Summer Reads: ‘And We Still Have the Sea’

This summer, we will run select pieces from summer issues of ArabLit Quarterly. This poem, by famed Iraqi poet Nazik al-Mala’ika, tr. Emily Drumsta, ran in the summer 2019 SEA issue of the magazine, available as PDF, e-pub, and in print.

By Nazik al-Mala’ika

Translated by Emily Drumsta

we stood by the sea in the midday heat, two excited kids

my spirit swimming through your fields

…..the flooded rivers of your eyes

my heart running after a question

whose buds perfume your lips

your question is a sweet north wind

your hands hide sweet songs by lovesick violins

your question shines sky-colored onto trellises and ponds

you asked about the sea, do its colors change? 

are its waves different shades? do its shores shift?

you asked, with your eyes wide as dreams

your face a distant star

lost ships without a harbor

you asked, your lashes ears of wheat

a field that swells in waves, the wonder of a child

your hands the flowing sails

on two boats

driven out beyond the distance, beyond what we can see 

and I said, yes, 

my love

the sea changes colors

green ships surge across it

pale cities emerge from it

and sometimes it drinks the sunset’s blood

and sometimes it turns the color of sky

gathering its blue, my love 

and dreaming, gazing with scattered

celestial eyes

into endlessness, turning the color of light 

in the morning, dimming its chandelier at night

you asked about the sea, do its colors change?

are its waves different shades? do its shores shift?

yes, my love,

a sea laps at the edges of my soul’s ravine

passing through harbors of color and sun

and deserted fields

a moonlit twilight bathes in its waves

wetting its hair

laying out a path of reflection and sky, yes

my love, and it colors the gulfs

yes, the sea changes colors

drinking the yellow of my doubt and distrust

turning as blue as my melody

my songs and ships set sail on its scattered waves

it turns white, its seafloor jasmine-colored

it turns green, like the green of sad eyes

like the peridot waters of Nahavand 

in the depths of my grief.

you asked about the sea, do its colors change?

your eyes are a sea, vast

…..shores lost

yes, my love, it changes and turns the color of ash

and tastes just like a sleepless night 

all of its fish are ash, its pearls



…..octopuses ash

domes of sunken cities ash, and the face of a drowned man

floating, pillowed on the salty waves, unconscious, is ash-colored

swallowing water, the salt nightshade and ash upon his lips 

my ocean, your ocean, this ocean of ash

has a loving heart

and a harshness that slaps at the corpse, spreading out, pillow-soft

quarreling with the drowned gray body, my sea and your sea

…..sent its violent wave to strike him

and mermaids who bore him

… sands of forgetting like wine

he lies on the shore, senseless, inert

…..and the sea of ash

sprays his motionless form, and a wave of love

plays on his cheeks and washes his face till

it glistens with love and salt and foam

……….sometimes covering the body

sometimes returning, retreating, washing it

in eternal indifference

you who ask me:

…..does my sea and your sea change colors?

does it paint its shores in oils and coal like the clouds? 

my love, when I was little my grandfather

was tall and long like hair braided in spring

he had depth



and the violence of an autumn storm

he was wise as a magical, edgeless sea

and strong as a wave

one day tongues of flame came to our house

to gnaw at the walls and set curtains alight

the flames turned in circles

roaring on the balconies of our dreams, laughing at our terror

threatening to spread, running through our neighborhood

vowing to devour cheeks



and even the boys on the threshing-floors

my grandfather rushed at it, as rash as a wave

and with a cry of fright

fell upon it with a tornado’s violence, cursing and railing

his insults rain and longing, his ferocity a melodious line of verse,

a whispered prayer, a morning star

a perfumed boat

the abuse on his lips a colorful stream

and my grandfather put out the fire

saving my lashes and hair

my love—my grandfather was an ocean

changing colors, turning the quarries of his eyes black and green

changing waves, reaching into the distance, forming pearls

making springs flow, mooring on shores

creating space, sculpting islands

scattering golden islands across the gulf’s blue

and his buckets full of curses were vials of balm

breaking bracelets of fire from forearms and wrists

the strength of the waves in my sea and your sea 

has been transformed into hands and a chest

that bear the body of the drowned man

and rain down kisses and love

and lay it gently on safety’s shores

with the fluttering wings of a dove

and give him new life

…..sow his death with dreams

……….and memory’s wheat

and the cold of a cloud

how can you ask me about color and the sea, my love,

when you are my sail

…..and the colors of my sea

……….and the dreaminess in my eyes

when you are the mist on my paths

my canvas

…..when you are the peaks of my waves

my sad rose, my pale perfume?

you ask me about color and the sea, my love

but you are my seas

my pearl and my shell

and your face is my home

so carry my boat on a wave of desire, hidden, enclosed

to a dark and impossible shore

…..with no flatlands, no hills

to a twilight with moonlit expanses


colorless in the light of day

branchless in the forest’s thick

free of terror, free of hope

we’ll lose ourselves there

eating the warmth of winter, plucking the snow of spring

praising frost’s wool

where the shadows are shapeless

where fate has no ledger

and a glance raises nothing

but the wave of a song coming down

through the moon’s mountains

we laugh we cry your eyes 

reflect the color of the sea

and we still have color

…………………….and the sea


The Iraqi poet Nazik al-Malaika was one of the most important Arab poets of the twentieth century. A pioneer of free verse poetry, over the course of a four-decade career, she would publish prolifically and carved out a space for herself between old and new, tradition and innovation, the time-honored and the iconoclastic.

Emily Drumsta is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at Brown University. She was the recipient of a 2018 PEN/Heim Award for her translation, Revolt Against the Sun: The Selected Poetry of Nazik al-Mala’ikah, which appeared in 2021