Remembering Nazik Al-Malaika: poet, literary critic and feminist (1923 – 2007)

Ishtar’s Songs, a 2011 anthology of modern Iraqi poetry, contains a number of photographs of a then recent poetry reading that took place in Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris river. The venue is a church which, only a week before, had been the subject of a violent attack. The poetry reading was held at the church the following week as a deliberate act of defiance intended to send a message that violence will not prevail over art. Art in all its forms, including poetry, has been one of the many casualties of the instability and violence in Iraq, but despite this, Iraqi poets and artists soldier on. At Nina we believe it is important to support Iraqi artists, and to celebrate Iraq’s rich artistic heritage, in which women have played an important role.

Today, 9 years after her death, Nina remembers Nazik Al-Malaika, the Iraqi poet, feminist and literary critic who, in similarly turbulent times, emerged as a poetic icon that shaped the course of not only modern Iraqi poetry, but Arabic poetry generally. Malaika highlights the key role played by women in Iraq’s rich literary heritage, and is a source of inspiration for aspiring Iraqi women poets and writers.

Nazik Al-Malaika was born in Baghdad into a literary family and wrote her first poem at a young age. Her academic career in Iraq and the United States, and her home life in Baghdad and later Cairo, exposed her to ideas and styles of poetry that shaped her literary output and worldview. Her most celebrated works were written between 1947 and 1970, a time of great upheaval in Iraq and the Middle East. It was an era charged with the victory of independence and the pessimism of great defeat, and the contradictions are evident in her poetry. Her verse holds up a mirror to a complex self, coming to terms with a normless society but, beyond its social and political significance, it is renowned for the sincerity and beauty of its language. Its imagery, although universal, is also distinctly Iraqi. In her poem “The Lover River,” written after the flood of the Tigris in 1954, Malaika describes the river as a source of life which, like her poetry, nurtures Iraq’s “sad pastures” with it’s “mud kisses.”

Her debut collection Ashiqat Al-Layl (Night’s Lover) was published in 1947, but it was her second collection Shazaya wa Ramad (Ashes and Shrapnel), published in 1949, which established Malaika as a pioneer of “free verse” poetry. This collection included the groundbreaking poem “Cholera” which broke away from the old classical Arabic poetic form that had remained unchallenged for centuries. The poem, which was written in response to the cholera epidemic that had spread from Egypt to Iraq at the time (and is as relevant as ever today in Iraq where only last year the government declared a cholera epidemic in Iraq), deployed poetic and prosodic devices that were to become hallmarks of the modern free verse movement. The unbroken enjambement whereby meaning would overflow beyond the end of a line, the inter-variation of several rhymes and the modern imagery and tone were all pioneering aspects of Malaika’s poetry, albeit the culmination of years of collective literary output.

Malaika’s progressive outlook was not limited to her art. In the fifities, she delivered two lectures in which she expressed her discontent with the traditions imposed upon her as a woman in a patriarchal society. In the lectures, she bemoans the state of a society which does not judge a woman in her own right by her personality, manners or culture, but places higher value on whether or not she is married. She also vehemently criticized the traditional gender roles that resign a women to a lifetime of “sweeping and cooking”. It might seem remarkable that Malaika expressed such ideas, which remain controversial in Iraq today, over 50 years ago, or an indication of how much things have regressed.

Although she pushed the boundaries of art and social norms, Malaika did not believe in a complete break with tradition in her poetry. In a collection of critical essays published in 1962 (which was one of the only critical works in relation to modern Arabic poetry that existed at the time) Malaika warned against the carelessness of numerous poets who exploited the new verse forms as a means to conceal their lack of technical ability as poets. For Malaika, free verse, although less rigid and domineering in its formal prescriptions, had to retain a degree of formal prosodic structure. Whereas some of her contemporaries began to experiment with a number of different meters in one poem, Malaika argued that poets should stick to the same meter throughout the whole poem, which revealed a hesitation on her part to break entirely with the past. For Malaika, transition had to take place gradually. Indeed, as her poetry progressed, Malaika started to experiment again with the traditional two-hemistich, monorhymed poetic form, for which she received a great deal of criticism.

Despite this, she remains an Iraqi female icon that left an indelible mark on the history of modern Arabic poetry as a poet, a critic and a woman. Her style was inconsistent at times reflecting her own imperfections, but it was in this aspect of her work that her humanity came through. She serves as an inspiration not only in her pioneering literary works, but as a woman that lived a real struggle between the two worlds of tradition and modernity. Forced by events to leave Iraq, she remained in the true sense through her poetry and writings, an Iraqi poet and an example that in art and in life, in the words of her contemporary and fellow poet T.S. Eliot “forms have to be broken and remade.”

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