Nazik Al-Mala’ika, Revolt Against the Sun: The Selected Poetry of Nazik Al-Mala’ika: A Bilingual Reader. Trans. Emily Drumsta (London: Alsaqi Books, 2019).
This is not a typical poetry book. Then again, nothing about author Nazik al-Mala’ika’s legacy as a poetess and a critic from Baghdad is typical or conformist. Her formally innovative, morally committed, and musically composed verses are an expression of Arab women’s awakened voice and consciousness in Iraq’s post-WWII era. For the majority of the Arab world, the post-war period meant decolonialization, identity formation, cultural modernization, and an urgent need for stability. Nazik’s poetry took a “revolutionary” form, as it sharply departed from the classical “stable” poetic meters—the pride of the Arabic language. By not adhering to literary canon, she received much heated criticism. Yet, Mala’ika, who was writing courageously from the margins of literary circles, achieved a level of recognition and success most Arab male poets of her time could not.
Mala’ika’s poems went beyond verse experimentation to a poetry of commitment. Her poetry was a discursive intervention in the global conceptualization of the human condition, which succeeded in situating the voice of Arab women at the centre of the global struggle over equality, governance, social justice, and even epidemics (e.g., her poem al-kolera [Cholera]). Her poetry and criticism reflected Arab female intellectuals’ movement of the 1950s and 60s. Part of the global youth and labour movements, this women’s movement was considered the greatest and most dangerous threat to capitalist “civilization” and socio-economic order of its time. Mala’ika’s poetry and its place in the wider global struggle against the postcolonial capitalist agenda is not widely discussed in academic or popular discourses, making translation of her poems all the more timely.
The poetic voice of Mala’ika is beautifully captured by the scholar and translator Emily Drumsta from Brown University. Curating thirty-two bilingual poems selected from Mala’ika’s seven poetry collections, Revolt Against the Sun gives the reader an opportunity to appreciate Mala’ika’s powerful, visionary, and modernist voice. The book presents the poems chronologically, according to publication date. Each section is organized under the original collection titles: Night Lovers (1947), Shrapnel and Ash (1949), At the Bottom of the Wave (1957), The Moon Tree (1968), The Sea Changes Its Colors (1977), and finally For Prayer Revolution (1978).
In the titular poem “Revolt Against the Sun,” one of Mala’ika’s early masterpieces, Drumsta sets the tone, inviting the reader to undertake a journey of aesthetic wonder. Written about self-realization, the poem introduces a sense of psychological extremity and contradiction. The Arabic thawrah, meaning revolt, communicates more authority than its English equivalent, and thus the poetess invites the reader to take a political stance regarding love and life portrayed by the “the sun.” In the first line, the poetess confronts “the sun” for the unfair and seemingly unbearable state of affairs, which serves to swiftly create an association with “the sun” in search of fairness and recognition. In this dialectical relation to “the sun,” Mala’ika politicalizes the pain of self-realization, a modernist emotional register. With an empathetic voice, the rest of the poems tackle a range of issues: the absurdity of life in “Elegy for an Unimportant Day;” commitment to moral witness in “Killing a Dancer;” the nature of female gaze in “The Moon Tree;” and political commentary in “Three Communist Songs.” Drumsta’s translation achieves a mid-century cartography in verse of female Arab voices, reflecting the diversity, commitment, and wealth of modern Arabic literary production.
The selected poems do not stand alone. Drumsta offers a detailed introduction, providing a succinct account of the importance of Mala’ika’s literary and intellectual contribution. Basing it on general context of the selected poems, the translator gives a lively description of Mala’ika’s musicality, making the entire introduction a great source for teaching material. Revolt Against the Sun is one of a kind, and for that reason, it is hard to compare it to others. It contains in one place a representative collection of Nazik al-Mala’ika’s poetry, otherwise sporadically scattered in periodicals on Arabic studies. If it is anything, this translated book (re)presents a dignified image of Arabic women’s literary voice, challenging what the mainstream media portray as either absent, or muted and in need of saving.