Women and Poetry in the Arab Middle East

Dorothy Benson
Poetry is and always has been the art form par excellence of the . A~abs .• ~ It is more than a literary expression of their society and cultur~; It IS. an:: essential and constant ingredient of it, the artistic thread which unites < the pre-Islamic period, the Islamic era and mod~rn Arab society. S.o~e·
of the reasons for this are to be found both m the cultural pOSItion. occupied by the language and in its structure. Classical Arabic i,s the vehi.clec of transmission, through the Prophet Muhammad, of God s revel.atI~n to His people, and as such is accorded a sacredness and a sublimity not granted to Western languages by their cultures. On the other ~and the morphology of the language with its verbal p~tter~s and math~matl.cal- .. ; like shapes makes it particularly amenable to metnficatIon and verSification. ' Its almost unlimited lexical potential allows for delicate nuances and a multiplicity of meaning and gives ample scop.e .for linguistic manipulation and dexterity. Poetry always has been and still IS today as mu~h an ~raC performance art as a written one; its finest examples are those. m which melody and meaning are complementary and mutually enhancmg to the
highest degree .....
Standard literary Arabic which is today's direct and minimally evolved
descendant of Classical Arabic is the language of 'formal' literature, be, it oral or written, throughout the Arab world. In the spoken language, the dialects of which vary from region to region, there is a rich liter.ature of songs, poems, epics and legends which exists alongside the. 'formal' lIterat~re effecting an influence on and deriving from it. In 'form~l' lIter~tur.e the. qaslde or ode had been the dominant poetic form from its earliest begmnmgs m PreIslamic times until the 1940's. Conventionally, the qasida is characterised by monorhyme and monometre, versed divided into two hemistiches and themes of eulogy, elegy, satire and love ....
Women have always taken part in the composItion, narratIon and trans-
mission of poetry, legends and stories. In pre-Islamic time~ it was women who composed elegies for the dead and some of them achleve~ fame ~nd success for their artistry in doing so outside their immediately family or tr~bal circles. Most of this material has been lost, perhaps because by the time oral literature came to be collected and written down the role of women in society had become confined to the private sphere. There are ho,:"eve many references in secondary literature to women poets and anthologies of their work during the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries. The great Abu Nuwa.s, t~e 8th century composer and reciter of poetry, is said to have included m hiS repertoire the works of 60 women poets ..
The work of some women from this period has surVived, the most important being that of Tumadir Bint 'Amr bin Sharid, better known
by her title AI-Khansa' ('the she-gazelle'), who lived in West Central Arabia at the time of Muhammad. She was renowned for her elegiac poetry much of which was composed as a deeply-felt lament for her brothers slain in battle. On several occasions she took part in the great poetic tournament of Ukaz competing with and often defeating her male counterparts. Today AI-Khansa' is considered the 'mother' of Arabic poetry from whom contemporary women poets like to trace their symbolic descent, although in theme and expression her poetry differed little from that of her male contemporaries.
With the banishment of 'respectable' women from public life in the 9th century their literature also disappeared from public view into the closed world of the harem where, especially in scholarly and learned families, it continued to thrive. Throughout the centuries women occasionally emerged from behind these closed doors to practice their art in public. Such a woman was Walladah bint AI-Mustakfi, an 11th century princess of Muslim Spain, a patron of scholarship and the arts and the writer of delicate if outspoken love poetry.
In the 19th century the encounter between the Arab world and Western Europe provoked a movement towards literary revival and renewal. From its beginnings women participated in this movement; their involvement was only logical since the literary revival was part of a wider social and cultural renaissance one of the aims of which was the emancipation of women. The literary revival manifested irself first in the area of poetry which by the beginning of the 19th century had degenerated into a form in which theme was almost irrelevant and linguistic artifice and adornment all-important. The participants of the literary revival sought a return to the purity of the Classical Age and by the end of the 19th century a Neo-Classical school of poetry had emerged and become established.
With the publication of a collection of poetry in 1867 Warda al-Yaziji, a member of a scholarly Lebanese family, became the first woman in the Arab world to have a book published. The Rose Garden (a play on her name which could also be translated as Warda's Garden) consisted mostly of eulogies and elegies which adhered strictly to the classical conventions of these genres. Warda later wrote some love poems in which she employed various devices to disassociate herself from the feelings expressed, possibly because the expression of such feelings was still considered inappropriate in women. This factor along with her rigid conventionality rendered her poetry sterile and unoriginal. To-day her work is considered more of historical importance that of literary significance.
