Nazik Al-Malaika on Why Do We Fear Words

Do you want to feel impressed and inspired? If so, here is the story of the Iraqi poet Nazik al-Malaika (1923-2007). Her life could be a movie script–wrote her first poem at the age of 10, studied at Princeton before it accepted women, established a university, turned the ancient tradition of Arabic poetry on its head.

If anything, my synopsis understated what a meteor this woman was. Al-Malaika was born into a literary family. Her father was a teacher and her mother was poet, who as was common at the time, published under a male pseudonym. Nazik al-Malaika not only would revolutionize Arab poetry by adopting a novel, free-form style, but she also would secure a place for women in literature and lend her name to a poetry prize. Al-Malaika won a scholarship to study literary criticism at Princeton where she was the only female student. She earned a comparative literature degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1959, and when she returned to Iraq, she taught at the University of Baghdad and helped to establish the University of Basra. The rise of the Ba’ath Party forced her into exile in 1970, and al-Malaika lived the rest of her life in Egypt, where she published several collections of poetry and prose.

“Careful! Do not let a bewildered sadness

Or a sighing tear in my eyes deceive you.

For sadness is the form of my revolt and my resistance

Beneath the night—divinity be my witness!” “Revolt Against the Sun”

The free-form verse that al-Malaika pioneered went against the centuries old rules of Arabic poetry with its complex meter and its rich brocade of symbols and metaphors. Even al-Malaika’s family wasn’t comfortable with such a bold rejection of tradition. But despite criticism, al-Malaika’s experiments galvanized the literary establishment. Baghdad in the 1950s was a vibrant place, in the midst of a cultural renaissance, and al-Malaika’s words were heard.

Unencumbered by the restrictions of classical poetry, her verses had an immediate emotional effect. Al-Malaika wrote on the social and political themes that had relevance for day-to-day life and was not afraid to explore her own feelings, sensuality and fears. She also spoke for women’s rights, calling out the hypocrisy and the double standards of the patriarchal society. Reading her poems today is still a riveting experience, and their significance remains universal.

Since al-Malaika’s poetry  is influential and thrilling, it’s frustrating that so little of it is available in English. US publishers translate little foreign literature, but they pay even less attention to women writers and poets, as the recent Guardian article pointed out. Al-Malaika’s poems are scattered around anthologies and literary magazines. I first discovered them in a compilation called The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by Nathalie Handal (public library), which is highly recommended. I hope that one day we will see a whole volume dedicated to al-Malaika’s work. She deserves it, while we will be enriched by it.

To give you a glimpse of the treasures such a book would include, here is one of my favorite poems by Nazik al-Malaika, “Love Song for Words.” Why do we fear words, indeed? Let’s not stay silent.

Love Song For Words

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?
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?
We took pleasure in silence.
We became still, fearing the secret might part our lips.
We thought that in words laid an unseen ghoul,
crouching, hidden by the letters from the ear of time.
We shackled the thirsty letters,
we forbade them to spread the night for us
as a cushion, dripping with music, dreams,
and warm cups.
Why do we fear words?
Among them are words of smooth sweetness
whose letters have drawn the warmth of hope from two lips,
and others that, rejoicing in pleasure
have waded through momentary joy with two drunk eyes.
Words, poetry, tenderly
turned to caress our cheeks, sounds
that, asleep in their echo, lies a rich color, a rustling,
a secret ardor, a hidden longing.
Why do we fear words?
If their thorns have once wounded us,
then they have also wrapped their arms around our necks
and shed their sweet scent upon our desires.
If their letters have pierced us
and their face turned callously from us
Then they have also left us with an oud in our hands
And tomorrow they will shower us with life.
So pour us two full glasses of words!
Tomorrow we will build ourselves a dream-nest of words,
high, with ivy trailing from its letters.
We will nourish its buds with poetry
and water its flowers with words.
We will build a balcony for the timid rose
with pillars made of words,
and a cool hall flooded with deep shade,
guarded by words.
Our life we have dedicated as a prayer
To whom will we pray . . . but to words?

