15 Arab Poets of the 21st Century
By: Cait O’Connor/ Arab America Contributing Writer
Poetry is sometimes referred to as “the language of the Arabs.” As an oral tradition, poetry predates Islam itself. The ode, the signature poem of the Arab world, has influenced many global literary traditions. It is both a cornerstone of Arab poetry and an icon of passionate, emotional expression.
The earliest Arab societies used poetry to express beauty, divinity, and impressions of faith. Poets were revered members of society, conveying their stories and lessons through music.
Arab poets of this century have both continued this tradition and fundamentally altered its forms and means of expression. The poets below reflect on subjects ranging from love and intimacy to oppression and persecution, all seeking to establish a unique voice and sense of identity. Their work tells an intimate story of the social injustice, discrimination, and political strife they have experienced. At times of heightened political and cultural tension, poetry is an excellent means of expression, addressing essential human passions and struggles and bridging divides in ways that other mediums cannot.
1. Adonis (1930-)
Adonis, born Ali Ahmad Said Esber in the Syrian countryside, took on the name of the Greek goddess of fertility after starting his poetry career as a teenager. He was helped in this endeavor by his father, who taught him to read and encouraged him to memorize poems. After reciting a poem to the president of Syria, he received funds to enroll in Damascus University.
Adonis was politically active in his teen years, and as a result, was imprisoned for a year. After his sentence was complete, he moved to Beirut and helped found two major literary journals: Sh’ir and Mawaqif.
Adonis’ style is experimental and innovative, utilizing free verse, prose, and varying meter. He believes that “the poem is meant to be a network rather than a single rope of thought.” His poem Desert exemplifies his experimentation, as it is unique in structure and powerful in content.
His most famous compilations are Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs (2008) and The Blood of Adonis (1971), which won the International Poetry Forum’s Syria-Lebanon Award.
He is also the recipient of the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Award and the Norwegian Academy for Literature and Freedom of Expression’s Bjornson Prize. He has worked as a professor, poetry theorist, and essayist, and he currently resides in Paris with his wife and two daughters.
A Time Between Ashes and Roses
A child stammers, the face of Jaffa is a child/How can withered trees blossom?
A time between ashes and roses is coming
When everything shall be extinguished
When everything shall begin
2. Ahlam Mosteghanemi (1953-)
Ahlam Mosteghanemi was born in Tunis. Originally of Algerian descent, her father, a militant political activist, was exiled to Tunisia during the Algerian liberation war. When she was nine, her family moved back to Algeria. In 1970, her father sustained serious injury from an assassination attempt, leaving Ahlam to provide for her family.
At age 17 she began hosting the popular radio show Hammassat (Whispers). In 1973 she became the first Algerian woman to publish a book in Arabic, publishing her second only three years later. Mostephanemi was among the first generation in Algeria permitted to study Arabic at the end of French colonial occupation, a major step in a largely French-speaking society. She faced heavy criticism and sexism as an Arabic-speaking, female author. After receiving her B.A. of Literature from the University of Algiers, the school refused her enrollment in a master’s program, arguing that her feminist work was detrimental to the student body. She was also expelled from the Union of Algerian Writers for a lack of conformity.
In 1976 she married a Lebanese man in Paris and began studying at the Sorbonne. In 1982 she received a doctorate in Sociology. Her thesis explored gender roles in Algerian society. In 1993 she moved back to Lebanon and published her critically acclaimed, provocative novel “Memory of the Flesh.” The poetic work tells a moving love story imbued with political reflections on women’s rights and the struggles of a post-colonial generation. Her voice reflected and resonated with millions of readers across the Arab world.
She would pursue continued literary success with the publication of a sequel and trilogy to her original novel. Her later two books were also met with much acclaim. Her works have sold over 2 million copies. In 2006 Forbes magazine identified Mosteghanemi as the most successful Arabic writer. More recently, in 2016, UNESCO awarded her the prestigious Artist for Peace distinction.
3. Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964)
Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, one of the most beloved poets across the Arab world, was born into a family of date farmers in the countryside of Iraq. When Sayyab was six, his mother passed away during childbirth. Her death would have a profound effect on Sayyab and his future poetic works, often reflecting on motherhood and the homeland in his writing.
