Innovative Iraqi poet and literary critic Nazik al-Mala'ika (1923-2007) was instrumental in the evolution of free Arabic verse and in her vigorous cultivation of Arabic women's rights.
Nazik al-Mala'ika was born on August 23, 1923, in Bagdad, Iraq, as the eldest of seven siblings. In an autobiographical essay contained on the Kool Pages Web site, al-Mala'ika admitted that she wrote “some poems, in Iraqi slang, when I was seven years old,” and confirmed that she wrote her first classical poem “in the Arabic language when I was ten years old.” The gifted youth's mother was the confrontational poet Um Nizar alMala'ika—who was, in turn, the daughter of a famous male Iraqi poet. Al-Mala'ika's father taught Arabic language and grammar in secondary schools, and was the editor of a 20-volume encyclopedia on the Arabic language. Some sources also identified him as a poet. Sources also mention an uncle as well as one of al-Mala'ika's brothers as being poetically talented.
A Comprehensive Education
Al-Mala'ika graduated high school in 1939, and then studied Arabic literature and music, learning to master the Arabic lute, called an oud. She earned a degree from Bagdad's Higher Teachers' Training College in 1944. While attending college al-Mala'ika contributed poems to local publications, taught herself French, and studied Latin, reading literature in all of these languages and in English. She investigated philosophy and classical Greek works that she committed to memory. Al-Mala'ika also translated the work of other poets, sculpting the likes of Byron into Arabic rhyming quatrains. In 1952 she won a scholarship to study for a year at Princeton University in New Jersey, and she was the first female student to attend that institution. In 1954 alMala'ika entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she earned a master's degree in comparative literature.
Woman and Wordsmith
A biography of al-Mala'ika on the Jehat.com Web site classified her poetry as “characterized by its terseness of language, eloquence, original use of imagery, and delicate ear for the music of verse.” While a variety of specific poems are mentioned, the majority of attention goes to her 1947 poem “Cholera,” which describes the epidemic that spread across Egypt and into Iraq. It was her first poem in free verse. Al-Mala'ika's family did not share her excitement over the poem's style. Kool Pages quoted her description of her mother's reaction as “What is this strange rhythm, the lines are not of equal length, and the music is weak.” Al-Mala'ika recalled, “My brothers and sisters were laughing as I retorted, ‘Say what you will. I am sure that this poem will change the map of Arabic poetry.’ ”
Al-Mala'ika was on the Map
The young poet was right. Since her first collection of poems, Ashiqat al-ayl (Night's Lover or Lover of the Night), was published in 1947, she has been credited by many with creating the first successful free verse Arabic poetry. Arguments have circulated regarding which Arabic poet was the “first” to use free verse, with recognition being given to both al-Mala'ika and the poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. The Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East explained, “This issue was complicated because both poets published their first collections of poems in the new form … in December 1947”—a mere two weeks apart.
In an article in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Issa J. Boullata told readers that “it has already been shown that the first poet in Iraq to write in such free verse was Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and that the first to publish a poem in it was Nazik al-Mala'ika.” Both poets are usually given equal acclaim by scholars for their contributions to the popularization of the free verse movement. Al-Mala'ika was said to have practiced a more logical approach to free verse than other founders, and all agree that she was uniquely qualified to defend her theoretical opinions, thanks to her educational roots in theory, grammar, and music, and a consummate understanding of the Arabic language.
Al-Mala'ika's second poetry collection, Shadaya waramad (Sparks and Ashes, Splinters and Ashes or Ashes and Shrapnel, 1949), included a skillfully argued preface that fortified her theory on the technical aspects and poetic merits of free verse. Al-Mala'ika, despite her gender and her boldness, was highly respected for her work. In an article in Die Welt des Islams, Wiebke Walther suggested that poetry “utters social criticism in a way differing from that of stories or novels … playing with words, with rhythms and rhymes, appealing with aesthetic, with lingual means to the emotions of their readers or hearers.” Perhaps it was her gift for lyrical analysis that helped al-Mala'ika earn such a prominent place in the hearts and the minds of her people.
