Must-read Classics by Women: Two New Translations of Nazik al-Malaika (1923-2007)

Iraqi poet Nazik al-Malaika, born on this day in 1923, became one of the great, form-and-shape-shifting poets of her generation. We have two new translation for Women in Translation (#WITMonth) from Emily Drumsta, who is working on an al-Malaika collection:

By Emily Drumsta

In the Arab world, Nazik al-Malaika is widely regarded as a pioneer of modernist Arabic poetry. Born in Baghdad on August 23, 1923, she was the daughter of a wealthy and well-educated family. After graduating from the Iraqi Teachers’ Training College in 1944, she received a Rockefeller Scholarship to study literary criticism at Princeton University, when it was still an all-male institution. She lived in the United States from 1950-51, and then again three years later, when she earned a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Buttressed between the classical Arabic literary education she received at an early age and the passion she developed for English and Arab Romanticisms, al-Malaika’s poetics were formed in this interstitial space between tradition and modernity, convention and innovation. In her poetry, she plays on the gendered stereotype propounded by critics of Arabic poetry from the classical period to the present day — namely, that women poets excel at composing elegies because they have a genetic predisposition to weepiness, but fall short in other modes where men excel, such as praise, satire, and that most revered of forms, the poly-thematic ode (qasida). (For more on this topic, see Marlé Hammond’s excellent book.)

Rather than reject this stereotype outright, al-Malaika playfully reconfigures it in poems such as “Revolt Against the Sun.” When mourning the loss of a male relative, classical female poets often assumed the persona of a sleepless companion of the night, racked with grief and watching over the stars. Al-Malaika’s poetic speakers, on a continuum with their premodern counterparts, embrace both night and mourning as liminal spaces in which norms are suspended and radical social, political, and personal transformations become possible.

Likewise, where pre-modern female poets were restricted to elegizing male relatives and kinsmen, al-Malaika’s elegies are almost all dedicated to women (as in “Three Elegies for my Mother” and “To My Dearly Departed Aunt”). She also composes elegies for anonymous people and times — “a woman of no importance,” “a drowned man,” “an unimportant day” — contrasting the monumentality of classical elegies with the anonymity of modern life in the busy urban hub of Baghdad in the 1950s.

It is not only through her choice of topics and themes, however, that al-Malaika reconfigures the Arabic tradition in her poetry. Indeed, she is best known as a pioneer of “free verse” in Arabic, though even a brief glimpse at her work reveals that it is not entirely meter-“free.” Rather, her poetry takes the metrical feet of classical Arabic verse forms as the basis for a new poetic system, one which allows the poet to vary the number of feet in each line.

Al-Malaika’s version of free verse sought to liberate the poet from classical strictures without completely severing the threads that tie modern verse to a cherished poetic past. Her voluminous critical writings demonstrate her interest in the kind of meaning carried not only by the sense but also by the sound of words, the way meter can anchor meaning in the body, transforming ordinary speech into a form of incantation. “Meter is the soul that electrifies literary material,” she writes in Issues in Contemporary Poetry, “transforming it into poetry… Images and feelings do not become poetic, in the true sense, until they are touched by the fingers of music and the pulse of meter beats in their veins.”

In my translations, I try to honor al-Malaika’s reverence for poetic meter — its relationship to music, magic, and incantation — by carrying over not only the meanings of her words, but also her sonic innovations into metered, rhymed English verse. Given her frequent insistence on meter as the defining criterion of poetry, to translate al-Malaika’s work literally is, in my view, to compromise its intended effect upon the reader (or listener). My translations, therefore, attempt to bring al-Malaika’s poetry to English readers in lines that resonate with the music of meter, creating not only thematic but also sonic intertextuality both with the Arabic originals and the history of English verse. As a poet, al-Malaika carved out a space for herself between old and new, tradition and innovation, the time-honored and the iconoclastic. Her poetry teaches us not to deal so violently with the past, but to tread lightly in poetry’s ancient footsteps.

