The Iraqi poet Nazik al-Mala’ika was one of the most important Arab poets of the twentieth century. A pioneer of free verse poetry, over four decades she transformed the landscape of modern Arabic literature and culture. Revolt Against the Sun, edited, translated and with a comprehensive introduction by Emily Drumsta, presents a selection of al-Mala’ika’s poetry in English for the first time, alongside the original Arabic. Bringing altogether poems from each of her published collections, it traces al-Mala’ika’s transformation from a lyrical Romantic poet in the 1940s to a fervently committed Arab nationalist in the 1970s and 80s.

 

Cholera

in the night
listen to echoed moans as they fall
in the depths of the dark, in the still, on the dead
voices rise, voices clash
sadness flows, catches fire
echoed sighs, stuttered cries
every heart boils with heat
silent hut wracked with sobs
spirits scream through the dark everywhere
voices weep everywhere
this is what death has done
they are dead, they are dead, they are dead
let the screaming Nile cry over what death has done

in the dawn
listen to passing feet as they fall
in the still of the dawn, watch and hear the procession of tears
ten are dead, twenty dead
countless dead, hear the tears
hear the pitiful child
they are dead, many lost
they are dead, there is no future left
bodies strewn everywhere, everywhere the bereaved
not a moment to mourn, not a pause
this is death’s handiwork
they are dead, they are dead, they are dead,
all humanity protests the crimes death commits

cholera
in the terrible caves where the corpses are piled
in eternity’s hush, where death acts as a cure
cholera lies awake
unavenged, overflowing with hate
pouring over the valley’s sweet, radiant soil
crying out, agitated, insane
it is deaf to the voices that mourn
as its talons leave scars everywhere
in the poor peasant’s shack, in the landowner’s house
nothing but cries of death, pouring out,
they are dead, they are dead, they are dead
as death takes its revenge wearing cholera’s face

silence, still
nothing left but the trace of Allahu akbar
as the gravedigger too lies in eternal sleep
there is no one to help
the muezzin is dead
who will eulogize them?
nothing left now but shuddering sobs
the poor child has no mother, no dad
and tomorrow disease will no doubt snatch him too

evil cholera, what have you done?
you’ve left nothing in Egypt but sadness and death
they are dead, they are dead, they are dead
this is what death has done, and my heart is in shreds

1947

  

A photo from the Beirut-based poetry journal Shiʿr (Winter issue 1960) showing major Arab women poets (left to right) Khalida Said, Nazik al-Mala’ika, Fadwa Tuqan and Salma Khadra Jayussi

Headlines and Advertisements in an Arab Newspaper

Sidon passes a terrifying night.
A new, expanded map
of enemy lands. Golda declares that Israel will never bend
she’ll track the Fedayeen.
Lebanon crumbles from the south. Impending
siege on the canal.
Ladies! What will you wear
to the evening’s soirée? In what sash will you make your first appearance?
Ladies! Be young, stormy, and hot,
use these perfumes from Paris, sip our wine
it’s sprinkled with the scents and tears of spring.
Enjoy yourself! Your life is passing fast,
you’re wrinkling up and growing old,
and wine, dear Madam, is lilies and figs.

Brezhnev smiling at Nixon with
good tidings of a new world order.
New settlements along the Jordanian border.
Ladies! Paint your long nails in crimson hues
so sleek and smooth
like the drowned echo of an organ’s murmur.
Jews come from Moscow to Jerusalem
tax-free.

A dancer at the Pelican was like a mellifluous song,
Small towns in Southern Lebanon are terrified
their roads cut off
corpses flung into graves
houses in ruin, laid to waste.
A dancer at the Pelican
was lithe like grapes on ripened vines
her cheeks stained blush
how young and fresh!
how small her waist!

A new song by Najat
tonight, a magical soiree with ten professional dancers
naked and drunk
those who can’t come
are missing out, glass after glass until we reel
until the music swells
until we’ve freed ourselves from Israel.
We’ve paved the way to freedom with these songs
tomorrow we’ll return
to Palestine. With wine we’ll free the land we lost.
Tonight, the enemies’ elites, together with armed guards
will animate a million sweet soirées
while Phantom fighter jets break barriers of sound
scarring our skies, happily rushing home.

America feeds Tel Aviv
stockpiles of Arab Unity
and Lebanon’s a lost child with pale cheeks
its words tremble and burn, it seeks
food aid from the U.N., it cries
sheds everything it has in tears
broadcasts the enemy’s attacks
and begs the stoic U.N. to act
but America is Mistress of the Veto
and as for us
their threats still rend our tents.
Our only weapons are our ranting, braying, useless words
our shame cries meekly from its cage inside enemy hands
it surges in our veins
our necks are still exposed, laid out under Israeli knives
Al-Wadi restaurant is offering new alcohols
and Men! As you hunt down the one you love, woman or girl
the strongest governments protect us, whatever we do
they’re vigilant
they’re working to restore
the lands we lost.

The Arab man still summers for four months out of the year
his plan this morning is a sailing trip
and then an evening at the old Auberge
with song and dance
glasses of wine
the tender, warm, flabby embrace
of a feminine face
whose eyes make disobeying sweet.

Old newspapers of every kind
opportunists toeing the line
between what’s true and false
the headlines echo with a rumbling sound
and then dissolve
in seconds as the storm subsides.

Cairo, 19 Rajab 1393 / August 17 1973

‘Cholera’ was originally published in the collection شظايا†ورماد (Shrapnel and Ash), 1948; ‘Headlines and Advertisements in an Arab Newspaper’ is from للصلاة والثورة (For Prayer and Revolution), 1978

 

Emily Drumsta is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University. She has published articles in Research in African Literatures, Social Text and Middle Eastern Literatures, and has a chapter in the forthcoming volume The Routledge Handbook of Arabic Translation. Her translations from Arabic have appeared in McSweeney’s, Asymptote, Jadaliyya and ArabLit. Revolt Against the Sun is published by Saqi Books.
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