Nazik Al Malaika

poet and writer


Renowned Arab poet Nazik al-Malaika was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1923, oldest among her four sisters and two brothers. She got her baccalaureate in 1939. In her early teens she showed great love for the Arabic language, history and music. In 1944, she graduated from the Baghdad faculty of letters, Arabic department with honors. Um Nizar, Nazik's mother, was herself a poet, and her father was a teacher of Arabic grammar in Baghdad secondary schools. He left a twenty volume encyclopedia on Arabic grammar and literature.

Nazik 's readings in philosophy helped her acquire a dialectical thinking and ideology.

At an early age, she showed inclination to modern Arabic poetry written by Muhammad Hassan Ismael, Badawi al-Jabal Besharael - Khouri, Omar Abu Resheh and many others. For Nazik, the year 1941 was to mark the beginning of her social and spiritual maturity. Added to these it was a year of great national revolt for the Iraqis when the national revolution led by Rasheed al-Kilani was launched.

In 1947 Nazik published her first collection of poems under the title "Night's Lover." For poet Nazik "night" was the symbol of poetry, imagination and dreams, beauty of the stars, wonder of moon lights and the glimmering of the Tigris river under light. She was fascinated by the songs of Egyptian singers Um Kalthoum and Abdul Wahab.

On Friday January 27, 1947, she got up in the morning to hear on the radio a report on the number of Cholera deaths reported each day in Egypt. One thousand deaths of cholera per day made the poet write her well-known poem "The Cholera." It reads "Night came to a standstill listen to the echoes of wails in the dark of night, under silence and on corpses death, death, death humanity laments."

In 1949 Nazik published her second collection, entitled "sparks of ashes" prefacing it with a theory of new poetry metrics.

Two years later, the poet had won fame outside Iraq. She read English literature and the French literature as well. She studied Latin and leant by heart long poems of well-known ancient Greek poets. In 1951 she traveled to the US where she studied literary criticism and in 1954 she also went back again to the US to study "comparative literature."

Her third collection, entitled "Bottom of the Wave" was published in 1957. The July 14, 1958 revolution was a great source of inspiration not only to the Iraqi people but also to the poet when in a poem she expressed the people 's happiness saying: The happiness of children when, embraced by parents is like the happiness of a thirsty man when drinking water. The happiness of July when flirting with cold winds is like the happiness of night when it gives to the stars and the birth of the Republic.

In 1962, the poet published her first book on literary criticism entitled "Issues of Contemporary Poetry." He fourth collection of poems under the title "Tree of the Moon" was published by the beginning of 1968.

In 1970 she wrote a long poem under the title "The Tragedy of Life and a Song for Man."
Her poems written in 1973 published under the title "For Prayer and Revolution" and poems written in 1974 were published under the title "The Sea Changes its Colors."

The poet resided in Iraq and traveled to the US frequently.
She is currently living in Cairo, Egypt where she has lived in self-imposed exile since 1990.

When the sea changed its colors, Youghiyar Alouanah Al-Bahr, Nazik Al-Malaika, Cairo: Afaq Al-Kitaba (Writing Horizons) series of the Cultural Palaces Organisation.

Recent celebrations in Egypt of the career of the Iraqi poet Nazik Al-Malaika, on of the pioneers of free verse, have drawn attention to the poet's connection to the country, such as her decision to live in Egypt during a period of convalescence last year. On this occasion Al-Malaika, for reasons best known to herself, put up a barrier against the press, which few journalists were able to penetrate. This meant that Al-Malaika's presence in the country, went largely unmarked. However with the publication of this book this situation has changed, and we now have available a selection of Al-Malaika's work that justly represents her fame.

Al-Malaika herself chose the contents of the selection, and the bulk of the poems she has chosen were written 25 years ago in 1974. Yet, as is the case with all real, sincere poetry, they have kept their direct appeal: 'My love/My rapture was a sea/Which changed its colours, the sockets of its eyes turning black and green/It threw its waves ahead, forged pearls/Flowed into springs, landed on shores/Created tides, made islands/Scattered, across the blue of the gulf, a blond archipelago.' Besides the poetry, the book also includes a fascinating autobiographical sketch, in which Al-Malaika reveals various aspects of her life.