Feminist Foot Forward
According to Cultures of the World: Iraq, “Iraqi literature experienced a rebirth in the 1950s …. Epic stories were replaced by short stories that were filled with the everyday struggles and experiences of people in Iraq.” In a culture that had traditionally believed that educating women would surely have dire moral and social consequences, al-Mala'ika became a feminist voice to be reckoned with. In 1954 she published an essay, Al-mar'a baina 'l-tarafain, al-salbiyya wa'l-akh-laq (Women Between the Extremes of Passivity and Ethical Choice), now considered a feminist classic. In its obituary on al-Mala'ika, ALARAB Online recalled the wellknown essay's thesis that Arabic women should not be allowed to take an ethical stance, “since [that] presupposes a certain amount of intellectual and material freedom, the ability to make decisions for one self, make money, have an education, and choose one's husband and lifestyle.” Her short stories, too, depicted “a rich world of feminine experience and relationships seldom noticed by other Arabic authors,” according to the Web site.
Al-Mala'ika's third collection of poems, Qararat almawjah (Bottom of the Wave) was released in 1957. In 1961 she married Abdel-Hadi Mahbouba, an academic colleague who eventually helped her found the University of Basra. Her next publication was an essay titled Qadaya alShi'r al-Mu'asir (Issues of Contemporary Poetry, 1962), and in 1968 her fourth poetry collection, Shajarat al-qamar (Tree of the Moon), was released.
After Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime took power in 1968, “Literature and films [became] equally censored under the Baathists,” according to Cultures of the World: Iraq. The book went on to state that “artists were careful to avoid any negative reflections on the government …. some authors … preferred to sacrifice artistic integrity rather than risk punishment by the Iraqi government.” Al-Mala'ika therefore left Iraq in 1970 and moved to Kuwait City, where she published Ma'sa al-Haya wa-Ughniya li al-Insan (The Tragedy of Life and a Song for Man, 1970).
She continued to publish poetry, and in 1974 she published Al-tajzi'iyya fi'l-mujtama al-Arabi (Fragmentation in Arab Society), which, according to the Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature, “[dissects] the inherent contradiction of men calling for freedom while wishing to keep women in chains.” Al-Mala'ika stayed in Kuwait until 1990, returned briefly to Iraq after the Gulf War, but fled again in 1991 to Cairo, Egypt. She chose to move to Cairo during what a biography on the One Fine Art Web site described as a “period of convalescence,” when al-Mala'ika, “for reasons best known to herself, put up a barrier against the press, which few journalists were able to penetrate.” As the years passed, she began to put some distance between herself and poetic experimentation. Her later poetry often used the old form and espoused more morally conservative views. The Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East commented that “al-Mala'ika came to feel that the new generation of Arab poets interpreted the form of free verse with too much license, and she advocated a more careful approach to what seemed to her a chaotic use of the form.”
The Poet Who Died Twice
A number of biographical sources list the year of alMala'ika's death as 1992—an oddity described in an article in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies by Ronak Hussein and Yasir Suleiman, who noted that “early in 1993 the Arab press carried the news that Nazik al-Mala'ika was dead. Letters of condolence started to pour in at her home address in Baghdad, and it is even reported that obituaries appeared in some Arabic newspapers …. A few days later friends and admirers … heaved a sigh of great relief when it transpired that the news of her death was false and that she was still alive and well.” Another collection of poems, The Sea Changes Its Colors, was completed in 1974, but it wasn't published until 1999, when it brought her renewed notoriety while she was living in seclusion in Cairo. Al-Mala'ika suffered from a number of physical maladies, the most debilitating of which was Parkinson's disease, and she died on June 20, 2007, at age 84, of natural causes in a Cairo hospital. She was buried in Cairo next to her husband, who died in 2005. They were survived by a son.
