August 23, 2017

“Why do we fear words?”: On the birthday of Nazik Al-Malaika


Today would have been the ninety-fourth birthday of Iraqi poet Nazik Al-Malaika, known for her poetry’s formal innovation, commitment to moral witness, and straight-up gorgeousness. She was one of the first poets to achieve renown for writing blank verse in Arabic, perhaps under the influence of English poetry, and studied at Baghdad’s College of ArtsPrinceton, and the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Her work sometimes gravitates toward themes and scenes of violence and oppression. In “To Wash Disgrace,” a devastating account of an honor killing, for instance, she writes:

“Oh mother!” Heard only by the executioner
Tomorrow the dawn will come and roses will wake up

In her poem “Love Song for Words,” she asks:

Why do we fear words
when they have been rose-palmed hands,
fragrant, passing gently over our cheeks,
and glasses of heartening wine
sipped, one summer, by thirsty lips?

Born in Baghdad in 1923, Al-Malaika and her family fled to Kuwait in 1970 after the rise of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, they fled again, this time to Egypt, where Al-Malaika would spend the rest of her life.

Translations of her work into English are famously and lamentably few, though the internet houses a few. There’s also this recording of Saudi-born French-Palestinian artist Jassem Hindi performing one of her poems, and—pulling this from an Al-Malaika birthday feature at ArabLit six years ago—there’s this video, which is in Arabic, and utterly rad:

One great way for English-speakers to celebrate is by reading Al-Malaika’s 1946 poem “Revolt Against the Sun,” published online a few years ago in a translation by Emily Drumsta. The poet addresses the sun:

I will smash the idol that I built for you
From my love for every radiant light
And avert my eyes from your gleam.
You are nothing but the specter of a deceptive glow.
I will craft a paradise from the dreams of my own heart;
My life can do without your gleaming rays.
We, the idealists, in our spirits
Lie the secrets of divinity and an immortality lost.

Damn. Read the whole thing right here, and then read ArabLit’s excellent interview with Drumsta, which pauses to consider the feedback of Adrienne Rich, notes the paradox of a writer much beloved but little translated, and contemplates the role of tradition in various strains of modernism.