure. For generations and centuries the Qasidah was the only respectful way to compose a poem, for the rhythm that it creates is astonishing and striking. Meanings and symbols were also well established in these compositions. “The qaṣīdah has always been respected as the highest form of the poetic art and as the special forte of the pre-Islamic poets.”¹

Only did this change when Nazik Al-Malaika came along.

The Qasidah is a literary genre and a form of meter structure. “Qaṣīdah, also spelled kasida, Turkish kasîde Persian qaṣīdeh, [is a] poetic form developed in pre-Islamic Arabia and perpetuated throughout Islamic literary history into the present. It is a laudatory, elegiac, or satiric poem that is found in Arabic, Persian, and many related Asian literatures.”¹ Defined in a cogent way the classical Qasidah is a “non-strophic, tripartite poem employing 50 to 120 hemstitch lines, monorhyme and quantitative meter with a tripartite sequence of thematic modules.”²

Always traditional or conservative in a way, in the twentieth century the Arab world originated and went through a period of radical change in many aspects. Innovation, modernism, and rebellion where the keys to understand the processes that went on in every Arab country. In literature and arts the movement spread from Egypt in the early decades of the century (1910-20-30s) to Syria and Iraq in the next decade (1940s) and then to the rest of the Arab countries such as Lebanon, followed by Morocco or Palestine.

This movement or mughayara (which means: dissimilation, dissimilarity, breaking with the others) are “conscious efforts of breaking with the tradition by creation”³. However, for it to happen, new forms (like the novel), new rhymes (like free-verse), new meanings (inclusion of surrealism or the dream world) needed to be discovered and conquered.

In the 1940s in Iraq modern Arabic poetry was founded. Two poets claimed that the qasidah structure was to be left behind for it could not account for the day to day life of the people. Its rigid meter and rhyme could not express new domains as the inner world, the new rhythm that modern life possesses, the symbols that were arriving from the west to the Middle-east…

These two poets that first asserted that free-verse was to be adopted were Nazik Al-Malaika and the Egyptian poet Louis Awad in his diwan: Plutoland. They did so by publishing poems that broke the traditional scheme, but for a poem to be considered the beginning of a movement, as stated by Nazik Al-Malaika in her introduction to The issues of contemporary poetry, “four conditions were necessary: 1) intention, 2) a confident announcement of the invitation, 3) a wide reaction and 4) provocation for other poets to write in the same style.”⁷

And if we look before Nazik Al-Malaika´s diwan´s publication in 1947 (which included her poem called “The Cholera”) we have to admit that hers was the poetic exercise that caused this great movement of free verse in the Arab world.

But, why would Nazik choose to break with the meter and rhyme of the well established and appreciated qasidah at such a young age? Mostly because of her musical knowledge. As she explained in Issues she wrote “The Cholera” to express her feelings to the Egyptian people suffering this epidemic in that same year. She tried to capture in words the sounds that the horse’s hooves made in the road while carrying carts full of dead people.⁷ (p.35) She also expressed in the same book: “Meter is the soul that electrifies literary material transforming it into poetry… Images and feelings do not become poetic, in the true sense, until they are touched by the fingers of music and the pulse of meter beats in their veins.”⁴ (p. 28)

And it worked.

On the other hand, this movement of renaissance in the Arab world brought together a women’s liberation movement, for it was a great contradiction to advance and break artistically with the established without noticing and trying to break, socially, the patriarchal society. This can be observed in women´s publications and magazines, the beginning of women’s education first in schools and later in universities, the founding of women’s associations, the presence of women in the public sphere…⁷(p.11-15)

Nazik Al-Malaika´s work and achievements were steps of outstanding importance in the women’s liberation struggle.

 

SHORT BIOGRAPHY

Born in Baghdad into a wealthy bourgeois family, Nazik was able to receive a higher education with a greater opening to Western ideas.

Both her parents were poets. Her mother, Omm Nizar, was a famous poet who had to publish with a male pseudonym; and her father worked as an Arabic teacher and wrote a twenty-tome encyclopedia. Therefore, Nazik discovered her love for literature at an early age, taking a great interest in Arabic language and poetry, in fact she wrote her first poem in classical Arabic at the age of ten.

When she graduated in 1944 at the Baghdad College of Arts she could speak four languages, and she was publishing poems in newspapers and magazines as well as playing the oud.

She published her first poem collection (al-diwan) in 1947 by the name of `Ashiqat al-layl “Night´s lover” in which her most famous poem ““The Cholera” appeared. This poem explored the free-verse form which was pretty unfamiliar for the Arab world at that time. Indeed, in an autobiography she wrote about those years she recalls how even her parents, once she showed them the poem, were critical about it and “predicted its failure, yet she stood by it, stating simply, `Say whatever you wish to say. I am confident that my poem will change the map of Arab poetry.´”⁶(p.58)

In the 1950´s she lived for two years (1951-52, 1954-55) in the USA. First, to study Literary Criticism at Princeton University where she was granted a Rockefeller scholarship which was an exceptional merit since Princeton didn’t allow women to attend the University until 1969, almost two decades later. In her next trip  to USA she studied at Wisconsin University where she obtained a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature.