The Woman Who Faced the Fear of Words
While the Dictionary of Oriental Literatures claimed that “although [al-Mala'ika's] poetry is popular … she is not the poet of the wide public,” an entry in the Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century praised al-Mala'ika's technical prowess as a poet, describing her as “versatile, inventive and unique, producing poems of high quality that lay bare the general dilemma of life in the Arab world.” The entry called her vocabulary “sensuous, fresh, and unadulterated by use.” A festschrift— a German term meaning “celebration publication,” or a book presented to a respected academic during his or her lifetime as a token of honor—was prepared in 1985 to celebrate her work, and included 20 pieces about her theory and poetry. Her death and burial in Egypt raised an outcry from Iraqi intellectuals, who accused the government of neglecting “Iraq's greatest surviving symbol of literature,” according to ALARAB Online.
According to Jehat.com, al-Mala'ika once asked in a poem, “Why do we fear words?/ Some words are secret bells, the echoes of their tone announce the start of a magic/ And abundant time steeped in feeling and life,/ So why should we fear words?” Books that provide a cultural overviews of Iraqi history and culture uniformly mention alMala'ika by name in their literary overviews, a memorial of sorts for a poet who wrote without fear, challenging and changing the very words that made her voice so influential.
The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature, edited by Claire Buck, Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd., 1992.
The Continuum Dictionary of Women's Biography: New Expanded Edition, edited by Jennifer S. Uglow, Continuum Publishing Company, 1989.
Dictionary of Oriental Literatures, edited by Jaroslav Prusek and Jiri Becka, Basic Books, Inc., 1974.
Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East, 4 vols., Macmillan Reference USA, 1996.
Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East & North Africa, edited by Philip Mattar, Thomson Gale, 2004.
Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, edited by Steven R. Serafin, St. James Press, 1999.
Foster, Leila Merrell, Enchantment of the World: Iraq, Children's Press, 1992.
Hassig, Susan M., and Laith Muhmood Al Adely, Cultures of the World: Iraq, Benchmark Books, 2004.
Marquis Who's Who, Marquis Who's Who, 2007.
Who's Who in Contemporary Women's Writing, edited by Jane Eldridge Miller, Routledge, 2001.
Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, edited by Anne Commire, Yorkin Publications, 1999.
Arab Studies Quarterly, Fall 1997.
BBC Monitoring Europe, September 25, 2007.
British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 1993.
Die Welt des Islams, July 1996.
International Herald Tribune, June 28, 2007.
International Journal of Middle East Studies, July 1970.
Los Angeles Times, June 22, 2007.
New York Times, June 27, 2007.
Research in African Literatures, Summer 1982.
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September/October 2007.
“Iraqi Poet Nazik al-Malaika Passes Away,” ALARAB Online, http://english.alarabonline.org/display.asp?fname=2007%5C06%5C06-21%5Czculturez%5C971.htm&dismode=x&ts=21/06/2007%2002:13:24%20%C3%A3 (November 27, 2007).
“Nazik al Malaika,” One Fine Art, http://www.onefineart.com/en/artists/nazik_al_malaika/index.shtml (November 27, 2007).
“Nazik al-Mala'ika (1922-2007),” Books and Writers, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/malaika.htm (November 20, 2007).
“Nazik al-Malaika: A Tribute Page,” Kool Pages, http://www.koolpages.com/almalaika/images/nazikpage.html (November 27, 2007).
“Not an Obituary for Nazik al-Malaika,” Guernica, http://www.guernicamag.com/blog/354/not_an_obituary_for_nazik_alma/ (November 27, 2007).
“Obituary: Nazik al-Malaika,” Al-Ahram Weekly Online, http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/print/2007/851/cu5.htm (November 27, 2007).
“Renowned Iraqi Poetess Nazik al-Malaika,” Jehat.com, http://www.jehat.com/Jehaat/en/Poets/Nazek-al-Malaika.htm (November 27, 2007).