Translated from the Arabic by Rebecca Carol Johnson. Via Poetry Hunter that also has a couple of other poems by this remarkable writer.

Extra reading: a good biography of Nazik al-Malaika was published by the Al Jadid magazineWords Without Borders has a translated poem called New Year. There are two more poems translated by Emily Drumsta, with links to a few others–and a hint that Drumsta might be working on a compilation of al-Malaika’s poetry. “Revolt Against the Sun” that started my piece can be found here.

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37 Comments

  • Kandice: Victoria, thank you so much for this post. I have never heard of this woman I’m ashamed to admit. But I loved her poem you shared and will definitely seek out other works by her. And what an amazing woman, both in her time and ours. I do hope a compilation of her poetry is published. We all benefit from seeing strong women do great and creative work. September 11, 2017 at 8:22am Reply

    • Victoria: it’s because her work hasn’t been published that much in English or promoted as much as she deserves. The only people who should be ashamed are the English language publishers who offer little in translation and even less when it comes to female writers. I was shocked when I read this in the Guardian:
      “When Svetlana Alexievich won, six years after Müller, none of her books was available in English, an oddity explained thus by one editor at the time: “English and American publishers are loth to take risks on a book just because it’s good, without something like a Nobel prize.” But only one male laureate out of 99 – Italy’s Salvatore Quasimodo – was unpublished in English when he won.”

      As for Nazik al-Malaika, she needs a full volume dedicated to her work. Her poetry is spellbinding. September 11, 2017 at 8:36am Reply

      • Kandice: That’s just pathetic! It also makes you wonder how much history, art, and the world in general have lost because women’s contributions aren’t regarded as highly as men’s. September 11, 2017 at 9:43am Reply

        • spe: It’s an every day occurrence, Kandice. In many places, women are not heard – or listened to. September 11, 2017 at 9:50am Reply

          • Kandice: I know. So very sad. I worked with two women who fled the Middle East because their husbands abused them, and no one would help them. We still have a long way to go. September 11, 2017 at 12:10pm Reply

          • Victoria: I can’t agree more, the bias and prejudice runs through all of the layers of our societies. How many women, for instance, don’t receive proper treatment for heart conditions, because their concerns are dismissed? September 12, 2017 at 1:10am Reply

            • bregje: Good point!
              Women are still often seen as hysterical, hormonal hypochondriacs 😉
              But if my dad has a muscle ache half the hospital is turned upside down. September 13, 2017 at 5:04pm Reply

              • Victoria: Sadly, a very common perception. September 14, 2017 at 9:40am Reply

        • Victoria: That’s why Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Her Own remains a relevant read. September 12, 2017 at 1:04am Reply

    • Carla: I had never before heard of several of Victoria’s literary highlights, including this one. September 12, 2017 at 9:31pm Reply

      • Victoria: It always makes me thrilled to discover something for the first time, so I like to share the excitement. And then, I decided to write about Al-Malaika, because I find it frustrating that for such a prolific and influential writer, she doesn’t yet have a single English translation of her work to her name! Some of my other selections are also driven by the same desire–to highlight the work of fascinating but less well-known creators. September 13, 2017 at 1:16am Reply

        • Maria-Anna: It is very much appreciated! I’ve been reading something recently that discusses the idea of ‘silent evidence’. Whilst the context there is much more scientific, stories like Al-Malaika’s really highlight how limited our perception of the world is at any given time. I think in the internet age of the viral video, we have a particularly unfounded faith in our access to information – that anything noteworthy will automatically make its way into our feeds. Which – as the stories you share on this blog prove – couldn’t be further from the truth! September 13, 2017 at 5:40am Reply

