Mala'ika, Nazik al- (1923–2007)

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Mala'ika, Nazik al-

An Iraqi poet and literary critic, Nazik Sadiq al-Mala'ika played a leading role in the genesis and rise of modern Arabic poetry. Her poetry and literary criticism marked a radical break with and revolt against traditional and neoclassical forms of Arabic poetry, and charted the early course of the Arabic free verse movement.


Al-Mala'ika was born in Baghdad in 1923 to a well-to-do literary family. Her maternal grandfather was a famous poet and jurisprudent of nineteenth-century Iraq. Both of her parents were published poets. Her mother had published anti-British colonial political poetry under a pseudonym and her father was the editor of a twenty-volume encyclopedia. The family home provided a rich and fertile space for cultural development with much traffic and visits from famous cultural figures.


Name: Nazik al-Mala'ika

Birth: 1923, Baghdad, Iraq

Death: 2007, Cairo, Egypt

Nationality: Iraqi

Education: B.A in Arabic with higher distinction, High Teachers, college in Baghdad, 1944; Rockefeller scholarship to study literary criticism at Princeton, University, 1950–1951; M.A in comparative literature, University of Wisconsin, 1956

Family: Husband, Abd al-Hadi Mahbuba


  • 1947: Publishes her first collection, Night Lover
  • 1949: Publishes her second collection, Splinters and Ashes
  • 1957: Starts teaching at the College of Education in Baghdad and publishes third collection, The Depth of the Wave
  • 1962: Publishes first work of literary criticism, Issues of Contemporary Poetry
  • 1964–1968: Moves to Basra to help establish the University of Basra; elected chair of the department of Arabic
  • 1970: Moves to Kuwait to lecture at the University of Kuwait
  • 1978: Publishes For Prayer and the Revolution
  • 1979: Publishes The Psychology of Poetry
  • 1982: Retires and returns to live in Iraq
  • 1985: Volume of critical essays by major Arab literary critics and scholars in honor of al-Mala'ika is published by the University of Kuwait
  • 1996: Moves to Cairo, Egypt
  • 1999: Publishes The Sea Changes Its Colors
  • 2002: Complete Works of Prose and Poetry is published in Cairo

Al-Mala'ika was a precocious child and started to compose poetry in the spoken Iraqi dialect when she was still seven years old, and in classical Arabic by the age of ten. Recognizing her gifts, her father, who was a grammar teacher, encouraged her and took a special interest in cultivating her talents by providing her with his own extracurricular education in Arabic poetics and grammar at home. She finished high school in 1939 and enrolled at the High Teachers Training College in Baghdad, which later became the College of Education. Al-Mala'ika majored in Arabic language and literature, but was also interested in studying other European languages and arts. While at the Teachers College, she also registered to study the ud (or oud; a type of lute) and acting at the Institute of Fine Arts. She had been interested in music since her early years and college provided her with a great opportunity to pursue this interest in a methodical way with renowned specialists. Through acting, al-Mala'ika had hoped to improve her performance and ability to recite poetry. In addition to Arabic language and literature and English, she also studied Latin as soon as it was introduced to the Teachers College in 1941–1942 and became interested in Latin poetry, especially the Roman poet Catullus (84–54 BCE). In 1949 al-Mala'ika started studying French at home together with her brother and developed a good reading knowledge after studying it formally in 1953. She composed and recited poetry in her college years and started establishing her name by publishing in local journals and newspapers. The 1941 nationalist revolt against the pro-British monarchy in Iraq had a significant influence on al-Mala'ika's political leanings and accentuated her strong nationalist sentiments.

In 1947, al-Mala'ika published her first collection, titled Night Lover. Its themes were dominated by despair, disillusionment, and alienation. This could be attributed to both subjective and objective reasons. In addition to the influence of English romantic poetry and the romanticism of Arabic poetry of the preceding decades, the debilitating effects of World War II, and colonization in much of the Arab world intensified the poet's sadness and despair. It was also in 1947 that al-Mala'ika composed her famous poem "Cholera." She was greatly moved by the news of the death and suffering caused by the cholera epidemic that had spread in Egypt. This prompted her to write the poem that many consider to be the first free-verse poem written in Arabic. In it she broke the two-hemistich monorhyme of traditional Arabic poetry by introducing multiple rhyme endings and mixing meters in novel ways. At first, her family, especially her father, dismissed the poem as unmetrical and bizarre, but al-Mala'ika persisted and predicted that it would be revolutionary and would change the map of Arabic poetry. She continued to write and experiment in this new form. Her second collection, Splinters and Ashes, was published in Baghdad in 1949. It was prefaced with an introduction in which al-Mala'ika theorized about her new form of composition. Although there had been earlier experiments with form and structure, they were never presented in an acceptable and sound mode, as al-Mala'ika finally did. This book marked an event, par excellence, in the history of modern Arabic poetry as it launched the movement of free verse and established al-Mala'ika as one of its pioneers. Al-Mala'ika argued that the traditional monorhyme was a serious obstacle and a hindrance to the development of Arabic poetry and its potential, and must be abandoned. The collection included poems written in the old traditional form and nine in what came to be known as free verse. Hundreds of articles and essays were written in response to al-Mala'ika's new poetry, many rejecting its premise, but many others welcoming this radical break and praising her for opening new horizons for modern Arabic poetry. Her fame and influence quickly spread throughout the Arab world and poets started to write in the form she introduced.