Born in 1923 in Baghdad, Nazik Al-Malaika completed her secondary education in 1939, before proceeding to earn a BA degree in literature from Baghdad Education College. Her attachment to poetry, however, had begun many years before her years of formal study, and she tells us in her autobiography that she composed her first poetry in Classical Arabic at the age of 10 under the tutelage of her father, who was himself a poet. Her family was very important to her in her early years and later, and it was her father who gave her a secure foundation in the Arabic language. Concerned by the presence of grammatical errors in his daughter's early work, he undertook her education himself, something which he had every qualification to do, since in addition to his own poetry he was also the editor of a 20-volume encyclopedia. He, however, was not the only writer of talent in the family since Al-Malaika's mother, who wrote under the pseudonym Omm Nizar Al-Malaika, was also a poet. The young Nazik thus grew up in an intensely literary environment.

"My father laid out a wonderful smooth path before me," she writes here, "when he provided me with books containing the principles of grammar and the classics of our literature. Thus it was only natural for me to be the only student in the Arabic department to choose the various schools of grammar as a topic for my dissertation. My supervisor was a great professor, the late Mustapha Jawad, and he had a profound effect on my intellectual life. The manuscript of my dissertation is still in the college building and carries the corrections that he made on it in red ink."

In her autobiographical sketch Al-Malaika also recounts the influence that the modern poetry of Mahmoud Hassan Ismail, Badawi Al-Jabal, Amjad Al-Tarabolsi, Omar Abu Risha and Bishara Khouri initially exerted on her. She participated at college meetings, where she would read aloud her work that was already being published by newspapers and magazines. Since then, however, like many another poet, she has largely disowned these early works and has not included them in later books and collections. However one memory of this period remains vivid to her, and that is of sitting alone for hours in her parents' back garden, playing the oud and singing the songs of Omm Kulthoum and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab.

In 1947, Nazik Al-Malaika published her first collection of poetry, A'shiqat Al-Layl (Lover of the Night). A few months later news of the cholera epidemic that was then sweeping Egypt arrived in Iraq, and this had a great emotional effect on the young poet. Later she wrote of this time in her autobiography, and specifically remembered events on Friday 27 October, 1947. "I woke up," she writes, "and lay in bed listening to the broadcaster on the radio, who said that the number of the dead in Egypt had reached 1,000. I was overwhelmed by a profound sadness and deep distress. I jumped out of bed, took out a pen and paper, left the house, which was always noisy and busy on a Friday, and went to a construction site close by. Since it was a holiday, the whole place was deserted, and I sat on a low fence and began to compose 'Cholera', a poem that has subsequently become well-known. I had heard that the corpses of dead people in the Egyptian countryside were being carried crammed together on horse-drawn carts, so as I wrote I imagined something of the sounds of these horses: 'The night is silent/Listen to the effect of groans/In the depth of darkness, below the silence, on the dead.'"

It was under these circumstances that Arabic poetry was first freed from the rigid strictures of traditional rhythmic forms and rhyme schemes. Only the tafila, a looser, more flexible metric division, was retained. Nazik Al-Malaika must take much of the credit for this emancipation and, for her part, from that day on she wrote only what she called 'free' verse, rather in the manner of that written by other earlier experimenters in certain European traditions. In 1949 in her introduction to her second volume of poems, Shazaiya wa Ramad (Shrapnel and Ash), she explained the new theory of metre which she had introduced into Arabic poetry and her own practice of free verse. The essay gave rise to a series of attacks on Al-Malaika by proponents of the older poetics, however Al-Malaika, who was not only a poet but was also a theorist, grammarian and musician, defended herself ably. Her years of study and early foundations in the Arabic language meant that she was able eloquently to defend the new practice.

Throughout her life Al-Malaika exhibited a seemingly unquenchable thirst for knowledge of all kinds. As a student she registered in the oud department of the Fine Arts Institute, attended classes in the acting department and took Latin, while she was still a second-year undergraduate at university. To this day, she tells us here, she still plays her oud and sings the songs of Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Omm Kulthoum, Fairouz, Abdel-Halim Hafez and Nagat. She studied French with her younger brother without the aid of a teacher, and her love of English literature allowed her to earn a scholarship to study at Princeton University, New Jersey, which was then a predominantly male institution in which Al-Malaika was one of the very few female students.

In 1954 Nazik Al-Malaika travelled again to the United States, this time to earn a Masters degree in Comparative Literature. Besides her studies, it was at this time that Al-Malaika began to write an autobiographical account of her life. In 1961 she married her colleague in the Arabic department at the Education College in Baghdad, Abdel-Hadi Mahbouba, who was himself a graduate of Cairo University.

Reviewed by Mahmoud El-Wardani