Vol. 3, No. 2



Dirgham H. Sbait




Much 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.


In this informal presentation, I would like to make some observations about Nazik’s contribution and her impact on modern Arab intellectuals during her long journey.


I 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 faded.



In 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.


The 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.



Nazik’s 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.

The 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.


One 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.


To 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.


In this unique book, she defined four major elements of the free verse poetry, and all other features as well:

1. The freedom provided to the poet by the free meters

2. The music that the free meters possess

3. The flow of the “taf‘ilah” (the feet of a verse) as employed

in the free meter

4. The introductory and the ending verses of the poems of the free verse poetry

This 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.


Nazik 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).



It 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 generations.



al-Khalil, 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.