Her knowledge and mastery of English helped her earn a Rockefeller scholarship to study literary criticism at Princeton University in the United States in 1950. Princeton was still a men-only school at that time. She studied literary criticism with some famous American scholars and literary critics, including the leading poet, critic, and exponent of New Criticism, Allen Tate (1899–1979). Upon returning to Iraq in 1951, al-Mala'ika began writing more prose and literary criticism.

In addition to poetry and literary criticism, al-Mala'ika was critical of patriarchy and called for more freedoms for women. In 1953, she delivered a lecture at the Women's Union in Baghdad titled "Women between Negativism and Morality." In 1954 she delivered another lecture, titled "Fragmentation in Arab Society."

Personal tragedy struck al-Mala'ika in 1953 when her mother fell ill and she had to accompany her to London for surgery. She did not survive the surgery and al-Mala'ika witnessed her mother's death. Upon her return to Baghdad with the coffin, al-Mala'ika had a nervous breakdown and underwent medical treatment.

A scholarship to study comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin in the United States in 1954 helped al-Mala'ika cope and move on. She spent two rich years immersed in the Anglo-American critical tradition. Al-Mala'ika credits her studies at Wisconsin with sharpening her critical sensibilities and enriching her both existentially and intellectually. Some of her impressions and memoirs of her time in Wisconsin were later published in the Egyptian daily al-Ahram in 1966.

Al-Mala'ika returned to Iraq in 1956 and published her third collection, The Depth of the Wave, in Beirut in the following year. Her poems displayed a departure from intense romanticism toward a philosophical acceptance of life's hardships. She was initially supportive of the July 1958 coup d'état that ended the pro-British monarchy and ushered in the Republican era in Iraq. She even wrote a poem celebrating this change and saluting the nascent Iraqi republic. However, she soon came to see the communist leanings of the Republican regime as a deviation from the Arab nationalist path she favored. She moved to Beirut and lived there for a year (1959–1960), as she had been appointed to teach literary criticism at the College of Education in 1957. After her return from Beirut in 1960, she befriended her colleague in the department of Arabic, Abd al-Hadi Mahbuba, and they married in mid-1961.

In 1962 al-Mala'ika published her most important work of literary criticism, Issues of Contemporary Poetry. As a sign of her political leanings, the book was dedicated to Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, an archenemy of Abd al-Karim Qasim (1914–1963), Iraq's prime minister at the time.

The book attempted to provide the theoretical premise for the free verse movement and posited the foundations of what al-Mala'ika perceived to be the most productive approach to composing, as well as evaluating, this new poetry. In contrast to the calls for engagement in literature that were gaining currency in the Arab world, al-Mala'ika was vehemently opposed to privileging the social and political message in poetry—calling such approaches naive and unacceptable—and believed that that would weaken other technical aspects of the poem that are essential to its success. For her, the subject matter was merely raw material and the least important aspect of the poem itself. What mattered, first and foremost, was the skeleton. This overemphasis on form was the target of much criticism later, especially since many poets adopted the new forms but maintained a traditional perspective and vision, and thus problematized form as the sole measure of radicalism and modernism. The book also included a solid critique of Arab critics themselves who were faulted for being in awe of European approaches and not focusing on the particulars of Arabic poetry itself. Al-Mala'ika also lamented the lack of mastery, methodological chaos, and the loosening of linguistic standards and artistic criteria. The book was a radical break with traditional forms, but it restricted the scope of experimentation to the examples al-Mala'ika had culled from her contemporaries and deemed other experiments unacceptable. Moreover, al-Mala'ika still considered meter and rhythm to be essential pillars of poetry. This stance was soon to clash with the revolutionary call for total abandonment of both by the pioneers of the prose poem.

In 1964 al-Mala'ika's husband was appointed the president of the University of Basra, and the couple moved to Basra to help establish the university. Al-Mala'ika taught in the department of Arabic and was later elected to be its chairperson. In 1968 they both returned to Baghdad and in 1970, the couple moved to Kuwait to teach at Kuwait University where they continued to live until their retirement in 1982. Both al-Mala'ika and her husband lived in Iraq until 1996 when she moved to Cairo, Egypt.

Al-Mala'ika kept a low profile in her last decades and suffered from serious health problems. She declined invitations to conferences and festivals and did not grant interviews or make any public statements about political and cultural events. She was admitted to the hospital in early 2007, and died on 20 June 2007.