He moved in with his grandparents after his mother’s death, at which point he began attending secondary school. His observations of the disparities between classes at this time would inspire much of his later Marxist works. In the 1940s Sayyab identified more and more strongly with the Communist party.
In 1946 he broke with the traditions of Arabic verse poetry and founded the Arab Free Verse Movement with fellow poet Nazik al-Malaika. Their foundation of this movement pushed Iraq to embrace modernism, both in its literary and political realm. In 1948 he published his first compilation, entitled Withered Flowers. He worked briefly as a teacher but was then imprisoned for his communist affiliations. He worked several odd jobs following his imprisonment, remaining politically active all the while.
Eventually, however, he abandoned the political message in his poetry. He married in 1955 and had a daughter the following year. In 1958 he was named the “Prophet of the 14 July 1958 Revolution” for his politically inspirational poems. One of his final, yet most popular poems written during this time was his work Rain Song.
4. Fadwa Tuqan (1917-2003)
Fadwa Tuqan was born to a wealthy Palestinian family in the town of Nablus. Her poetry would undergo a transformation from social to political, especially following the destruction of her homeland. In the early stages of her life, however, she wrote primarily about her status as an Arab woman. Her poetry changed structurally as well, beginning in the classical style and later evolving into the modern free verse style. In her combination of romantic themes and social protest, Mahmoud Darwish named her “the mother of Palestinian poetry.”
Following the fall of Nablus to Israeli forces in 1967, Tuqan focused her energy on protesting the Israeli occupation through her poems. She published over twelve diwans, or poetry compilations. She wrote her autobiography in 1990, revealing once again the limitations and restrictions she endured as a woman. In 1999, a film was produced about Tuqan’s life. Tuqan remained unmarried, and she would continue writing until her death in 2003.
In her poem Martyrs of the Intifada, Tuqan reflects on Palestinian stone-throwers protesting the loss of their homeland:
They died standing, blazing on the road
Shining like stars, their lips pressed to the lips of life
They stood up in the face of death
Then disappeared like the sun.
5. Ghada Al-Samman (1942-)
Ghada Al-Samman was born in Syria. Her mother died when she was young, but her father, a university professor, played an instrumental role in her life and future work. He instilled in his daughter an appreciation for Western and Arabic literature. She studied at a French school in Damascus, then at the American University of Beirut. She published Your Eyes are My Destiny, a book of short stories, in 1962. After graduating, she worked as a journalist and published her second collection, No Sea in Beirut, in 1965. Beginning in 1966 she began work as a correspondent, traveling the world and gaining material for her writing.
She was especially impacted by the devastating Six-Day War fought in 1967 between Israel and Egypt. Her article I Carry My Shame in London in response to the conflict became very popular, praised for its realist tone. After this point Samman would focus on portraying social realities in her journalistic pieces, leaving the fictional world behind. In her 1973 publication The Departure of Old Ports, she discussed the struggles of Arab intellectuals and their conflict between inner thought and outer action. She is very highly regarded for this philosophical work.
In the interim period before her marriage in 1960, Samman was regarded as a kind of “fallen women,” living without a father or husband to care for her and no children to raise. This stigma troubled her and encouraged her feminist writings. Her work and her outspoken personality have been highly criticized, yet she eventually founded her own publishing house and continues to publish pieces from her home in Paris.
6. Ghassan Zaqtan (1954-)
Born in Palestine, Ghassan Zaqtan has lived in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia. He has published several collections, largely written in Arabic and based on his own memories and personal experiences.
Zaqtan has had a huge influence on the literary scene within his native Palestine. As a major supporter of the resistance, Zaqtan worked as an editor of Bayader, the magazine of the PLO. He is also the founder and director of the House of Poetry in Ramallah and previously worked as the director of the Palestinian Ministry of Culture’s Literature and Publishing Department.
Fady Joudah and Ghassan Zaqtan recite several poems from Zaqtan’s most famous work, Like a Straw Bird, it Follows Me.
7. Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008)
Known as the “poet of Palestine,” Mahmoud Darwish grew up in Galilee. After his village was destroyed, he traveled illegally as an “internal refugee,” reciting poems all the while. Darwish was placed under house arrest and eventually exiled from the region after his poem Identity Card was used as a revolutionary song.
In 1970 he moved to Moscow, then to Cairo a year later. He worked at the Al-Ahram newspaper while in Egypt. In 1973 he moved to Beirut and wrote for the Palestinian Affairs journal. Committed to the Palestinian cause, he served on the executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization from 1973 to 1982. In 1996, his exile was lifted and he returned to Israel and Palestine.
Naturally, Darwish’s poetry largely disparages the Israeli occupation and the destruction of Palestinian land. His poems portray loss and dispossession. Forché and Runir, in the introduction to Darwish’s 2003 compilation, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, write that:
“As much as Darwish is the voice of the Palestinian Diaspora, he is the voice of the fragmented soul.”
He has published over thirty books of poetry and is the recipient of many critical awards, including the Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize.
In reflecting on the nature of identity in the face of terror and oppression, Darwish writes in his poem In Jerusalem:
8. Malak Hifni Nasif (1886-1918)
Malak Hifni Nasif was an Egyptian writer and feminist. Born into a middle-class family in Cairo, Nasif’s parents were very supportive of her education. She began reading and writing poetry from a young age. She graduated from the Saniyyah Teacher Training college at the top of her class. She got a job teaching at her old primary school but was forced to quit after getting married in 1907. She and her husband moved to the desert, where she began writing under a pseudonym.
Upon finding out that her husband had a second wife and family, however, she used her writing to voice her concerns regarding society’s poor treatment of women. Her experience motivated her to criticize polygamy directly. She also believed that women should have the right to divorce and that the legal age of marriage should be raised to 16.
Nasif contributed to the feminist discourse at a critical time in the country’s history, when the intellectual and political status of women was highly debated. While other feminists of her time used unveiling as a symbol of liberation, Nasif opposed this tradition. She instead believed that foregoing the veil was simply an assumption of Western fashion trends, not representative of any real increase in personal freedom. She pointed out that women could just as easily be ordered by men to unveil as to veil. Practically speaking, she argued that the veil as a cultural tradition would be difficult to abandon.
Nasif was a huge proponent of women’s education. Her favored method and practice of instruction varied over her lifetime, however. Although her background in traditional education informed her support of formal schooling, she came to regard practical and moral re-education as a better solution to the oppression of women and girls. She believed that Egypt ought to regain control over its school system, abandoning the culturally repressive missionary schools. Furthermore, she believed that childrearing practices at the time were detrimental to the educational levels of young children. Nasif believed that children should first be taught empathy and other moral traits in addition to proper physical and mental health practices. She advocated for greater access to healthcare for women and the continued instruction of Islam in the home.
Click here to find a reading of Nasif’s work at the 2015 International Women’s Day “Celebration of Speech” event.
9. May Ziade (1886-1941)
May Ziade was a Lebanese-Palestinian poet and author whose works helped introduce and reinforce the feminist agenda. Born in Nazareth, she was sent at the age of 14 to a French convent school for girls. There she was exposed to French and Romantic literature. In 1908 her family migrated to Egypt, where her father founded the “Al Mahroussah” newspaper, to which Ziade would contribute several articles. She also wrote fictional works with strong female characters. She frequently reflected on women’s issues and freedoms, asking:
“If you, men of the East, keep the core of slavery in your homes, represented by your wives and daughters, will the children of slaves be free?”
Along with poetry, Ziade was also a well-respected journalist and an avid linguist. In her lifetime, she maintained a working knowledge of English, Italian, German, Spanish, and Latin in addition to her native Arabic and fluent French.
Ziade mainly communicated her feminist ideas through written works, yet she was obsessed with the idea of women’s liberation through the eradication of old, ignorant traditions. She believed that femininity and female empowerment worked hand-in-hand, that one did not have to come at the expense of the other. Being a highly cultured and educated woman herself, she advocated especially for women’s education, voting rights, and equal government representation.
