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Nazik al-Mala'ikah (1922-2007; also Nazik Malaikah)


Iraqi poet and critic, one of the most important Arab women writers. Al-Mala'ika was a major advocate of the free verse movement in the late 1940s with Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. Her poetry is characterized by its terseness of language, eloquence, original use of imagery, and delicate ear for the music of verse.

Stay as you are, a secret world
Not such thing as a soul discerns
Spinner of poems, the last muse
In a world whose mirrors are dimmed
What song did not flow with honey
If you were to smile your praise upon it?

(from 'Song for the Moon')

Nazik al-Mala'ika was born in Baghdad into a cultured, literary family. She was the oldest of seven siblings. Her father was a poet and the editor of a 20-volume encyclopedia. Um Nizar al Mala'ika, her mother, wrote poetry against the British rule under the pseudonym Omm Nizar Al-Malaika. Al-Mala'ika started to write already in her childhood, and at the age of ten she composed her first poetry in Classical Arabic. All her life, al-Mala'aika kept a diary.  

Al-Mala'ika was educated at the Higher Teachers' Training College in Baghdad, earning her B.A. in 1944. While still in college, she published poems in newspapers and magazines. As a student she registered in the musical instrument oud (the Middle-Eastern lute) department of the Fine Arts Institute, and attended classes in the acting department. Many of her early poems contrasted the oppressiveness of the city and the beauty of the countryside and nature.

Al-Mala'aika's knowledge of English literature earned her a scholarship to study at Princeton University, New Jersey. In 1954 she continued her studies at the University of Wisconsin, where she obtained an M.A. in literature. Al-Mala'ika worked then as a university lecturer and professor. In 1961 she married Abdel-Hadi Mahbouba, her colleague in the Arabic department at the Education College in Baghdad. With her husband, she helped found the University of Basra in the southern part of Iraq. Many of her works were published in Beirut, Lebanon, where she moved in the late 1950s.

As a writer al-Mala'ika made her debut in 1947 with A'shiqat Al-Layl (The woman lover of the night). Its themes of despair and disillusion were familiar from the Arabic literary romanticism of the 1930s and 1940s. Her second collection, Shazaya wa ramad (1949, Splinters and ashes), helped launch free verse as a new form for avant-garde poetry. The old two-hemistich mono-rhymed form had flourished unchallenged for fifteen centuries. Experiments outside the rigid structures started in the beginning of the 20th century, but it was not until the mid-forties that poets succeeded in creating an acceptable form of free verse. Al-Mala'ika's book contained eleven poems and an introduction, in which she explained the advantages of the new rhyme patterns as opposed to the old.

In the 1950s al-Mala'ika was among the most prominent figures of modernism. She backed the movement with her critical writings, when arguments were thrown for and against metrical poetry. One of her best-known poems, 'Cholera,' took the subject from recent history-it was based on the emotional effect of the cholera epidemic that arrived from Egypt to Iraq in 1947. "The night is silent/Listen to the effect of groans/In the depth of darkness, below the silence, on the dead." Although this poem still followed a certain rhyme scheme, it demonstrated the possibilities of the modern verse. Al-Mala'ika's collected articles, Qadaya 'l-shi'r al-mu'asir (1962), continued the debate for more sophisticated expression, and developed further some of the principles formulated in the introduction of Shazaya wa ramad.

Why do we fear words?
Some words are secret bells, the echoes
of their tone announce the start of a magic
And abundant time
Steeped in feeling and life,
So why should we fear words?

(from 'Love Song for Words')

By 1978 Al-Mala'ika had published seven volumes of verse. She taught many years at the University of Kuwait, and in 1985 a festschrift appeared in her honor. It contained twenty articles on her work. In 1990 al-Mala'ika was forced to return home by Saddam's invasion. After fleeing from Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War, she moved to Cairo. Al-Mala'ika avoided publicity, but entered the literary scene again in 1999 with a new book of verse, Youghiyar Alouanah Al-Bahr, which also contained an autobiographical  sketch. The bulk of the poems were written 25 years ago in 1974. For many years, Al-Mala'ika suffered from Parkinson's disease. She died on June 20, 2007, in Cairo.

