Reading T.S. Eliot in Arabic: A Talk with Ghareeb Iskander

Why did T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land have an outsized influence on mid-twentieth-century Arabic poetry?

The work of T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) was introduced to Arabic readers in the early 1940s, and he had a significant influence on a variety of authors, from Louis Awad to Salah Abdulsabbur to Adonis.

Ghareeb Iskander, an Iraqi poet who writes in Arabic and lives in London, looks at T.S. Eliot’s poetry in his new work English Poetry and Modern Arabic Verse: Translation and Modernity which is set to appear in 2021 from I.B. Tauris. In this book, Iskandar examines the influence of Eliot and other Anglophone authors on Arabic poetry.

Iskandar talked with ArabLit about reading T.S. Eliot in Arabic and the influence Eliot had on the authors he looked at in his study. 

Tugrul Mende: Do you remember the first time you read T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land?

Ghareeb Iskander: I don’t remember precisely, but I think it was during the time when I started reading Badr Shakir al-Sayyab at secondary school. They were often mentioned together in almost any study of Arabic poetic modernity. This was pioneered by al-Sayyab (with Nazik al-Mala’ika and Abdul Wahab Al-Bayati) in Baghdad in the late 1940s.

In addition, al-Sayyab’s masterpiece Unshūdat al-Matar (Hymn of the Rain) has always been associated with Eliot’s The Waste Land (often translated into Arabic as Al-‘Arḍ al-Kharāb)  which has been translated into Arabic about 10 times. This reflects the similarities between the themes in The Waste Land, which mirror the aftermath of the First World War, and the new circumstances that Arabs faced after the Second World War, namely the loss of Palestine which affected (and still affects) all Arab people. The suffering of Iraqi people under wars and dictatorship for decades have also found resonances in Eliot’s poem. I have continued to reciting these lines of The Waste Land as if Eliot wrote them about Iraq, changing ‘on Margate Sands’ to ‘on Iraq Sands’: 

‘On Iraq Sands’  

I can connect 

Nothing with nothing.

The broken fingernails of dirty hands.

My people humble people who expect 


TM: While reading the poems representing in your study, whatfeelings did you have while reading them first in English and afterward in Arabic? 

Ghareeb Iskandar, Reel Festivals.

GI: All the English poems I studied were translated by Arab modernists who were influenced in particular by Eliot’s writings, which echoed in their poems. However, their poems are rooted in Arab cultures and responded to Arab problems. So, the themes are local but the techniques were primarily from world poetry. Eliot had taught not only Arab modernists, but also world modernists to use “foreign” techniques to write “new” and rich texts. Interestingly, in translating “Journey of Magi,” al-Sayyab used sometimes Quranic language in his version.

Saadi Youssef, in his introduction to the translation of Song of Myself, criticizes those who described Whitman as a “Sufi” poet, but he uses mystic language in his translation of Whitman’s masterpiece. It’s fascinating how a text was read and transformed into different forms and styles. But the most important thing is what is beyond these translations — how Arab modernists managed to change Arabic poetry from its classical form, which had dominated for about 14 centuries. This change did not come just thanks to Eliot (and other Western poets), but also to the then young Arab modernists. For example, al-Sayyab approached Edith Sitwell’s poems, especially her poem “Still Falls the Rain,” and changed the “rain” theme to an Iraqi one. Nowadays, Sitwell lives on in the Arabic poetic culture more than in the English one!

TM: Why do you think Eliot so appealed to Arabophone poets and authors, and why did you choose him for your own study?

GI: As I mentioned, Eliot’s writings were strongly present in Arabic modernity. I think most Arab modernists approached Eliot’s writing as early as the mid-1940s, but it seems that Louis Awad was first in approaching Eliot’s writings. In the middle of 1946, he was asked by Taha Ḥussein to write some essays on influential modern English authors to publish in the journal Al-Kātib al-Miṣrī (The Egyptian Writer). Awad published a number of articles in this journal, and his essay about Eliot came to have a huge influence on young Arab poets such as al-Sayyab, Abdul Wahab al-Bayati, Salah Abdulsabbur, and Adonis. 

In 1958, Adonis and Yusuf al-Khal translated The Waste Land and published it in the Lebanese journal Shi‘r (Poetry). This collaboration echoes the collaboration of Ezra Pound and Eliot in the same poem. Awad also published his translation of The Waste Land in Shi’r, in 1968. Earlier than that, in 1955, Tawfik Sayigh published an article in the Lebanese journal al-Ādāb, titled “Al- Shi‘r al-Ingilīzī Mu‘āṣir” (“Contemporary English Poetry”), in which he mentions the importance of The Waste Land. Sayigh translated Eliot’s poem, but he did not publish his translation. The manuscript of this translation was discovered by his family only after his death in 1970.

Unfortunately, Sayigh’s Al-‘Arḍ al-Kharāb had to wait until 2017 to be edited and published. According to his own notes, Sayigh began translating The Waste Land in Beirut in 1951 and finished it in Cambridge in 1953. In its third issue, in 1957, Shi’r announced that al-Sayyab was dedicating his time to translating Eliot’s The Waste Land. Unfortunately, he didn’t publish such a translation. Instead, al-Sayyab translated “Journey of the Magi.” Nevertheless, these statements point to al-Sayyab’s engagement with the most influential English poets of the twentieth century. Inspired by Awad, al-Sayyab had a contradictory attitude towards Eliot. In his earlier career as a member of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), al-Sayyab used Awad ‘s term rajʿī (reactionary) to describe Eliot. 