Her diverse literary skills made her a well-known writer throughout many academic circles. The literary salon she established in 1912 was highly popular and heavily frequented by famous intellectuals eager to collaborate with Ziade. She was among the first to institute such a cultural hub, popular in Western intellectual circles, in the Arab world. Although she never married, she continuously maintained a written romantic correspondence with fellow poet Khalil Gibran. She is in part responsible for introducing his work to Egyptians. Read Gibran’s letter to Ziade lamenting Syria’s suffering here.
Ziade suffered great losses during the years 1928-1932, including the death of her parents, friends, and Gibran himself. She became depressed and returned to Lebanon, where her family members forced her into a psychiatric ward against her will. She was allegedly hospitalized for her expression of “feminist sentiments.” Her relatives continuously fought against her literary ambitions and pleas for release. Eventually, fellow poet Amin al-Rihani freed Ziade from the institution, helping her prove she was of sound mental health. Ziade returned to Cairo in 1941 and died there later that year.
10. Muzaffar Al-Nawab (1934-)
Muzaffar al-Nawab is considered one of Iraq’s most famous poets. Born in Baghdad, Al-Nawab’s life and work are deeply influenced by the conflict around him. He attended the University of Baghdad, and shortly after, he joined the Iraqi Communist Party. The Hashemite Regime tortured Al-Nawab during his time with the party. In 1958 he was appointed Minister of Education following the Iraqi Revolution, but in 1963 he was forced to leave Iraq. Before fleeing, he was captured and tortured by the Iranian secret police.
One of his poems earned him a death sentence under the tyrannical government, which later reduced his sentence to life imprisonment. Al-Nawab escaped from prison by digging an underground tunnel through which he fled to the marshlands, joining a communist faction determined to overthrow the government. He spent several years living in exile in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Eritrea before returning to Iraq in 2011.
His work is revolutionary-minded and politically charged, reflective of his experiences with tyranny and oppression. He is highly critical of Arab dictators, and his inflammatory work was banned across the Arab world during the 1970s. Leftists latched onto his political sentiments, however, and his poems were distributed illegally, recorded on cassette tapes. His work is novel in its use of spoken dialect, crafting poems from the everyday speech of southern Iraq. Much of his work has been set to music.
No official compilation of Al-Nawab’s work has yet been published, as he scorned mainstream media and publications throughout his exile. Among his most famous poems is The Tavern, presumably written around 1970 in the midst of his exile. The tavern reference is perhaps a nod to the Sufi tradition, in which taverns and wine drinking serve as controversial metaphors for genuine, divine love.
11. Nazik al-Malaika (1923-2007)
As the main founder of the Arab Free Verse Movement, Nazik al-Malaika is among the leaders of Iraq’s cultural renaissance in the 20th century. Combining influences from both Shakespeare and classical Arab poetry, she pioneered a genre that allowed for greater freedom of expression and form. The new form enabled more powerful political expression. Malaika frequently wrote about honor killings and women’s rights. One of her most famous poems, To Wash Disgrace, discusses the enormous sacrifices of “honor” as perceived by a patriarchal society.
Malaika was born in Baghdad to a family of writers. Her mother was a poet and her father was an editor and Arabic teacher. She began writing classical Arabic poems at the age of 10. She studied classical Arabic poetry and modern literature at the Higher Teachers Training College in Baghdad. She received a scholarship to Princeton upon graduation but instead earned her master’s of comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin.
She moved back to Baghdad and got married upon completing her master’s. She and her husband together founded the University of Basra and then moved to Kuwait. The two were forced to return to Iraq, however, after Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1990. She moved to Cairo in 1991, following the end of the Gulf War.
Her most famous volume of poetry, Shrapnel and Ashes, was published in 1949. In classical Arab poetry, each verse ends with the same rhyme scheme and each line has the same number of beats. Malaika’s compilation was among the first to experiment with free verse, in which lines and verses often go unrhymed and unmetered. Her work in this compilation ranges from the political to the highly emotional, often reflecting on the nature of alienation and the fear of loneliness.
In her poem Revolt Against the Sun, she mocks the common perception of women as weak and easily disposed to crying, incapable of satire.
12. Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998)
Nizar Qabbani was a Syrian poet, diplomat, and publisher often referred to as “Syria’s National Poet.” He was born in Damascus to a merchant family and studied at the Scientific College School and Damascus University. He wrote his first poetic compilation, The Brunette Told Me, while in college.
After earning a degree in law, he served as a diplomat for Syrian embassies in Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Britain, China, and Spain. In 1966 he retired to Lebanon and founded the Manshurat Nizar Qabbani publishing company.
He wrote most of his poetry while living in Lebanon. Although he initially wrote in classic Arabic meter, his later work in free verse helped integrate the modern style into traditional Arabic poetry.
His poetry is romantic and erotic, using simple, elegant language to explore the meaning and mystery of love. Much of his work has been set to music, making his verses hugely popular across the Arab world. He is famous for capturing the rhythm of everyday Syrian speech.
When Qabbani was 15, his older sister committed suicide to avoid marrying a man she did not love. Qabbani was deeply affected by his sister’s death. He would go on to write about the romantic struggles and perceptions of Muslim women in traditional societies. His work was ahead of its time in terms of its feminist and social justice initiatives. He sometimes took on a political tone when lamenting the state of his homeland and the Palestinian exodus. He frequently wrote from the perspective of women caught in the cultural divide, ultimately advocating for greater personal freedoms for women. He argued that:
Love in the Arab world is like a prisoner, and I want to set (it) free. I want to free the Arab soul, sense, and body with my poetry.
His most popular work is a 1961 collection entitled Habibti (My Beloved). In 1993 he published a comprehensive volume entitled Arabian Love Poems. Qabbani was married twice over the course of his life. He had five children, two of whom succeed him today.
“My Lover Asks Me:”
My lover asks me:
‘What is the difference between me and the sky?’
The difference, my love, is that when you laugh,
I forget about the sky.
13. Saadi Youssef (1934-)
Born in Iraq, Saadi Youssef is one of the most important contemporary Arab poets. He was convicted as a political prisoner in Iraq and was exiled for much of his life. During his exile, he worked as a journalist throughout the MENA region. He currently resides in London, where he translates English literature into Arabic.
His poem from America, America reflects on the American invasion of Iraq and the humanity of its citizens.
14. Salma Jayyusi (1926-)
Salma Jayyusi is a Palestinian poet and translator most famous for her creation of the Project of Translation from Arabic (PROTA) in 1980, which translates Arabic literature into English. She was born in the Jordanian city of al-Salt and attended the American University of Beirut, where she studied Arabic and English literature. She married a Jordanian diplomat and had three children.
Unlike some of her contemporary poets, Jayyusi was unconvinced of modernism’s superiority over traditional forms. She fought for the integrity of the traditional lyric verses, writing for both traditional and modern publications in Beirut. In 1990 she created East-West Nexus, an organization dedicated to correcting mistaken stereotypes by presenting the realities of Arab and Islamic culture in English. Together, PROTA and East-West nexus have compiled 50 volumes of critical information about Arab culture and literature.
In 1960, she published her compilation Return from the Dreamy Fountain. She worked for many years as a professor at universities in Khartoum and Algiers. She has also toured and taught in London and the United States, although she currently resides in Jordan.
Her poem The Ship of Love exemplifies her mixture of traditional and contemporary styles in an emotionally-charged piece.
15. Taha Muhammad Ali (1931-2011)
Taha Muhammad Ali was born in Galilee, Palestine in 1931. During the Arab-Israeli War, he moved to Lebanon with his family, then to Nazareth to open a souvenir shop. He began writing poetry in the 1970s after training himself in classical Arabic and American literature.
Ali frequently uses dark humor to convey village life in conflict. His style is a unique combination of formal fus’ha Arabic and colloquial language. His poems are often unmetered and unrhymed, yet powerfully crafted to convey political sentiments.
After gaining recognition, Ali traveled through the U.S. and Europe to read his works aloud.
In his famous and moving poem Meeting at an Airport, Ali recalls his intensely emotional reunion with his childhood love, Amira, from whom he was separated after leaving Lebanon. The distance and longing of this relationship is a larger metaphor for the loss of his Palestinian homeland.