          • Victoria: I read a book recently called The Illusion of Knowledge, and it talks about a related topic. With Internet and the easy availability of information, we often think that we know things, but in fact, we’re probably more ignorant of the basic things than our much less technologically advanced ancestors were. The same illusion of knowledge gives us the impression you’ve described. The reality is different. Great work becomes lost or forgotten for no fault of its own. The world is much more vast than we can comprehend, which is not a cause for despair but rather wonder and excitement. How many more discoveries lie in store for us! September 13, 2017 at 7:58am Reply

  • Gentiana: An other wonderful post, thank you, Victoria. Thank you for sharing the amazing life and poetry of this strong woman!. Highly inspiring !
    What about her family? They followed her abroad or remained in Iraq? September 11, 2017 at 8:38am Reply

    • Victoria: She moved with her husband and her family to Cairo. She wrote and published a lot there. September 11, 2017 at 8:46am Reply

  • spe: Revolt Against the Sun: Powerful.

    Thank you for bringing attention to this supremely gifted poet. September 11, 2017 at 10:01am Reply

  • Ann: Wonderful post Victoria – I am happy to be introduced to this – new to me – Poet. Slightly related, just this morning I was just thinking of an acquaintance of mine – a woman who emigrated from Iraq to the US in 1979 – one year ago she visited my office and smelled so divine – I really owe my new passion for perfume to this woman – I have a sample have a perfume I know she was interested in waiting for her when she comes to visit me again. September 11, 2017 at 12:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: What was she wearing, Ann? September 12, 2017 at 1:15am Reply

      • Ann: Well, she was wearing Ralph Lauren Romance, but she wore it well! September 12, 2017 at 9:51am Reply

        • Victoria: I had a friend who wore Romance, and it smelled amazing on her. September 12, 2017 at 12:01pm Reply

          • Ann: 🙂 September 12, 2017 at 8:08pm Reply

            • bregje: I wear RL Romance too, btw 😉 September 13, 2017 at 5:07pm Reply

              • bregje: Lovely to read such a wonderful comment about your acquaintance September 13, 2017 at 5:08pm Reply

  • Jillie: Another hidden jewel that you have brought into the light. Thank you, Victoria.

    What a wonderful job Rebecca Carol Johnson did – it’s so hard to make the words live and flow like they did in their original language but Rebecca has succeeded. September 11, 2017 at 12:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: She did a wonderful job, considering how difficult it is to render the musicality of Arabic into English. September 12, 2017 at 1:16am Reply

      • Danaki: Indeed! This is a really good translation.

        I read Al-Malaika as part of the school curriculum for Arabic literature. There was her work, Nizar Qabbani and Jubran. And you have already featured two of those in your wonderful blog.

        Iraqi poetry is rich and modern, al-Malaika, Badr Shaker al-Sayyab and Abdul-Wahab al-Bayati are fantastic modern poets.

        Thank you. September 19, 2017 at 3:43pm Reply

  • Marcia Lyxn Qualey: Ahh, did I word it like a hint? Emily is definitely working on a collection. Best! September 11, 2017 at 2:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for confirming. Great news. September 12, 2017 at 1:16am Reply

  • Geraldine Ethen: You have poured us two full glasses of words — and overflowing! Many thanks for the introduction to this important and sensitive woman. September 11, 2017 at 4:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m very happy that you’ve enjoyed her poetry as much as I did. September 12, 2017 at 1:18am Reply

  • Filomena: What a beautiful piece of poetry. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. September 11, 2017 at 9:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for reading! September 13, 2017 at 7:49am Reply

  • clareobscure: Hi Victoria. Thank you for introducing me to this amazing woman & her poem, ‘Love Song for Words’. Very moving & so beautiful. September 12, 2017 at 9:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so glad to hear that you’ve enjoyed it! September 13, 2017 at 1:08am Reply

  • bregje: Beautiful poem
    And one to let simmer in my mind.
    and read again and again September 13, 2017 at 5:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes! It does linger. September 14, 2017 at 9:40am Reply

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