A'isha al-Taymuriyya (1840-1902), a member of a Turco-Egyptian aristocratic family, is the most important woman poet of the 19th century Neo-Classical school. She wrote poetry, not only in Arabic but also in Persian and Turkish, which was published in two volumes, the Arabic in The Embellishments of the Embroiderer (a title which reflects the traditional nature of the work) and the Turkish and Persian in Shakufah (1986). She took AIKhansa' as her model and was considered by her contemporaries the greatest
L'k Al Khansa' she excelled in the compositon of elegies
poetess smce. I e - . H fi t man of which were inspired by the deaths of famIly members .. er mes
oe~s are those lamenting the death of her beloved da.u,ghter Tawhlda where ~he depth of her feelings enabled her to overcome ~radltlon and convent~n ~o
her ain and grief in a deep and genume manner. Althoug s e ~~~~~~~ a m~e persona in her love poetry, it had an individuality and d;pth of feeling not found in that of her contemporaries. Many other wom~n .ro~ liberal intellectual families wrote poetry in the style of t~e ~eo-c a~slca d
asida' much of it was published in the many women s Journa s an
    q     '.     h' h were established in Cairo and Beirut at the turn of century.
    magazmes w IC     .     d"     fi ..
    Ma     Zi ada (1886-1941) was the fIrSt wom~n to give ~ Istmct emmme
voice y:o p~etic expression while at the same time br.eakmg away from the
    .,     f the traditonal forms Mayy was born m Nazareth but spent
    restnctlOns 0     ..     I     for
most of her life in Cairo where her literary salon :vas the meetlng-:-p ace
writers and intellectuals during the second and thud decades of thiS century. As a result of her Western-style education she .knew sever~1 European Ian ua es and was generally familiar with W e~tern hteratur~, philosophy. and socral t~ought. In 1911 she published a collection of poe~r~ m ,French entitled Fleurs de Reve under the pen-name Isis Copia (a Latlnl.z~tlon of h~r own name) which showed the influence of Western RomantiCism espeCIally ~f Lamartine and Byron. As her interest in and knowl.edge of .the ArabiC language grew she decided that it was a more appropnat~ medIUm ~or t~e
. n of an Arab cultural identity. She became mterested m t e expresslO .. b'l . N th philosophical and aesthetic ideas of the MahJan poets .(l~ra eXI e~ ~ horm
America at the beginning of the century) and her work IS mfluence . ~ t e .' es ecially by its most talented and prolific member, .the romantic m~stlc Ji~ran Khalil Jibran. Under the influence of the Amencan poets, espeCIally Whitman and in a complete break with tradition the MahJan poets adopted ~ form of free verse known in Arabic as al-shir al-manthur or 'prose poetryl· Mayy Ziyada published two volumes of 'prose poetry', Wo~ds and S~?n:1 s
1922 and Darkness and Light (1923). These works which. are Ig Y ~ubje~tive in tone can be at times deeply contemplative and devotlon~l, but at others introspective, melancholic and over sentimental. However, ~ ey are. a serious attempt to articulate poetically the spiritual and emotional dilemma III which Arab woman found herself at the beginning of the 20th cen~u~y.
Despite the popular and critical success of the work o~ th~ MahJa~1 ~~ets
, rose poetry' did not take root in the heartlands of Ara.blc hterature. Cairo, leirut and Baghdad; it was too alien a form and too radical a departure ~ro: the tenets ofNeo-Classicism. However as the 20th century moved on an t e Arab world witnessed continuing political and cultura~ chan~e the ~eed f?r a new form reflecting new aesthetic values persisted. ThiS mamfested Itself In a wave of experimentation and innovation which, in the late 194~s, ,resulted I~ the birth of the 'free verse' movement. Al-Shir al-Hurr, Ara?lc free verse (which differs from the Western 'free verse'), uses some claSSical metres b~t allows for complete freedom in length of line and rhyme and relies for It.s musicality on repetition and parallellism. Salma Khadra al-JayyusI,
Palestinian poet and critic, in her Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry (Leiden 1977) attributes its success to the fact 'that it was both artistically mature and timely in that it suited the historical and psychological moment in the Arab world'.
