From Darwish To Naimy, 10 MENA Region Poets That Reshaped The Literary Art Form

In this new day and age, many art forms, especially literature as a whole, feel like they’re long gone and forgotten. One of those art forms that shouldn’t be like that at all is poetry. On the contrary, it should be celebrated and revived every chance we get. Especially in our MENA region with its beautiful, intricate Arabic languages and diversity that makes our poetry stands still to the test of time while staying true to every time and place. And on that note, to celebrate and commemorate an art form that is a pillar of our Arabic culture, here is a list of 10 MENA region poets and some suggestions on their best works that solidified and even reshaped Arabic poetry making it the stand-alone art that it is in our region.

Mahmoud Darwish

Known as the national Palestinian poet. Darwish is one of the most famous modern Arab poets. His works encompass both poems and prose publishing more than 30 volumes of poetry and 8 books of prose over the course of his literary career. His career started from a young age only writing his first poem at 17 and publishing his first volume at 19 proving that his talent is as pure and original as his words and the sentiment they hold. He was always an advocate and defender of the Palestinians and their suffering at the hands of the IDF since he witnessed it from the start of the occupation. All of his works feel like an emotional trip through a personal pain made public for the reader to feel too. His must-reads are his poem “Identity Card”, “The Girl/The Scream” and the entirety of his first poetry volume “Wingless Birds”. These will guarantee you’ll want to get a read of all his works. 

Gibran Khalil Gibran

This American-Lebanese multi-talented artist is one of a kind in poetry. Starting his artistic career as a painter, his paintings were described as spiritual and deep, just like his poems. One of his most famous writing works is “The Prophet”, a book of prose poems written in English using formal langue and spiritual terms and imagery that is centered around Christianity, and spiritual love. And due to his contemplating and deep-thinking wording and styling in writing whether in poems or prose he was known to be called a “philosopher” in the field even though he denounces it. His works are definitely a must not just to the literature fields and professionals but to anyone wanting a deep dive into their own core. 

Nazik Al-Malaika

Get ready for one of the first dramas in late modern poetry history because what is an art field without a little drama. The first part of it is about this trend-setter Iraqi poet, Nazik Al-Malaika arguably the first poet to use free-verse in the strict, traditional, rhyme structured Arabic poetry. Starting her career as a poet right after her graduation, published her first volume “The Nights Lover” in 1947, and her last book of poetry “Tree of the Moon” in 1968. Her language is easy and simple yet unattainable and unique to her, writing about various topics from social issues to personal deep feelings. This woman truly reshaped not just the structure of poetry, but the whole art form.

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

In the other half of this literary drama, this Iraqi poet was essential to modernizing Arabic poetry. In many ways than one. First, his sort lived career and hardships in his life burdened him with a lot of pain and sorrow that made his words and stanzas more than real. He was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease that made him lose mobility and bodily functions with several other lung and heart diseases over the years. Second, his forward-thinking nature and experimental writing style made him a legacy that still lives on to this day. Considered the true catalyst in creating contemporary Arabic poetry with the alleged drama between him and Nazik, but the fact is that they both started the movement with other proclaimed poets such as Abd al-Wahhab Al-Bayati and Shathel Taqa. His poems are true works of art like “Christ After Crucifixion”, “Wilting Flowers” and “The Blind Prostitute.” His most notable and critically acclaimed book of poems was “Rain Song”, in 1960. 

Elia Abo Madi

One of the most positive poets on the list, the Lebanese-American poet was all about quality than quantity. With only two volumes of poetry and a long career in journalism, his works simply elevate the psyche and always tend to find the silver lining no matter how hard the situation or the emotion is. He was also responsible for forming The Pen League, a group of immigrant poets from the Levantine region uniting their talent in New York back in 1890.

Salah Abdel Sabour

Via Alwafd

The poet who’s solely responsible for introducing free-verse poetry to Egypt. Born in 193; he was a literature fiend from the start, graduating with an Arabic literature degree in 1951 and going on a short-lived career as a high school teacher before truly committing to his one true love, Arabic poetry. His first volume “People in my Land” published in 1956 was a monument to anyone in the literary field in Egypt. Marking the begging of the free-verse movement in the country. One of his most beautiful quotes and a personal favorite is “I am not possessed with melancholy; I do rather possess it as a stimulant to achieve self-rejuvenating and higher and more conscious prospects beyond the ego.”

Nizar Qabbani

One of the most controversial yet modernists on the list is considered Syria’s national poet just like Mahmoud Darwish is for Palestine. His talent bloomed after a tragedy in his life when his older sister took her own life to escape an arranged marriage when he was 14. He wrote his first poem at 16 and published his first volume “The Brunette Told Me” in 1944. When asked about his poetry he says one of his most famous sayings “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. The relationships between men and women in our society are not healthy”. He is also considered a feminist and revolutionary. But in the Arab world, his poems are sometimes deemed as outrageous, to the point that some conservative readers or critics brand him and his work as “heathenistic.” 

Ahmed Abdel Muti Hijazi

This is the second Egyptian poet who was responsible for modernizing Arabic poetry in Egypt. Born in 1935 and published his first volume “A City Without A Heart” in 1959. He was known for his religious background and his light, delicate approach to life and different topics in his poetry. He worked as an Editor-in-Chief for many Egyptian periodicals and won many pristine awards over the course of his literary career.   

Aboul-Qacem Echabbi

Tunisia’s most renowned literary figure with statues and memorials all over his motherland. This poet is celebrated across the MENA region. Talented from a young age, his poetry hits the mark in so many ways so much so that his most famous poem “The Will To Live” was used in the National Anthem of Tunisia. It is a must-read for its strong yet easy wording and deep, reliant meaning. 

Mikhail Naimy

This Lebanese poet lived a long life and gave us the most beautiful soul-touching poetry in modern Arabic literature. He modernized not by writing in free-verse, ut the topic of writing, and imagery he used. His poems are extremely personal and relatable. As always his volumes are a must-read but there is this one poem of his in particular that captivates any reader called “The Frozen River.” Its beauty and how personal it is in detailing the feelings of the poet contemplating his deepest feelings of loneliness sitting by a frozen river. The poem topic, style, and wording are unprecedented in Arabic poetry.  

Finally, this list of poets is merely enough to cover all the great names and extremely talented Arab poets who not only lift their everlasting mark on this very delicate and emotional art form. But left anyone who reads just one of their works in awe of how deep human feelings can be and how deeper they can get using an intricate language like Arabic.

WE SAID THIS: DO NOT MISS: Why Mahmoud Darwish Should Be On The Top Of Your Reading List This World Poetry Day!

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