was written and said by critics and authors about Nazik al-Mala’ikah before and
after she passed away. One may wonder if there is anything else that can be
added in praise of a fine poetess, a refined author, and a career academic. I
am certain that scholars will always find new aspects of the productive life
and literary works of Nazik al-Mala’ikah, a creative thinker.
this informal presentation, I would like to make some observations about
Nazik’s contribution and her impact on modern Arab intellectuals during her
came to admire Nazik when my high school Arabic teacher, the late Shakeeb Jahshan, introduced her to
us. This was over 45 years ago. Since then, I have remained fascinated with
Nazik al-Mala’ikah, who became a household name for most Arab intellectuals.
There are so many reasons why she is so admired and why her charm has never
NAZIK THE PIONEER &
1947, Nazik emerged as a powerful poetess among a huge number of accomplished
Arab male poets. She navigated her
poetic talent through an ocean of poetry dominated by men, exactly as May
Ziadeh (1886-1941AD), the poetess and author, did in the 1930’s. May was a
gifted lady who became a literary star and the darling of Arab and Western
writers, critics and scholars. (May graduated from a private high school in
Nazareth, Palestine, and was fluent in 9 languages and published several
collections of poetry and other literary works in several languages; Nazik was
fluent in 4 languages). Both were vanguard Arab intellectuals who gained an
un-diminishing fame similar to that of al-Mutanabbi (915-965 AD), the perennial
poet laureate of Arabia. It was the brilliance of both women, their leadership
in the Arab literary movement, the deep connection with their heritage, their
mastery of the Arabic language and their universal vision and conviction that
led them to such fame.
encouragement of Nazik’s highly educated Iraqi family members, who were the
first listeners and critics of her early poems, her own poetic talent, the
broad education she obtained from the University of Baghdad, University of
Wisconsin, and Princeton University, the combination of her Arab and Western
education, and the impact the poets Shelly, Byron, (and Shakespeare), the
Western Romantic Movement; all these factors helped Nazik shakeup and break the
deeply rooted taboos of the traditional Arabic poetry concepts, and establish a
new path for the Arabic Free Verse Movement, a new momentum that made her gain
the respect of her colleagues, Arab poets, and critics alike. She also was able to gain the respect of her
many readers. Above all, she established a new trend, a new poetic movement.
Consequently, Nazik led the way for a new generation of modern Arab poets.
early publications provided proof of the poetic thesis she presented and the
practice that supported the thesis. Her early collections of poetry, ”‘ashiqat
al-layl” (Lover of the Nights), (Beirut 1947 and 1960), “shazaya wa-ramad” (Shrapnel
and Ash), (Baghdad 1949, Beirut 1960), and “qararat al-mawjah” (The Depth of
the Wave), (Beirut 1957 and 1960) gave her the fame she deserved.
vast majority of the Arab poets of the East (vs. al-Andalus) continued to be
stuck with the confining, rigid, 12 traditional classical Arabic meters and a
mostly strict mono-rhyme commonly employed by the classical Arabic poetry (two major poetic characteristic features
inherited from pre-Islamic Arabic poetry).
In 1947 Nazik broke ranks with the vast majority of her contemporary
Arab poets and published free verse poetry, disregarding most of the format and
characteristic features of the traditional classical Arabic poetry.
Consequently, she established herself as a courageous pioneer in this area, despite
the outcry of the traditional critics.
must acknowledge the contribution of the Iraqi poets Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Abd-al-Wahhab
al-Bayati, the Egyptian poets Salah ‘Abd al-Sabur, Ahmad Zaki abu-Shadi, and
‘Abd al-Mu‘ti Hijazi, and the Lebanese
Mahjarites Mikha’il Nu’imah, Eliyyah Abu Madi, Gibran Khalil Gibran and others,
to this new school of modern Arabic poetry. However, it was Nazik herself (and
to a lesser degree al-Sayyab and ‘Abd al-Sabur) who created the road map for
this new school of free verse poetry, especially after the publication of her
most famous poem “al-kulira” (Cholera) that she composed in October 1947 and
published in December 1947 in “majallat al-‘urubah,” (The Arab’s Journal). This
poem was motivated by the spread of the cholera disease in Egypt, and later in
Iraq, and its tragic results in the 1940s.
make the case for this new direction of modernizing the structure, the meters,
the rhyme schemes, and the music of the modern Arabic poetry, Nazik published
her famous book “qadaya al-shi‘r al-mu‘asir” (Issues of the Contemporary
–Arabic – Poetry) (Beirut 1962 and 1965). In this provocative book, she
presented her case in support of the Free Verse Poetry, also referred to as
“qasa’id hurrat alwazn,” namely, poems of free meter.
this unique book, she defined four major elements of the free verse poetry, and
all other features as well:
The freedom provided to the poet by the free meters
The music that the free meters possess
The flow of the “taf‘ilah” (the feet of a verse) as employed
the free meter
The introductory and the ending verses of the poems of the free verse poetry
original work became the road map for the modern Arabic poetry and poets. In
it, Nazik presented her case clearly and eloquently, she showed her full
understanding of the classical Arabic poetry, its structure and meters, and
clearly defined the major elements of the free verse suitable for composing
modern Arabic poetry. This was a
courageous step forward and the unmatched vision of a true poet and critic in
the spirit of al-Khalil Ibn Ahmad, the master of all Arab scholars (d. 786 AD),
who defined the original 12 classical Arabic meters, the rhyme schemes, and
other binding poetic rules. In short, this was a climax and a well-deserved
time of glory for Nazik al-Mala’ikah.
continued to strive for the heights, and she published other major works, most
notably “al-sawma‘ah wa-al-shurfah al-hamra’,” (The Hermitage and the Red
Balcony), and “al-tajzi’iyyah fi al-mujtama‘ al-‘arabi” (The Breakdown – into
classes, in the Arab Society).
THE POWER OF A LEGACY:
was Nazik’s conviction and belief in herself, her love of the Arabic language,
poetry, music, and arts, her true love of her heritage, of Iraq, its people,
vast history, ancient and modern civilization, past and present glory, her
free-thinking, broad education, universal outlook, futuristic vision,
genuine interest in a true Arab
awakening, that led her to light the torch and lead the way for a new generation
of Arab free-spirited thinkers, who may be called “zanadiq” (heretics) by
reactionaries all over the Arab world. Such free thinkers, who may be
persecuted for their love of knowledge, freedom, and respect for human rights,
will never surrender. It is Nazik’s revered and undiminished legacy, and the
legacy of leaders like her, that will continue to motivate current and future
al-Mutanabbi, al-Sayyab, and al-Mala’ikah are a few of the greatest geniuses of
Iraq, Arabia, and humanity at large. Their glory will remain till the end of
time. Iraq will rise again, and regain its glory. If any one feels that I am
overly optimistic, I have my good reasons to believe.