'Free verse' was first introduced into the poetic canon by the Iraqi poetess Nazik al-Mala'ika with the publication in 1947 of her poem Cholera, written as an expression of sympathy with Egypt during its cholera epidemic. In 1949 she published a collection Splinters and Ashes (Baghdad) which included several poems in 'free verse'. The new form caused an outcry from the traditionalists but the freedom it gave while still retaining poetic rhythm attracted many of her contemporaries to it; it went on to become the most productive form in modern Arabic poetry. Her critical works also, especially Problems of Contemporary Poetry (Beirut 1962), helped to establish the new form by its efforts to define its limits and provide it with a theoretical framework. Although much of her poetry is preoccupied with pain, dissillusion and futi!ty it shows a dry wit, a detached humour and mockery and a refreshing rejection of sentimentality. Her mastery of language and her ability to match it perfectly to meaning is particularly obvious in her descriptive poetry which is laden with beautiful imagery, sometimes pure and dazzling, at others warm and sensuous. The tone of sadness which pervades her poetry she attributes to the pain of being a woman in the Arab world and the political setbacks of her people. Nazik al-Malika has published at least six collections including the very popular The Bottom of the Wave (Beirut 1957) and The Moontree (Beirut 1968); she has been and still is central to the development, both in form and content, of contemporary Arabic poetry. Her success as a poet must in some measure be due to the influence of her mother Sulaymah al-Malai'ka (1908-1953), popularly known as Umm Nizar, who was a well-known oral poet in Iraq. Although Umm Nizar's poetry was traditional in form and in its use of linguistic ornament her themes reflected the issues of the day-the national question and the position of women. After her death her daughter collected her poems and published thela in a volume entitled Songs of Glory (1965).
The Palestinian Fadwa Tuqan, a contemporary of Nazik al-Mala'ika's, is probably the most popular woman poet in the Arab world today. She was born in 1917 in the city of N ablus in what is today the West Bank and is a sister of the very popular Palestinian nationalist poet, the long deceased Ibrahim Tuqan. Fadwa Tuqan is a very prolific writer; she has published at least eight collections and contributes regularly to literary journals throughout the Arab world. Her work can be divided into two phases. Her earlier poems, in the volumes Alone with the Days (1955), I Found It (1962) and Give Us Love (1965), are mostly in the form of the traditional qaslda or ode. These poems are subjective and introspective in tone, reflecting the poet's feelings of estrangement, anxiety and emptiness; at times there is a conflict between this closed isolated world and a longing for liberation from it. Despite this there is an emotional truth and simplicity about her work
which prevents it becoming excessively sentimentl or self-pitying. After the occupation of the West Bank in 1967 Fadwa Tuqan's poetry became increasingly concerned with the tragedy, the 'deep wound', of the Palestinian people, and as it did so she gradually moved away from the rigidity of the traditional forms and adopted the liberating 'free verse'. In the second phase of her work the individual, personal pain of her early poems has become the collective pain of her people. Much of this work is typical of contemporary Palestinian poetry in its graphic and sensuous descriptions of the beauty and fertility of the land, in its depiction of Palestine as mourning mother or separated lover and in the prevailing tone of rupture and uprootedness. In the volumes The Freedom Fighter (1968), Night and the Knights (1969) and Daylight Nightmare (1974) there is an overwhelming sense ofloss-the loss of the land, of friends and loved ones, of faith and innocence. And yet this poetry is so firmly rooted in physical and emotional Palestine that it is an affirmation of it and a denial of its absolute loss.
If Fadwa Tuqan is the poetic voice of the Palestinian experience that is the West Bank then Salma Khadra al-Jayyusi could be considered the poetic voice of the Palestinian woman in exile. Born in Jordan in 1928, she grew up in Jerusalem, was educated in England and has lived in ma~y parts of the world. She is more experimental and daring than Fadwa Tuqan 10 her efforts to give artistic articulation to the dual alienation and dispossession of being a Palestinian and a woman. She has published one major collection of poems Return from the Dreaming Spring (1960) which includes what is probably her most famous poem "Without Roots", a poignant depiction of the wanderings of a Palestinian refugee. Since then she has published mainly in literary journals and magazines. Her poetry is that of the intelle.ctual and theorist, experimental and innovative in language and techmque a~d influenced by her knowledge and understanding of various Western poetic traditions. In the field of Arabic literature her work has been associated with that of the Tammuziyyin, a group of Syrian and Lebanese poets noted for their conscious use of allegory and myth, particularly that of the Tammuz or Adonis cycle.
In the late 50's and 60's Beirut became the literary centre of the Arab world; its open and multicultural atmosphere attracted writers and intellectuals from different parts of the Arab world. In spite of the political turmoil and social instability of the 70's and 80's its writers, especially its women writers, have contued to write. I say 'especially its women writers' because during this period there has emerged what could only be described as a school of 'Women's Civil War Literature', composed of both fiction writers and poets. Their work can be seen collectively as an effort to give, through the medium of literature, material and enduring form to the horror and desolation which surrounds them. They write from within the tragedy in which they are participants-the victims and perhaps the perpetrators. These themes are expressed in a diversity of form and idiom-graphic realism, symbolism, fantasy and surrealism. Huda al-Na'amani, the Damascus-born poet now resident in Beirut has succeeded in articulating
this experience in a very distinctive poetic style. In 1979 she published a collection entitled I Remember I Was a Point I was a Circle which because of its thematic wholeness, could in fact be considered one long p;em divided i~to sections. The, ,,:ork is a continuous stream of images-ambiguous, blzar:e and surrealistic, fragmented and disjointed-which races through a cosmic umverse. In th.e collection There She Is, Rolling on the Ice (1982) she uses diagrams as an IOtegral part of the artistic composition in arder to. illustrate the spatial relatianships and mavements afher symbals and images. !fer ,,:ork is deeply religiaus in tone in that much of the symbolism IS derIved from the Sufis (Muslim mystics) and their desire far ecstatic union with the Divine, and in that it seeks, by transcending destruction and death, to. reach spiritual integratian and resurrectian.
I~ 1982, Emily Nasrallah, a Lebanese writer better knawn for her prose fictIOn than far her poetry, published a 'navel', These Memories, the first part af which is written in prose and the second in paetry as if the author needed the greater freedom and flexibility af the paetic idiom to enable her to. express her feeling adequately. The wark, which is at once a love ~o.em, an anthem and a lament for Beirut, is a verbal co.llage o.f scenes and Images of the mundane, the trivial and the strikingly beautiful, of human cruelty and go.o.dness, of suffering, degradatio.n and death.
.No discuss~o.n. of co.ntempo.rary Lebanese Po.etry would be camplete without mentIo.mng two. very impo.rtant and talented women who., altho.ugh they do nat write in Arabic, canstantly affirm their Lebanese and Arab i~entity. Etel A~nan is ,a paet, no.velist and jo.urnalist who. writes mainly in French but also 10 English. Altho.ugh she has written some love paetry, most of her work has an o.bvious palitical dimensio.n. Jebu (1970) and L'Express Beyrouth-Enfer (1973) using Biblical, mythical and histo.rical allusion are a harsh and bitter denunciation of politicians and regimes and a ~ry of outrage at human suffering, especially that of the Palestinians and the Lebanese. L 'Apocalypse A rabe (1980) is an artistic campilatio.n of wo.rds and sym?ols, ful.1 o.f pain and rage, which is abscure and difficult to. interpret. Nadia Tuem also co.mes from the francaphane traditio.n in Lebano.n and her earlier work shows a strong influence af French Symbo.lism. In two. recent volumes Liban. 20 Poemes pour un Amour (1979) and Archives Sentimentales d'une Guerre au Liban (1982) the poet explo.res the persanal relationship between the individual and the natian, expresses her faith in Lebanon's capacity for rebirth and praises the strength and steadfastness of its women.
In t~is brief intro.ductio.n to. Arab wamen's poetry and the Co.ntext in which It has been written mentio.n has been made o.f a few writers only, those whose contribution to. the literature of the Arab Middle East would seem to have been especially significant. There are many o.ther women writing poetry 10 all parts of the Arab world today: Lamiah Abbas al- Imarah in Baghdad, LaIiaAliushlO Jerusalem, Alsha al-Arna'o.ut in Damascus and Fawziyya Abu Khahd 10 Riyadh, to mention but a few. Whether their Po.etry is traditional or experImental 10 form, whether it is allego.rical, mystical or romantic, it all reflects the same thematic conccrns: the desire for a redefinition of
the self, of both the individual and the collective, which is at once female and Arab, and an exploration of the problems and tensions inherent in such a dual allegiance. In their political consciousness and their efforts to develop an appropriate aesthetic, contemporary Arab women poets are part of a wider literary movement which since the 1950's has considered 'commitment' a legitimate, perhaps even an essential, characteristic of contemporary Arabic literature. In their quest for a dual identity, personal and political, they share the concerns of women writers in many parts of the developing world, especially in Africa and Latin America.
Until fairly recently Arabic literature has been almost completely unavailable to Western readers; in recent years that situation has been changing as both prose and poetry are gradually being published in translation. To date one collection of women's poetry has been published in English Women of the Fertile Crescent (ed. Kamal Boullata, Washington 1978); some poems by women are also included in Modern Arab Poetry (ed. and Translated by Issa Boullata, London 1976), Women and the Family in the Middle East: New Voices of change (ed. E. Fernea, Austin 1985), The Palestinian Wedding (ed. and translated by A. M. Elmessiri, Washington 1982) and A n A nthology of Modern A rabic Poetry (eds. M. Khouri and H. Algar, Berkeley 1975).
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