Iraqi poet Nazik al-Malaika (1923-2007) was one of the leading figures of the “free verse” poetry movement of the 1950s. Born on this day — which we have unilaterally declared Nazik al-Malaika Day — her work has been largely absent from translation:
But this February, Emily Drumsta won a PEN Heim Grant to complete her translation of al-Malaika’s Revolt Against the Sun. Drumsta, like the other twelve winning translators, received $2,800 help her finish the book.
In a 2013 interview, she told ArabLit that “al-Mala’ika seemed to be an important turning-point figure” in the history of Arabic poetry, “someone who earnestly sought to remake the familiar structures of pre-modern poetry without completely losing them, to transform Arabic poetry for a new century without completely unmooring it from its metrical roots.”
Here, Drumsta shares a new translation. You can read the Arabic at Adab.Com.
By Nazik al-Malaika, tr. Emily Drumsta
You shadows of the night who hide away our hearts’ laments,
Look now and see this wandering ghost, its face so pale and lean
Like a strange apparition come to roam beneath your tent,
Carrying an oud in its right hand, singing to the unseen,
Unbothered by night’s stillness in the darkening ravine.
It is a woman, Night. The valley’s felt her in its shade.
When night approached and made her two eyes overflow with tears,
She took her songs of suffering and headed to the glade.
If only the songs on her lips, dear Night, could reach your ears,
If only you, Night, could discern her hopes, her dreams, her fears.
Seducing her with dark and quiet, nighttime drove her mad.
The silence, with its tempting beauty, made her young again.
She shed the coldness of a day whose path was bleak and sad,
And moved through this unhappy world with longing in her heart,
Sobs emerging from the oud, sighs emerging from the dark.
You, woman who loves night and all its lush ravines,
You’re nothing but a plaintive sigh when the world’s laughter rings.
This is the night: divine echoes, visions in blues and greens,
So pick up your oud from the grass, and hold it close, and sing,
Describe night’s art, its beauty, how it enchants everything.
What draws us to the sky, poet of perplexity?
Is it our youthful dreams, or poetic imagination?
Is it our love of the unknown? a night of misery?
Or is it the enchanted lights dancing on the horizon?
How strange, lyre of the evening, poet of tranquility.
Your specter wanders through a cloud, pale-colored and sublime,
ever exploring visions wrapped in swathes of darkened shadow.
They’re secrets, shadow-lover, overrunning their confines.
But mercy’s scarce for broken hearts, my poet; you should go.
Don’t ask the lightning for advice, what does its flashing know?
Strange, poet of perplexity—what has distracted you?
Why do you stand there dreaming like a ghost beneath the palms,
Holding your head between your hands, with darkness all around,
As though in thought, in sadness, and in silence you had drowned,
Not knowing dark’s temptation hides there, crouching, in the calm.
Listen—these are the storms, this is the thunder, hear it peal.
Turn back—you will not understand, no matter how you seek
We’ll never know what mysteries the folds of life conceal.
My girl, the storm knows nothing, though it rages, raves, and shrieks,
Have mercy on your heart, for these shadows will never speak.
Emily Drumsta is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at Brown University.
Must-read Classics by Women: Two New Translations of Nazik al-Malaika (1923-2007)
“Revolt Against the Sun,” trans. Drumsta, on Jadaliyya
From ‘A Song for Mankind,’ trans. Drumsta, on ArabLit