Al-Mala'ika was a strong defender of women's rights. Her two lectures from the 1950s about women's position in patriarchal society, 'Woman between passivity and positive morality' (1953) and 'Fragmentation in Arab  society'  (1954), are still topical. Al-Mala'ika's poem about Jamilah Buhrayd, a young girl and a hero of the Algerian Revolution, who was captured and tortured by the French army, greatly influenced the younger generation of her readers. However, in general she was more concerned with her personal experience or nature than with nationalist issues in the 1950s and '60s. Starting with the collection Shaýarat al-qamar (1968, The moon tree) al-Mala'ika began to distance herself from experimentalism and developed more moralistic, conservative views-she wrote religious poems and often used the two-hemistich form. Iraqi nationalism and solidarity with Palestinian people blended with broader struggles for freedom and social justice. She also wrote about the defeat of the Arab armies in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Al-Mala'ika also translated poems by such writers as Byron, Thomas Gray, and Rupert Brooke, but in the 1960s she criticized young writers who have embraced too uncritically Western models. Al-Mala'ika played the oud she had studied in her youth, and sang the songs of Omm Kulthoum and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab. In the poem 'Lament of a Wothless Woman'  (1952) she expressed her sorrow for women whose fate is to fall into oblivion: "She left, no cheek turned pale, no lip trembled. / The doors did not hear the story of her death. / No window curtain overflew with sorrow and gloom / to follow the tomb until it disappeared. . . . "

For further reading: 'Ambivalent Attitudes Toward Nature in the Early Poetry of Nazik Al-Mala'ika' by R. Husni, in Journal of Arabic Literature, Vol. 38, Numb. 1 (2007); The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by Nathalie Handal (2000); Zwischen Zauber und Zeichen. Moderne arabische Lyrik von 1945 bis heute, ed. by Khalid Al-Maaly (2000); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); 'Nazik al-Mala'ika's poetry and its critical reception in the West' by Salih J. Altoma, in Arab Studies Quarterly (09/22/1997); Reflections and Deflections by S. Ayyad and N. Witherspoon (1986); Women of the Fertile Crescent: Modern Poetry By Arab Women, ed. by Kamal Boullata (1981); Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak, eds. E.W. Fernea and B.Q. Bezirgan (1977); Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry by Salma Jayyusi (1977); Literatura árabe by J. Vernet (1968) - See also: 'Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati 


  • A'shiqat Al-Layl, 1947 (The woman lover of the night)
  • Shazaya wa ramad, 1949 ( Splinters and ashes)
  • 'Al-mar'a baina 'ltarafain, al-salbiyya wa 'l-akh-laq', 1953
  • 'Al-tajzi'iyya fi 'l-mujtama' al-Arabi', 1954
  • Qararat al-mawya, 1957 (The bottom of the wawe)
  • Qadaya al-shir al-muasir, 1962
  • Unshudat al-majd, 1965
  • Al-Sawma'a wal-Shurfa Al-Hamraa, 1965
  • Shajarat al-qamar, 1968 (The moon tree)
  • Masat al-hayat wa-ughniyah lil-insan, 1970 (The tragedy of being and a song of man)
  • Al-Tajziiyah fi al-mujtama al-arabi, 1974
  • Yughayyir alwanahu al-bahr, 1976
  • Al-Salah wa-al-thawrah: shi'r, 1978
  • Li-l-salat wa-l-tawra, 1978
  • Saykulujiyat Al-shi'r, 1979
  • Saykulujiyat Al-shi'r, wa-maqalat ukhra, 1993
  • Al-Shams allati waraa al-qimmah: qisas qasirah , 1997  
  • Youghiyar Alouanah Al-Bahr, 1999
  • Al-Aamal Al-Nathriya Al-Kamila, 2002 (2 vols.)
  • Rasail Nazik al-Malaikah: rasail makhtutah lam tunshar (1948-1985), 2002
  • Al-Aamal Al-Shi'riya Al-Kamila, 2002

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