The Train Passed By

By Nazik al-Malaika

Translated by Emily Drumsta

Night’s stillness stretches out into the distance
unbroken save by doves who, from afar,
coo on, confused, and dogs who bark at ancient stars
as hungry clocks devour our existence.
Out there, speeding along the tracks
the train
passed by. I’d spent the night waiting in vain
for it and day to come… The train
its sound extinguished, distant, still,
a feeble echo in my heart
is all that’s left, behind the far-off hills.
While staring at the dreaming stars, I start
imagining the train cars, the dim light
on rows of sleepless passengers,
imagining the weight of night
on tired eyelids, eyes whose vision blurs,
weary of others’ faces, pale and stark,
weary of keeping watch over the dark.
I picture bitter irritation
in souls that grow more worn with every station
their luggage waiting, as they must,
like luggage, wait beneath a layer of dust.
They sleep awhile, but wake with every thrust
from the old train, and some look through
the windows, yawning, sleepy, gazing into dusk,
then turn back to others’ faces again,
faces of strangers gathered by a train.
Some are near sleeping when they overhear
a hoarse voice mumbling, “Look here,
“These watch-hands seem as if they’re lost.
“How long ‘til we arrive? Can you tell me?”
His watch chimes three o’clock indifferently
and here the whistle cuts him off
the train conductor’s lamp, aloft
melds with the station light in the window,
and soon the tired train begins to slow.
… A boy there, crouched between the cars
exhausted but refusing sleep, he sighs
and keeps vigil over the stars.
An anxious silence gives shape, in his eyes,
to cold indifference, as fever dreams shed light
in strange, red-tinted hues upon his face.
His two lips, parted, bear the trace
of dreams that spread, beneath this barren night,
wings rustling with hidden melodies,
his eyes near closed, as if they fear
that rays of light will alter what he sees,
or that some loathsome thing might soon appear.
This boy, so troubled and sincere,
searches in vain among the others here
for more than the old mystery,
that worn-out story with a thousand chapters.
The world is weary of its heroes’ ever-afters,
and follows it unfeelingly.
This boy…
but the conductor’s footsteps pass
and then his sleepless face
is looking through the glass!
His lamp illuminates the place
he sees their faces, tired features
riders who’ve been sleepless all night long,
he sees sleepy, expectant creatures,
eyelids calling out the name of dawn.
And then the heavy footfalls fade away
into the darkness of the train.
The train passed through a wasteland and was gone
and I remained alone, immersed in black,
asking the night to bring my poet back.
Why has the train kept him so long?
Was he passed by, I wonder,
by the stodgy old conductor
making his rounds, failing to notice him,
inspecting passengers in lamplight dim?
And here I wait, and here I will remain
hoping for the arrival of the train.


Elegy for a Woman of No Importance (or, images from a Baghdad alleyway)

She died, but no lips shook, no cheeks turned white
no doors heard her death tale told and retold,
no blinds were raised for small eyes to behold
the casket as it disappeared from sight.
Only a beggar in the street, consumed
by hunger, heard the echo of her life—
the safe forgetfulness of tombs,
the melancholy of the moon.

The night gave way to morning thoughtlessly,
and light brought with it sound—boys throwing stones,
a hungry, mewling cat, all skin and bones,
the vendors fighting, clashing bitterly,
some people fasting, others wanting more,
polluted water gurgling, and a breeze
playing, alone, upon the door
having almost forgotten her.

Also by al-Mala’ika:

Revolt Against the Sun,” trans. Drumsta, on Jadaliyya

New Year,” trans. Rebecca Carol Johnson, on WWB

Love Song for Words,” trans. Johnson, on WWB

From ‘A Song for Mankind,’ trans. Drumsta, on ArabLit

Q&A with Drumsta about al-Malaika’s revolutionary romantic poetry

Emily Drumsta is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University. She specializes in modern Arabic and Francophone literatures, and is currently writing a book that explores legacy of the investigation plot in novels from Egypt, Palestine, and Lebanon. Her translations have appeared in McSweeney’s, Jadaliyya, Circumference and the Trinity Journal of Literary Translation. She is also working on a volume of selected poetry and prose in translation by Nazik al-Malaika.