Al-Mala'ika had a somewhat unique opportunity in that she received solid training, personal and institutional, in both the classical tradition of Arabic literature and poetics and a solid grounding in English language and literature that was further enriched by her graduate studies in the United States. Moreover, her exceptional linguistic and poetic gifts and voracious reading, coupled with access to Western languages and traditions, allowed her to make a monumental contribution as a poet and critic. Her exposure to and readings of English poetry inspired her to experiment with the Arabic meters and to liberate the Arabic poem from the shackles of mono-rhyme and fixed meters. Having an intimate knowledge of Arabic meters and prosody, al-Mala'ika reconfigured the form of the Arabic poem in an entirely new way. The traditional classical poem had a fixed form using a fixed number of feet from one meter in a every line. Each line was equally divided into two hemistiches and maintained the same rhyme throughout the poem. Al-Mala'ika broke the unity and uniformity of the poetic line by writing lines of various length, including different numbers of feet and using poly-rhyme. This was a radical break with a tradition that predominated for centuries. However, al-Mala'ika was against doing away altogether with both rhyme and meter, as is the case in what came to be known as the prose poem—the form that has now become the most popular and pervasive.


Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926–1964) was born in Jaykur, near Basra, in southern Iraq. Together with al-Mala'ika and ABD AL-WAHHAB AL-BAYATI (1926–1999), he is considered one of the pioneers of the free verse movement in the Arab world. He studied at the High Teachers' Training College in Baghdad in 1948 and was al-Mala'ika's classmate. He worked as a teacher first, then a civil servant and journalist. Al-Sayyab was first drawn to communism and then leaned more toward Arab nationalism. His political activism led to arrests and self-imposed exile. He suffered a degenerative disease toward the end of his life and died at a hospital in Kuwait in 1964. He was greatly influenced by the English poets and later by T. S. Eliot. His later, more mature poetry incorporated Mesopotamian mythology. Similar to al-Mala'ika, al-Sayyab, around the same time, experimented with metrical feet and with new rhyme patterns, contributing to what came to be known as free verse.


There is a consensus that al-Mala'ika was a pioneering figure in the history of modern Arabic poetry. Her name and her contributions appear in every major study of modern Arabic poetry. Tens of dissertations have been written about her poetry and criticism, and a number of her poems and essays have appeared in translation. Although there are hundreds of works on her career in Arabic, a volume in English or another European language has yet to appear. Nevertheless, it seems that she has secured her position in the history of Arabic literature as one of the architects of its modernity. The main critique that has been raised in retrospect is that al-Mala'ika's approach focused solely on form to the detriment of the content or the poetic vision, both of which are considered equally important to construct a truly modern and radical poetics.


Al-Mala'ika is considered by the great majority of critics and scholars to be one of the most important Arab poets and critics in the second half of the twentieth century. She was one of the first few, if not the first poet, to break away from the traditional form of the two-hemistich monorhyme and write in a new form that came to dominate the Arab literary scene until it was eclipsed by the prose poem, which abandons both meter and rhyme. The predominantly romantic themes of her poetry might have lost some of their appeal with time, but her foundational role in establishing a new poetic form is still preserved half a century after her debut. Her work as a literary critic defined the parameters of this new form of poetry and helped to launch and institutionalize it, as well as enrich the debates and the vocabulary around it.


al-Musawi, Muhsin Jasim. Arabic Poetry: Trajectories of Modernity and Tradition. London: Routledge, 2006.

Jayyusi, Salma Khadra. Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1977.

Moreh, Shmuel. Modern Arabic Poetry 1800–1970: The Development of its Forms and Themes under the Influence of Western Literature. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1976.

                                              Sinan Antoon


Put out the candle and leave us two strangers here / We are parts of the night, so why the flame? / Light falls on two illusions in the night's eyelid / It falls on splinters of hope called "we" and I call them: boredom / Like light, we are strangers here / The pale and cold meeting on a rainy day / was a death to my songs and a grave to me feelings / The clock chimed in the dark: nine, then ten / And I, in my pain, listen and count / I was perplexed, asking the clock / of what uses is my joy / If we spend our evenings as / Strangers / Hours passed, covered with withering / like an unknown tomorrow / Is it dawn or dusk? / Hours passed and silence was like winter / I thought it strangled my breaths and floated in my blood / I thought it was saying under the evenings whirlwind: / You are strangers / Put out the candle for the two souls are in a thick night / Light falls on two faces the color of autumn / Can't you see that our eyes are cold and withering? / Can't you hear our still and silent hearts? / Our silence is the echo of a dangerous siren / warning us that we will be / Strangers / Who brought us here today and where did we start? / Yesterday we were not companions, so let us / jump over the memory As if it never was / some flighty love that entertained us / Oh if we were to return to where we were / before we were when we are still / Strangers