However, she always came back to Iraq where she taught at the University of Baghdad and helped to establish the University of Basra, together with her husband Abdel-Hadi Mahbouba who she married in 1961. In those years, Nazik kept on writing poetry as well as papers on literary criticism and literary theory, and was counted among the greatest modernist writers. But even though she was deep into the academic life, hers was a struggle to give voice to the people, the oppressed… Her poems speak about Arab women identity, revolution, the fight against colonialism, unity, social and economic equality, the people without a name…

But the events of the late 60s and early 70s (the rise of the Baath party), made Nazik flee Iraq to never come back. First she moved to Kuwait until its invasion by Saddam´s forces (1990), and then, to Cairo until her death in 2007. These experiences changed Nazik´s poetry which was now full of melancholy, isolation, sensibility and frustration. As Dr. Fatima Ali Al-Khamisi states: “She recognized she could not coexist with her harsh society. Consequently, she created her own private society where she could peacefully live though sadly.”⁵ (p. 75)

 

PRIZES, ACHIEVEMENTS, HONOURS

  • 1996: Al-Babtain Prize for Poetic creativity;
  • 2000: The Nazik Al-Malaika Prize for Arabic feminine creativity, story writing and novel criticism was created in the year 2000 honoring Nazik Al-Malaika´s achievements. It is granted every year for women innovators by the Iraqi Ministry of Culture.

 

INTERTEXTUAL MATERIALS

Who Am I? by Nazik Al-Malaika (reading of Nazik’s poem) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WmBNzFI8IA

“Lisan Arabi ( Arabic poetry Translated) Nazik Al Malaika” (Reading and translation of Nazik Al-Malaika’s poem: Who Am I?): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4n17xcwKSiQ

Karam Gear,  Innovative Leaders Greeting Cards, Nazik Al-Malaika: https://www.karamfoundation.org/karam-gear/innovative-leaders-greeting-cards-limited-edition

BIBLIOGRAPHY (BY THE AUTHOR):

The Arab world has an impressive literary culture. Known as the poetry kings, their poetic tradition is one of the most splendid and vast in the world.

But the tradition came also with rigid schemes and rules for a poem to reach perfection. For a poem to be considered as such, and maybe as a good one, it had to follow some guidelines for its structure. For generations and centuries the Qasidah was the only respectful way to compose a poem, for the rhythm that it creates is astonishing and striking. Meanings and symbols were also well established in these compositions. “The qaṣīdah has always been respected as the highest form of the poetic art and as the special forte of the pre-Islamic poets.”¹

FURTHER READING:

Al-Khamisi, Dr. Fatima Ali. (2017) “Al-Malaika and the Identity Crisis of an Arab Woman.” American International Journal of Contemporary Research Vol. 7 No. 1 March pp.73-78.
Cano Ledesma, Aurora. (1991) “Unidad Árabe y Arabidad en la Obra de la Poetisa Nazik al-Malaika.” Actas de las I Jornadas de literatura árabe moderna y contemporánea, pp. 79-88.
Ashour, Radwa; Berrada, Mohammed; Ghazoul, Ferial J.; Rachid, Amina. (2009) “Arab Women Writers” translated from the Arabic by Mandy McClure. Southwest Review Vol. 94 No. 1, pp. 9-18.
Jabr, Fadel K. (2011) “The Children of Gilgamesh: A Half Century of Modern Iraqi Poetry” https://www.smith.edu/metamorphoses/links/Fadel%20Jabr.pdf acceded in 11-01-2018. pp. 341-349.

Nazik Al-Malaika´s obituary in The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/27/arts/27malaika.html7Nazik Al-Malaika´s obituary in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2007/aug/06/guardianobituaries.poetryA special coverage of Nazik Al-Malaika in Al-Jazeera: http://www.aljazeera.net/specialcoverage/coverage2007/2007/6/28/%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%B2%D9%83-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%A6%D9%83%D8%A9
Nazik Al-Malaika’s famous poem “Cholera” in Arab and translated to english: https://blogs.transparent.com/arabic/nazik-al-malaika-cholera/

 

WORKS CITED

  1. Encyclopaedia Britanicca (eds.) (2017) “Qasidah” Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. <https://www.britannica.com/art/qasidah > (last accessed 20 Jan. 2018)
  2. Lee Brewer, Robert (2011), “Poetic Form: Qasida” Writer’s digest: <http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-genre/poetry/poetic-form-qasida-guest-post-by-ren-powell> (last accessed 20 Jan. 2018)
  3. Jabr, Fadel K. (2011) “The Children of Gilgamesh: A Half Century of Modern Iraqi Poetry” https://www.smith.edu/metamorphoses/links/Fadel%20Jabr.pdf acceded in 11-01-2018. pp. 341-349.
  4. Al-Malaika, Nazik. (1978) Qadaya al shìr al mu`assir (The Issues of Contemporary Poetry) 5th Beirut: Dar al-`ilm
  5. Al-Khamisi, Dr. Fatima Ali. “Al-Malaika and the Identity Crisis of an Arab Woman.” American International Journal of Contemporary Research 7 No. 1 March 2017: 73-78.
  6. Steven, Simon (2007-08)”Nazik Al-Malaika (1923-2007) Iraqi Woman´s Journey Changes Map of Arabic Poetry.” Al Jadid Magazine 13, 14, pp. 58-59.
  7. Ashour, Radwa; Berrada, Mohammed; Ghazoul, Ferial J.; Rachid, Amina. (2009) “Arab Women Writers” translated from the Arabic by Mandy McClure. Southwest Review 94 No. 1, pp. 9-18.

 

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