Indeed, Awad followed some English leftist writers such as C. D. Lewis and George Orwell in describing Eliot as a reactionary poet who wrote a great poem. Al-Sayyab later changed his views, apparently after he left the ICP, and showed his admiration for Eliot’s writings on both stylistic and thematic levels. Interestingly, Saadi Youssef, whose modernity was inspired by al-Sayyab’s approach to Pound and Eliot, continues to apply the term rajʿī to Eliot. Not all poets benefited from Eliot’s modernity! Some poets theoretically benefited from Eliot’s modernity, but failed to employ it poetically.

TM: When did you first become interested in writing poetry, and how has your art influenced your academic work?

GI: I started writing poetry when I was very young. But I began to take it seriously when I went to the University of Baghdad to study Arabic literature. My academic studies have been always paralleled my poetic experience. As I highlighted in the preface to my book, my first attempt to grapple with poetry and translation started with my Master’s thesis, when I studied nine English translations of al-Sayyab’s Unshūdat al-Maṭar in 2008. This experience opened my eyes to the interaction between the original poem and its translations, creatively and culturally. 

My second attempt was in 2013, when I was invited by Reel Festivals to a workshop called “Found in Translation,” in which four Scottish and four Iraqi poets translated each other. In this way, the poems were produced by a creative rather than a translational process. The dialogic “approach” that dominated the workshop resulted in a new, third language.This approach helped involve all poets in the process, especially those who had no translational experience. The outcome of this project was published as a bilingual book called This Room is Waiting: Poems from Iraq and United Kingdom in 2014. Even more enjoyable was my collaboration with the Scottish John Glenday, which resulted in an award-winning book Gilgamesh’s Snake and Other Poems, which was published by Syracuse University Press in 2016.

TM: What poets did you read growing up, who ended up perhaps influencing your own work?

GI: Al-Sayyab and Adonis are the modernist poets who influenced me the most, but of course I am heavily influenced by classical poets such Abu Nuwas , al-Mutanabbi, Abu Tammam and al-Maarri. Likewise, in world poetry I love Whitman, Eliot, Pessoa, Baudelaire, and Lorca. They had a great influence on modern Arabic poetry. I introduced Derek Walcott to Arabic readership in a selection of poems called Here’s the Emptiness, and now I am working on Ted Hughes. Sufis such as Ibn ‘Arabi, al-Niffari, and Hafiz have also been a constant source of inspiration.    

TM:  How much of a role do you think T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman’s works play in modern Arabic poetry? 

GI: Their roles were vital, especially Eliot’s, since we cannot speak about modernity in Arabic culture (and indeed in the world), without Eliot. Eliot provided Arab modernists with tools to rediscover their heritage first and then to benefit from other cultures. Whitman was approached by Arab poets in the early 20th century, but they did not understand the situational context of “Song of Myself,” and they misunderstood the background of his poem. The poem was written against the background of the American Civil War (1861-1865). And by the time the modernists translated Whitman, in the second half of the 20th century, Eliot had already been absorbed into Arabic culture and adopted as the pioneer of world poetic modernity. Thus, his ideas dominated the Arabic literary scene at that time, more than those of any other writers. 

TM: Is your new book English Poetry and Modern Arabic VerseModernity and Translation, part of a larger research project? 

GI: Indeed, it is part of a larger project, namely my journey of linking my poetry to world poetry via translation. It is also a personal project in that living in exile is also about translating the “self” and the “other.” My focus remains aesthetic and poetic. However, it was a pleasure to consolidate my findings about poetic translation in an academic study, which is different from my previous experiences.

TM: Did this book project cause you to shift any of your thinking about either modern English or modern Arabic poetry? 

GI: When I began my journey, I was aware of the centrality of translation in world poetry: most influential poets were in fact translators. My research allowed me to consolidate many aspects of the relationship between poetry, modernity, and translation. First, I found that the Arabic translations I focused on revealed the “centrality” of these poems within their own system, and they conveyed this “centrality” to Arabic culture. Arab poet-translators were aware of the prestige to be gained by linking themselves to the world’s leading modernist poets. Second, they were also able to canonize what until then had not been canonized in their own system. Third, these translations enabled Arab modernists to begin to move beyond conventional Arabic literary practices and to explore new territories. 

Fourth, Arab modernists used these translations to critique both source and target cultures. For some Arab poets, translation was, to use Pound’s terms, an “elaborate mask” to express themselves through other world poets. In this sense, these translations created a critical culture as well as creative one. 

And fifth, the translational experience itself, in its political and aesthetic guises, provoked a deep socio-cultural view on the literary text. In other words, translation became an explicit tool with which poets could question the received culture, politically and artistically.

Tugrul Mende holds an M.A. in Arabic Studies from the University of Leipzig. He is based in Berlin as an project coordinator and independent researcher. 

Also read:

“Song of Myself,” tr. Hassan Abdulrazzak

Gilgamesh’s Snake and Other Poemstr. Iskander with John Glenday

A Letter to Adil,” tr. Abdulrazzak

Ghareeb Iskander on Iraqi Poetries and the ‘Third Language’ of Translation


Af’a Gilgamesh / Gilgamesh’s Snake (excerpt) by Ghareeb Iskander