Nazik al-Mala'ika

(1922- 2007)

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 eloquence, original use of imagery, and delicate ear for the music of verse.

Nazik al-Mala'ika was born in Baghdad into a cultured, literary family. Her father was a poet and the editor of a 20-volume encyclopedia. Her mother wrote poetry expressing anti-British occupation sentiments. Nazik was educated at the Higher Teachers' Training College in Baghdad, earning a degree in 1944. While still in college, she published poems in newspapers and magazines. She learned to play the Oud and obtained a degree in music in 1949. Later, she worked as a lecturer at the University of Baghdad and the University of Basra where she met her husband.

In 1954, al-Mala'ika continued her studies at the University of Wisconsin, where she obtained an M.A. in literature. She worked as a university lecturer and professor, and in 1961 she married Abdel-Hadi Mahbouba, her colleague in the Arabic department at the Teacher's College in Baghdad.

Al-Malaika left Iraq in 1970 with her husband and family following the rise of the Baath Party to power in Iraq. She lived in Kuwait and taught at the University of Kuwait until Saddam Hussein invaded that country in 1990. The family left for Cairo, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Although she has avoided publicity, al-Mala'ika again entered the literary scene in 1999 with a new book of verse, Yughayir Alwanhu al-Bahr. The bulk of the poems were written 25 years earlier in 1974. The book also contains an autobiographical sketch.

As a writer, al-Mala'ika made her debut in 1947 with 'Ashiqat al-Layl. (She who loves the night). Its themes of despair and disillusion were familiar from the Arabic literary romanticism of the 1930s and 1940s. Her second collection published in 1949, Shazaya wa ramad (Shrapnel and Ashes), helped launch free verse as a new form for Arab poetry. Her 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, and backed the movement with her critical writings, when arguments were made for and against metrical poetry. With one of her best-known poems, 'Cholera', was based on the emotional effect of the cholera epidemic in Iraq in 1947. In her collected articles, Qadaya al-shi'r al-mu'asir (1962), she continued the debate for more sophisticated expression, and developed further some of the principles formulated in the introduction of Shazaya wa ramad.

Al-Mala'ika has been 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. In the late 1960s al-Mala'ika started to distance herself from experimentalism and developed more moralistic, conservative views, and she wrote religious poems.

Towards the end of her life, Al-Malaika suffered from a number of health issues including Parkinson's disease. She died in Cairo, Egypt, in 2007 at the age of 84.

Her works include:

'Ashiqat al-Layl, 1947
Shazaya wa ramad, 1949
al-mar'a baina al-tarafain, al-salbiyya wal-akhlaq, 1953
al-tajzi'iyya fil-mujtama' al-Arabi, 1954
Qararat al-mawya, 1957
Qadaya al-shi'r al-mu'asir, 1962
al-Sawma'a wal-Shurfa al-Hamra', 1965
Sha'arat al-qamar, 1968
al-tajzi'iya fil-mujtama' al-'arabi, 1974
Yugayyir alwanahu al-bahr, 1976
Lil-salat wal-tawra, 1978
Sikolojia al-Shi'r, 1979
al-Aamal al-Nathriya al-Kamila, 2002 (2 vols.)
al-Aamal al-Shi'riya al-Kamila, 2002