World Poetry Day: 21 Poems by Arab Women (in Translation)

It’s World Poetry Day, which this year is also Nowruz, Holi, Purim, Nizar Qabbani’s birthday, and (apparently) the day when Twitter was founded. Last year, we shared an eclectic list of 21 Arabic poems, translated to English, composed between the sixth century and the 2010s:

That list was noticeably short on women, particularly women who wrote poetry in the sixth through nineteenth centuries. Not much classical Arabic poetry by women has been translated as poetry; we’re thus particularly grateful to efforts by Yasmine Seale.

By the time we reach the twenty-first century, it becomes easier to find the work of women poets translated from Arabic, although women’s poetry is still under-translated vs. men’s. No Asmaa Yasin, only one poem by Fatima Qandil on the whole wide internet (?), just a whisper of Saniya Saleh, a single published collection of work by Iman Mersal, and the only Rasha Omran collection was published open-source online, not that I’m complaining.

Deceased poets are in a chronological order. Living poets are a jumble.

This list is not, in any sense, canonical. Nor is it complete.

Follow the links for each complete poem.

1) From an untitled poem by Dakhtanus bint Laqit (late sixth century), tr. Yasmine Seale

He came early with the news:

the best of Khindif, full-grown

and young combined, is dead.

2) From the poetry of Al Khansa (675- 645) in Loss Sings, tr. James Montgomery

Then Time came,

and harvested its malice.

Time never fails.

3) From ‘Ulayya bint al-Mahdi’s (777-825 CE) epigram, tr. Yasmine Seale

To love two people is to have it 

coming: body nailed to beams,


But loving one is like observing


4) From a poem by Inan, Daughter of Abdallah, (d. 840-841), in Consorts of the Caliphs, tr. Shawkat Toorawa and the Library of Arabic Literature editors

My soul is given over to sighing,

If only it would depart with those sighs!

If my fate were in my hands

I would race to my demise!

No good remains now that you’re gone:

an outstretched life, I fear, before me lies!

5) From “On Being Proposed to by a Male Poet,” Āʾisha bint Aḥmad al-Qurṭubiyya, tr. Yasmine Seale

I am a lioness: never will I let

my being be the break

on another’s journey.

6) From “The Unnamable Remains,” Qasmuna Bint Ismail (unknown, probably twelfth century), tr. Yasmine Seale 

So the sun, to which for all its light

The moon is obliged, is still by it


7) From “Longing Inspired by the Law of Gravity,” Fadwa Touqan (1917-2003), tr. Chris Millis and by Tania Tamari Nasir

Time’s out and I’m home alone with the shadow I cast
Gone is the law of the universe, scattered by frivolous fate
Nothing to hold down my things
Nothing to weigh them to the floor
My possessions have flown, they belong to others
My chair, my cupboard, the revolving stool

8) From “To A Girl Sleeping in the Street,” Nazik al-Malaika (1923-2007), tr. Emily Drumsta

In Karrada at night, wind and rain before dawn,
when the dark is a roof or a drape never drawn,

when the night’s at its peak and the dark’s full of rain,
and the wet silence roils like a fierce hurricane,

the lament of the wind fills the deserted street,
the arcades groan in pain, and the lamps softly weep.

A guard frowns as he passes with trembling steps,
lightning shows his thin frame, but shadows intercept.

9) From “Cure Your Slavery with Patience,” Saniyah Saleh (1939-1995), tr. Marilyn Hacker

Cure your slavery with patience

and prayers

or so I was told

Cure your oppression and memory with sleep

as for me

I sat under the high, thorny trees

until they flowered

10) From “Numerical Conjecture,” Fowziyah Abu-Khalid, tr. Ghassan Nasr with Joseph Heithaus

These are not numerical symbols
They are not dates of defeats or chronicles of victories
and not
a language for measuring the calendar’s arithmetic
or for marking an early punishment or a delayed reward
My memory is betrayed
by monotonous math classes
with their yawning lessons
and me leaving through the bolted window
without the teacher sensing anything
except the unruly winds
the source of which she fears

11) From “The World’s Heart,” Nujoom al-Ghanem, tr. Khaled al-Masri

We only recognised that sea laden

with our mothers’ fear after it raised

its head high and ate the feet of our homelands…

12)  Taken from Rasha Omran’s The Woman Who Dwelt in the House Before, with translations by Abdelrehim Youssef, Kim Echlin, and Monica Pereschi.

Each time I begin to write about love

the other woman reaches out

and pushes my fingers from the keyboard

the lonely woman who lost everything

the wild woman

who looks like me

13) From an untitled poem of Saadia Mufarreh’s, tr. Yasmine Seale

You’re not there 

but details linger. Who knows how

they trickle in and scurry out, 

how they hum like a knot

of sandgrouse caught

in the snare of distance, 

laying waste 

to silence, that stranger

not to be trusted,

getting the better of love,

that looted thing. 

14) From “Raising a Glass With an Arab Nationalist,” Iman Mersal, tr. Robyn Creswell 

“The nation is on fire,” he said, instead of good evening, and
I started coughing from the smoke that suddenly engulfed me.

15) From “Dragonflies,” Asmaa Azaizeh, tr. Yasmine Seale

Millions of years ago, there were no winged creatures.
We all crawled around on our bellies and paws
to arrive.

16) From “The Book of Games,” Rana al-Tonsi, tr. Robin Moger

In every city is a wall that opens,

a feeble light,

two lovers

who chose to tread the wrong path.

17) From “Anatomy of the Rose“ Soukaina Babiballah, tr. Kareem James Abu-Zeid

When the rose perceived the distance
between itself and the earth,
it brought forth its thorns.

18) From “The Room of Darkness,” Mona Kareem, tr. Robin Moger

I am from darkness, my
homeland is an aging butterfly
my prayers are the desert.

19) From “Pleasant thoughts for getting rid of rage,” Malaka Badr, tr. Robin Moger

I have rage enough to burn the city

and murder its inhabitants

individually, each a different way,

with blithe delight unspoiled by guilt.

20) From “Keys,” Fatima Qandil, tr. Josh Beirich

The keys that do not open doors

Are the same keys that lock them

And the keys wrapped in chains

Have nothing but the spectacle of jingling

21) From “Abstraction,” Aya Nabih, tr. Maged Zaher

The petrified clocks

Are harsh like a wall

And like my writings: