Translated by: Robin Ostle (*)

Towards the end of the first half of the twentieth century, established literary history tells us that a “new” Arabic poetry emerged from its “ancient” counterpart. This new poetry was called “free verse”, the implication being that it was only ancient verse that was somehow shackled. This poetry was also called “single-foot verse”, suggesting that its newness lay in its metre. Numerous questions have arisen around this new poetry, whether we call it “free” or “single-foot”, relating to its chronology, content and form, but in spite of this we may yet have missed crucial signs marking the turning points in this poetry from the time when the first examples were published in the late 1940s to the present day when other examples are still appearing. Specialists in prosody have held forth at great length and in great detail on comparisons between the complex multi-foot sixteen metres of ancient poetry, and the six simple mono-foot metres used in the new poetry. It is as though the freedom which exists in only part of the system somehow exceeds the freedom in the system as a whole. Critics of comparative literature are constantly seeking motifs in this new poetry that originate in other languages, areas or eras, drawing comparative literature from the field of literary interaction into a minefield of literary conspiracy. Socio-political observers have focussed on the specific socio-political content of the new poetry, an approach which sets it apart from ancient poetry and diverts the attention away from its possibilities of poetic and aesthetic renewal.

Looking beyond the debate as to whether the first spark of the new poetry was al-Sayyab’s poem Was it Love or al-Mala’ika’s poem Cholera, it is difficult to find investigations into the poetic and aesthetic stirrings and hints that preceded and had a bearing on the new poetry. The few books and studies that exist about “free verse” or “single-foot verse” are well written and valuable contributions, but they only take us so far. They are rich in conclusions but not always helpful in the formulation of the fundamental questions. We are well informed on the dates, facts and historical contexts of the new poetry, and this is of course necessary, but we are less engaged with the emotional and imaginative changes in poetic taste and mood of the Arab poets at the time of the emergence of this new poetry, less involved in postulating the methodological, cognitive and aesthetic formulae of these evolutions in taste, and perhaps too easily satisfied with hasty and circular answers. We have to read and re-read this poetry again and again to go beyond the levels of chronology and form which dominate the discourse around it. Only this repeated reading that focuses on the language and images of the new poetry will enable us to reach to the core of the poetic turning points that occurred in Arabic poetry near the end of the first half of the last century; only this will enable us to embark on an historical-formal poetically and imaginatively based investigation of this poetry.

In its mood and content, it has long been claimed that the new Arabic poetry initially has been influenced by the Romantic English poets, especially Keats, Shelley and Byron, and later by modern English poets, especially T.S. Eliot and Edith Sitwell. But what exactly are the nature and extent of these influences, and what are the characteristics of the subsequent versions of these influences in the new Arabic poetry? When one comes to form, is it not something of a paradox to call this poetry “free” and “single-foot verse” at one and the same time? How far is ancient poetry “shackled” and new poetry “free”? Should prosody be the sole criterion for determining what is “free” or “shackled”, or should we be looking more at language and patterns of imagining? These questions and the need to find poetic and aesthetic responses to them are the focus of the anthological study of modern Arabic poetry which I am engaged in writing, and from which are taken these translated examples of the new poetry which are reproduced here.

What is beyond question is that on the one hand, this new poetry is a response to a long and deep emotional and poetic surge which has been integral to Arabic poetry throughout the ages, and on the other hand, this poetry marks a sharp turning point in Arabic poetry that has followed, and is still following, different courses in modern Arabic literature. Going well beyond any influence from English poetry, an influence about which I am not totally convinced, new Arabic poetry has created its own original patterns in form and content. While we have yet to explore some of the most fundamental questions which have been part of its creation, the movement of new Arabic poetry is the most authentic conductor of the cognitive and aesthetic, as well as the social, aspirations of the Arab world. It was and it still is the most significant of any Arab liberation movement. Neither has it abandoned its fundamental aims and aspirations.

Robin Ostle

Love Song to Words

Nazik al-Mala’ika

Why are we afraid of words
While they are, sometimes, palms of roses
Cool-perfumed, that passed, sweetly, over cheeks
And other times, glasses of reviving nectar
Which lips sipped, one summer, thirsty?

Why are we afraid of words?
Some of them are concealed bells
Their echo announces, from our agitated lifetimes
A generous, bewitched-dawn time
That dripped with sense, love and life
So why are we afraid of words?

We resorted to quietness
And we became silent, did not want the lips to uncover the secret.
We thought there was, in the words, a ghoul we did not see
Squatting there, the letters hiding it from the hearing of centuries
We have shackled the thirsty letters
Did not allow them to spread out the night for us
Like a cushion that drips with music, perfume, desires
And warm glasses.

Why are we afraid of words?
They are a back door to love, through which passes
Our obscure tomorrow; let us lift the veil of silence from it
It is a window of light, through which appear
Our wishes and longing
That we kept secret and enfolded in our depths
When will the boring silence discover
That we love words again?
And why are we afraid of words,
Those friends that come to us,
Spacious, with warm letters,
From the extent of our depths?
They surprise us, with the heedlessness of our lips
They make us rich; a thousand ideas come to us
From a fresh life, of a fruitful horizon
That slept in us unaware of life.
And tomorrow, the friends who care about us
Will throw them in front of us, the words
So, why don’t we love words?

Why are we afraid of words?
Some of them are words of velvet sweetness
Their letters have taken the warmth of wishes from two lips
And some are jubilant, delighted
Have passed with rosy joys and drunken eyes
Romantic words, tender
Have came touching our cheeks; letters in whose echoes
Slept a rich colour and rustle
And ardour and hidden longing.

Why are we afraid of words?
Even if their thorns have, in the past, once injured us
For they put their arms around our necks
And poured their gentle perfume on our yearning.
Even if their letters stung us
And turned their necks away from us, and did not feel for us
Yet how often they left promises in our hands
And tomorrow they will overflow us with scent, roses and life
Oh, let us fill our two glasses with words.

Tomorrow we shall build ourselves a nest of visions from words
Lofty, the ivy climbing over its letters
We will melt poetry in its engraving
We will water its flowers with words
We will build a balcony for the scent and the shy roses
With pillars of words
And a cool path that floats in a shadowy shade
The words guard it.

We have dedicated our life to a prayer
For whom shall we pray, if not for words?

Elegy on an Insipid Day

Darkness has appeared on the remote horizon
The stranger of a day has ended
Its echoes have passed towards the caves of memories.
And tomorrow my life will pass, as it was before
A thirsty lip and a glass
Its depths reflect the colour of nectar
If my lips touch it
They will find no remnant of the memory’s pleasure
They will not find even a remnant.

The stranger of a day has ended
It has ended, and even sins have lamented
Even my follies, which I called my memories
Have wept.
It has ended, nothing of it has remained in my hands
Save the memory of a tune that cries deep in me
Elegizing my hand which I emptied
Of my life and memories, and of a day of my youth
Lost in the mirage valley
In the mist.
It was a day of my life lost
I have thrown it, carelessly
Over the torn off limbs of my youth
On the hill of memory,
Over the thousands of hours that have gone astray in the mist
In the mazes of the past nights.

It was an insipid day. It was strange
That the lazy watch has ticked and counted my moments
It was not a day of my life
It was a horrible confirmation
Of the remnants of memory that I have torn up
And with it the glass that I smashed
At the grave of dead hope, behind the years
Behind me.

It was an insipid day …… until the evening
Its hours passed in something like weeping
All its hours until evening
When his voice awakened my ears
His sweet voice that I have lost
When darkness enclosed the awful horizon
And when even the remnants of my agony were erased, even my sins
And also erased was my beloved’s voice
The hand of sunset carried its echoes
To a place that slipped from my heart’s eyes
It slipped away; nothing remained save the memory and my love
And an echo of a day that is a stranger
Like my pallor
In vain I beseech it to bring back my beloved’s voice.

The Singer Grew Old

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

A while ago, when I wrote a poem, my blood would rejoice
Then I murmur
I wander between the brooks, flowers and palm trees
I chant it, I intone:
Nourishment for my soul, from the morning chirping until sunset.
Nourishment …, but my soul has shunned it
Hungering, yet not wanting
What refreshes the hopes in it.
It’s the rattle of the soul which I write as poems, gaining nothing
From them, save the bitter mockery in the features of their readers.

The singer grew old; illness broke him, the singing became confused.
A while ago when he intoned, the merry night would seize
Its swaying stars lest they fall on the roads
But today he cries a thousand ahs, yet he does not shake, at night
The palm leaves, he does not rock the boat of the wedding ceremony adorned
With antelopes’ eyes and oleander
And with drums whose throats rolled, making the air roll.

He grew old the singer, but listen to him nevertheless, you will please him
Make him believe there is, forever, a youth of tunes
And passion from which his eyes glitter, from which his mouth inhales.
He is dying, will you withhold from him
Even the wreck of flowers and branches?
Listen to him, to hear him
Elegizing youth, with no speech save a sob: “with your eyes
Salute me, when you pass by”.
She came and she saluted … believe him!
He grew old the singer, pity him.

The Day has Gone

The day has gone
Here, its wick extinguished over a horizon that flamed without fire.
And you sat waiting for the return of Sinbad from voyage
While the sea roars from behind with storms and thunder.
He will not come back
Did you not know that the Sea Goddess has imprisoned him
In a black fortress in isles of blood and oysters.
He will not come back
The day has gone
You have to leave, he will not come back.

The horizon is forests of heavy clouds and thunder
Death amongst their fruits, and some ashes of the day
Death amongst their rains, and some ashes of the day
Fear amongst their colours, and some ashes of the day
The day has gone
The day has gone.

As if your left wrist
As if your left arm
Behind its watch is a lighthouse
On a shore of death, dreaming of the ship, while waiting.
The day has gone
Impossible that time stop
The steps of time pass even graves and stones.
The day has gone, and he will not come back.

The horizon is forests of heavy clouds and thunder
Death amongst their fruits, and some ashes of the day
Death amongst their rains, and some ashes of the day
Fear amongst their colours, and some ashes of the day
The day has gone
The day has gone.

Sinbad did not protect the locks of your hair from wreck
They drank the salty water until their blond colour whitened and sank
And the many love letters
Are drenched in water, the brightness of promises effaced in them
But you sat waiting, with passionate heart, seasick:
“He will come back. No. the ship has sunk from the ocean to the seabed.
He will come back. No. The crying storm has held him prisoner.
Sinbad, will you not come back?
Youth is almost gone, the lily in the cheeks extinguished
So, when will you come back?
Ah, stretch out your hands; the heart will build its new world
With them, and ruin the world of blood and nails and frenzy,
It will build its world, if only for a moment.
Ah, when will you come back?
I wonder, will you know whenever the day is extinguished,
What the silence of fingers will know
Of the lightning of the concealed, in the darkness of being?
Let me take your hands, like ice water falling heavily
Wherever I turn my eyes there is ice water falling heavily
Into my hands it flows, in my heart it pours into the depth.
I have dreamed, many times, of your hands like two flowers at a brook
Blooming over the maze of my solitude”.

The day has gone
The sea is wide and void. No singing save the roar
Nothing appears save a sail the storm has made sway, nothing flies
Save your heart beating, over the sea’s surface, waiting.
The day has gone
Leave, then. The day has gone.


Salah Abd al-Sabur

Excuse me, friends, the trees did not fruit this year
So, I brought you the worst food
I am not stingy, only my stores are empty
Wasted are my fields of wheat.

Excuse me friends, the light is faint, meagre
And the sole candle I found in my coat pocket
I have lit for you
But it’s an age-old one, well-known, its flame is tears.

Excuse me friends, my heart is sorrowing
From where can I bring the cheerful speech?


Let it play, your throat, with words, words are air
Who can grasp it, or grasp them, those hollow words.
But these words blow like the wind on my face
Sometimes, passionate words make me feel warm
And other times they make me shiver, cold careless words.

A dreamy word
Could be born in a soft night
In the bosom of the smiling Nile.

A still word
I am about to shout to him who said it: Hush!
For the wound is ticklish from words.

A murdering word
With a thousand tongues that spit poison
Or a word that kills me, no drop of blood
And the knife-words cut the flesh
And I keep asking: what do they mean in your thoughts, the words
Words that kill with gentleness, hands free of blood
They are trifles, for you, just words
Stop it, stop it! Words are the fruits of trees
The most beautiful of the blossoms they bear
And as the good trees
Give good fruit
So the good Man
Utters only the good word
My lady, plant of the barren desert
Be frugal, be frugal with words
Hollow words.

Waiting for Night and Day

So the day died
And the side of the sun sank and turned
Then the evening broke down upon us
Like a wrecked wall and collapsed
The sheet of the sky and the earth embraced
And stained the forehead with dust
The patients’ windows, the bridges’ lights
The eyes of guards and minarets are extinguished.
The walls of darkness have piled up in the doorways of houses and storerooms
Then they fall back gloomy, pressed together, as if they are graveyards
Collapsed over the remains of a collapsed mountain.

At the end of the night, a cloud shone with light
A lean, thin cloud
It flashed red with the redness of flowers
Just a little, then it went out in the horizon’s gloom
And the day burst forth
(Redness of twilight—
The colour of my lifetime, the colour that I left in reality
And lived as memory—
The night lost you as the day lost you).

So the night died
When the sun turned on its ribs
And rushed up into the sky
The headless streets of the town breathed
Rhythmless sounds of noise
And the braziers of rays overturned
Waving in eyes, uncovering the shadows
Piercing the stone.
Morning light, you filled my heart with panic and grief
For I have seen more than I wanted to see
Bless you noon’s fire
The blaze whips the eyes, they become dim-sighted
They do not see houses and people
Save as cubes of colours and stones.

At the end of the day, Weariness creeps into the sun’s veins
The delicate grey colour appears
Even the din of the roads
Dissolves into a soft grey rhythm
(Like the colour of my days that I did not live as life
So I lived them reflecting).

A little while, and blackness descends, when the afternoon vanishes
The sun has cast a look of farewell
And it leaned against the hills.

So life goes with me
I live waiting
Will it be
A shining moment amidst the night’s deep darkness
Or a quiet moment amongst the deluge of the day?


Yusuf al-Khal

We drive away the wave of frost from our faces
We tell it spring’s story:
How the air smiles
Birds sing, and how
Trees dance
And how the kernel spreads in the earth
Its roots and the fruit is formed.

We tell it autumn’s story
When the shadows bend
And the evening lengthens, then suddenly
A star appears or the moon shines
And when the fence falls down, when
The fields spread out at a glance
Along the span of sight.

We tell it
Summer’s story that comes to us
On two wings of a warm tone
Or on a leap of a happy grasshopper
While we gather the fruits at times
And at times bring back
The memory of a cloud’s stopping here
Or there in the distance.

We drive it away
We tell it the story of all the seasons
But it
Plunges into our veins, it gets lost
We think it gets lost
But it appears, suddenly
In a hair that becomes white here
Or on a lip that is hungry.


I will wait for the harvest to come. One crescent more.
The grain spikes garbed in gold. Their beauty fills the eye.
And here is my sickle, in my hand, sharpened like a woman’s body in love.
I will harvest at the due time, when the grain spikes are sated with living and bend their necks towards life.
I will gather the crops one by one. And when they become wheat, my storehouses will savour it.
Come, brothers, and take.
In our father’s house there is poverty and hunger. It did not rain for a thousand seasons.
The soil is leprosy on the body of the earth.
Another crescent and it will pass.
And here I am waiting. My sickle is in my hand, my arm is longing for action.
Like a lover on a date, I am dreaming of the joy of meeting. My time is a heap of
Emptiness, heavy, crushing the heart.
But with hope patience is born. And with patience everything can happen:
The grass sprouts anew. The river reaches the sea. The traveller comes back to what is his. The dream crosses the threshold.
And with patience comes time.
Until it comes, rejoice you moments of lifetime, skip and shower in the now
gild your eyes with the shine of the moment.
What will come has not yet been born, and the present is our beloved son.

One crescent more.
My sickle is dancing in the field, and my storehouses are full of the season’s crops.
Come, brothers, and take.
And when the time comes, we will sow, together, for a new season.
Blessed are the hungry on earth.

The Passers-by also

Time is lost and my feet
Have lost their way at the crossroad. I found
No sign. How sure I was
That I knew where it stood
For the passers-by. Perhaps the air was storming
That day, or maybe my trust was misplaced.

And here I am
Staggering, one step here,
One step there: all my hope
Is to regain my ability to go back or
To escape the fall.

I do not say I wish
I had stayed where I came from: who
Would fill the void, change into someone else
Until the end of the bridges?
I was, at the moment
Of crossing, just one in the queue, a point
Between two worlds, each of them
The memory of the span of its illusion
Across thoughts. (It has been called revolution, new birth
And it has been called the last fortress).
I do not say I wish
I had stayed where I came from: I was a mountain
Of tears from which a veil
Dropped over the eyes. No one’s crying
(Woe unto them who saw)
Was heard, nor did
The fingers that pull get broken, clutching the roots
In the final climb. The place of the fall
Was easy on the shores, easy
As the crushing of a handful of those who resisted
Who followed the shadows, who raised
For victory, the banner of the crossing, like the constant travellers
With the sunset, with the brightness of a star on the borders.
Some of us saw
And some of us relaxed in this way
With no one to plead for them. Maybe
Hell was cool
Like leisure that is gained, and was happy
Like a body that dies (not every body dies)
The dying of a desire awakened by the fall of leaves
In autumn.

No sign, then
No vestiges of the passers-by (how not
Since passers-by pass suddenly)
Until the end of the cycle, where
The veils of darkness burst open and those
Who are in their graves rise: as if a conqueror
Although on a cross, a conqueror
In whose end is the beginning.


Amal Dunqul

How harsh is the wall
When it rises in the face of the sunrise
Perhaps we spend a whole lifetime to bore a gap
For the light to pass to generations, only once.

Perhaps if there were not this wall
We would not know the value of light unrestrained.

From: Lament of the Night and Noon

Every night
Remembrance takes off its old dusty garments
Bathes in sprinklings of light; washes, in it, the hardship of the road
And it regains the freshness of colours, and old joy.
Dewy, like the shadow, it takes off its wet slippers,
Lies down, close to me in the darkness; its skin shines:
With the scent of deep delving into the fields
With the tremor of the swinging moon in the mirrors of the Nile
With the drops that glisten around the roots of its loosened hair
With the bashful pulse that flutters in its warmness
With the twanging lisping of the mellow voice
And its arm embraces; the glowing trembles under its touch.
And the last of the lighted sacred ships set sail from their harbours,
Split the river, scatter what remains of my ashes
Over the miserable arms of autumn, then they dress,
Over the dry lips, then they quench their thirst,
Over the meadows, then the music of grasshoppers folds around the night,
In the paddocks, the stubborn colt calms down,
Over the birds' beaks, then the birds feed the nestlings on mulberries of sweet singing
In the barrenness of the sky, then good tidings throb, and the clouds gather.

O striking of the hours
Have we missed what went by?
And we, are we still
The ghosts of wishes
In the assembly of the Dead?

From: Things Happen at Night

An Artificial leg

In the hotel where I stayed a year ago
He shared a room with me
He closed the balcony
And hung the jacket on the clothes stand
And when he saw the book War and Peace
In my hands: his face became ashen
And his eyelid twitched, once
Then he tried to overcome the tremor
And told about a young girl he made love with
When he was returning from the war, without a medal
But she could not bear his weakness
And he found – when he woke – nothing but the remains of wine and food.

Then he told a story of forbidden blood
(The desert could not bear to sip it
So it stays there, its spring complaining about its summer)
And he went on telling the sad ending stories
Until his face vanished
In the clouds of smoke and speech
And when his voice thickened, and the pause got longer
I turned my head from him
Not to see his modest tears
And from the cells of my body sadness dripped
And soaked the pores.
.. .. .. ..
And when he thought I was asleep
I saw him take off his artificial leg in the dark
Uttering a deep sigh
That had burned his insides.

From: Story of the Silver City

I was carrying only a pen close to my ribs.
I was carrying only my pen.
In my hand five mirrors
Reflect the light (that reaches from my blood)
Knocking at the gate of the city:
- "Open the gate"
The guards did not reply.
- "Open the gate, I am asking for a shadow"
Came the reply: "Certainly not".
.. .. .. ..
Rain, you handful of foam which is called a cloud
Rain your hollow froth into the cup of flame
These walls did not soften to my sad knocks
And the beam of the silvery, sleek dome is boiling
In my precious mirrors
If I had a sword for the fight
If I had fifty arms
Then I could have obtained—with my Herculean faith —the keys to the city
But I am without resources.

She Said

She said: Come to me
And go up that small stair
I said: the bonds are binding me
My stepping is exhausted, does not move
Whatever I may reach, I shall not reach what you attained
And I might fail.
A small staircase
But its path in vain
So leave my place to grief
And go towards your princely morrow
For the span of life is shorter than my ambition
And grief has killed the tomorrow.

She said: I'll come down
I said: my adored one, do not come down for me
She said: I'll come down
I said: your stepping will end in the impossible
We are not to meet
Despite the union of our noble hopes.
… …
She came down to knock on stillness
The ringing of a heavy bell
Our eyes entangled in the grief of the long past
She steps towards me
And her steps strayed not one day from a path
The embrace wept
And I found nothing but the echo
But the echo.


Nazik al-Mala’ika
With her poem Cholera she shared with Badr Shakir al-Sayyab the credit for introducing the style of “free verse” into modern Arabic poetry. In her second collection of verse, Splinters and Ashes (1949), she argued in the introduction that rhyme is an obstacle which blocks the flow of poetic expression, and also suggested that the traditional monorhyme of Arabic poetry was a barrier to exceptional poetic creativity. Her book of criticism Issues in Contemporary Poetry (1962) is one of the landmarks in the study of “free verse”. Born Iraq 1923, died Egypt 2007.

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab
It is open to dispute whether he or Nazik al-Mala’ika was the first modern poet to break away from traditional Arabic prosody when he experimented with new rhythms based on the single foot as the metrical unit. Although most of his early poetry was clearly romantic in style, his first two collections, Withered Flowers (1947) and Legends (1950), contain examples of the new experimental poetry which came to be known as “free verse”, in spite of the fact that it still retains metre. This style was to be followed by many of his contemporaries and younger poets throughout the Arab world. Born in Iraq 1926, died in Kuwait 1964.

Salah ‘Abd al-Sabur
One of the leading proponents in Egypt of “free verse” in modern Arabic, he was less closely associated with the Beirut-based Poetry periodical and group of poets. His early work in the 1950s such as The People in My Country (1957) reflects the literature of political and social engagement which was much in vogue at the time, and which gave prominence to ordinary non-heroic characters. After this initial period of political commitment, his later collections such as I Say Unto You (1961), Dreams of the Ancient Knight (1964) and Meditations on a Wounded Age (1971) demonstrate an increasing interest in the mystical tradition in Arabic literature and melancholic musings on death. Born Egypt 1931, died Egypt 1981.

Yusuf al-Khal
Renowned as a poet, translator, literary critic, his name will always be associated with the launch in Beirut of the literary periodical Poetry (1957), which became one of the most influential publications in modern Arab cultural history. This periodical was the rallying point for most of the “free verse” and prose poets in the Arab world who found in it an outlet for their often revolutionary poems and critical ideas. He also ran a modern art gallery, and was a central figure in the lively literary and artistic activities of Beirut in the 1950s and 1960s. born Syria 1917, died 1987.

Amal Dunqul
One of the most gifted of the generation of Arab poets who succeeded the pioneers of “free verse”. His collection Commentary on what Happened demonstrates a sensitive grasp of the intimate details of everyday live and people around him. These are features found in all his collections of poetry, in spite of the fact that his reputation is largely based on the social and political themes which are prominent in his work. His poetic vision and achievements were much more sophisticated and universal than his reputation as a primarily political poet suggests. Born Egypt 1940, died Egypt 1983.

(*) Robin Ostle is University Lecturer in Modern Arabic; Fellow of St John's College, Oxford. Among his publications:

  • (ed.), The Quest for Freedom in Modern Arabic Literature. Special issue of Journal of Arabic Literature 26 (1995)
  • "The Romantic Revolution?", Journal of Arabic Literature 26 (1995): 93-104
  • "Modern Egyptian Renaissance Man," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (1994): 184-192
  • "The Romantic Poets," in M.M. Badawi (ed.), The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1992
  • "Literature and Art in Egypt 1914-1950: Form, Structure and Ideology," in J.C. Vatin (ed.) D'Un Orient L'Autre, Paris: Editions du C.N.R.S. 1991.