Every news outlet that I can think to check has published an obituary for Iraqi poet Nazik al-Malaika. While her significance in the Arab literary world is concrete, her poetry is little known in the United States. In fact, very few translations of her poems exist in English, making the outpouring of obits seem, to be callous, a day late and a dollar short.
As someone who’s always believed Ezra Pound’s claim that great poems must be written regardless of who writes them, I find it frustrating that the only poems I can find by al-Malaika are in an anthology (The Poetry of Arab Women, ed. Nathalie Handal). Certainly her story is remarkable—pioneering free verse in Iraqi poetry, studying at Princeton as the only female, fleeing to Kuwait and later Eqypt—but I want to read the poems. Not to play newspaper favorites, but the New York Times does excerpt two: “To Wash Disgrace” and “Lament of a Useless Woman.” In “To Wash Disgrace,” al-Malaika evokes the horror of an honor killing in this matter-of-fact way:
She left to wash the disgrace.
The brutal executioner returns
And meets people
“Disgrace!” He wipes his knife
“We’ve torn it apart.”
Yesterday in class, I asked my students to dissect a few poems by Langston Hughes. I wanted them to get some argumentative mileage out of single words. In his “I, Too Sing America,” they picked up on “dare” evoking an underlying violence in an otherwise optimistic poem. In “Dreams,” they latched onto “broken-winged” implying fixable problems. And if I showed them these lines by al-Malaika, I have no doubt they’d want to discuss “disgrace.” Semantically speaking, disgrace can’t be torn apart. That executioner may wipe his knife as many times as he’d like, but he’s failed in his self-proclaimed task.
It’s no wonder that al-Malaika has become a symbol overnight. She evokes a Baghdad that once had a strong artistic pulse. Although buried Thursday in Cairo, her home for nearly twenty years, it is entirely appropriate to call her an Iraqi poet. To be proud of her as an Iraqi poet. Indeed, her last collection of poems, Tree of the Moon, was published in 1968, two years before the Baath Party took over, and she and her family entered their self-imposed exile. It seems that the exile was more than physical; it was also an exile from her previous identity. An identity as a poet that has been resurrected in death.