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Fadwa Tuqan, Poet (1917-2003)

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 23.05.2006:

”It would be enough for me to die in my country, to be buried, to dissolve and be annihilated”

Fadwa Tuqan is the grande dame of Palestinian letters. She is considered one of the best pioneering contemporary Arab poets. Born in 1917 to one of Nablus?s leading families, Tuqan, whose work has won several international prizes, knew Palestine under British rule, the creation of the state of Israel, the occupation, and Palestinian autonomy. Although she grew up in an environment favourable to artistic ferment ? her brother, the poet Ibrahim Tuqan, introduced her to poetry ? she suffered in her ultra-traditional family as an unwanted child, with a despotic father and a submissive mother and was not allowed to go to school. In “A Mountainous Journey,” she tells the moving story of her childhood and adolescence, encircled by rigidities and rules. The power of her vocation as a poet and the help of her brother enabled her to find personal freedom and ultimately express her solidarity with her people. In the second volume of her memoirs, Tuqan tells of her sufferings and hopes for a lasting peace, and of her friends, Palestinian and Israeli, with testimonies of the understanding and support she received from them.

The refined poet started her career writing about nature, love, loneliness, and sadness before turning to nationalist themes after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. She began writing in the traditional form, but was one of the leaders of the use of the free verse in Arabic poetry. Her works deal with feminine explorations of love and social protest. She is called the poet of love and pain, because her poetry deals with themes of personal and national love and loss. After 1967, she also began writing patriotic poems. Her nationalist works tell of the struggle of her people stripped of their land and liberty, describing the cruelty of the occupation. She is also the author of many academic researches focusing on the role of Palestinian women in resisting the Israeli occupation.

The Deluge and the Tree

When the hurricane swirled and spread its deluge

of dark evil

onto the good green land

“They” gloated. The western skies

reverberated with joyous accounts:

“The Tree has fallen!

The great trunk is smashed! The hurricane

leaves no life in the Tree!”

Had the Tree really fallen?

Never! Not with our red streams flowing forever,

not while the wine of our torn limbs

feed the thirsty roots,

Arab roots alive

tunneling deep, deep, into the land!

When the Tree rises up, the branches

shall flourish green and fresh in the sun

the laughter of the Tree shall leaf

beneath the sun

and birds shall return

Undoubtedly, the birds shall return.

The birds shall return

-translated by Naomi Shihab Nye with the help of Salma Khadra Jayyusi

Tuqan is the most productive of all Arab women poets. Between 1958 and 1970 she published five volumes of poetry. Her second volume, entitled “I Found It,” is considered her actual mature beginning whereby she is more forward, more adventurous and more courageous. Critics like Salma Khadra Jayyusi assert that she was the first Arab woman poet to talk openly about love, proclaiming that “Fadwa’s mounting candour about her emotional life as portrayed in her verse remains an amazing feat of pioneering courage.” Among her collections are “I Found It” (1958), “In Front of the Closed Door” (1967), “Horsemen and the Night” (1969) and “Alone on the Summit of the World” (1973). Her work is represented in English translation in several major anthologies including “Modern Arabic Poetry, An Anthology” (Columbia University Press, 1987).

A poet all her life, Tuqan’s first attempt at writing prose is her autobiography, entitled “A Mountainous Journey,” her richest contribution to Arab women’s literature which was first published in Arabic in 1985 and in English in 1990 by the Women’s Press, London. For an Arab woman, regardless of her age, to write an autobiography is not an easy task because of social constraints on the one hand and the constraints of the form itself on the other. However, Tuqan assumed the necessary courage to write about her childhood and adolescence in Nablus, a very conservative city, in the early decades of this century. This autobiography ends with the 1967 war. Later on it was followed by the second part entitled “The Most Difficult Journey,” which spans the segment of her life after the Israeli occupation of 1967.

Tuqan received the International Poetry Award in Palermo, Italy. She was awarded the Jerusalem Medal for literary achievement by the PLO and the Sultan Uweis Prize for Poetry in 1990. She also received the honorary Palestine Prize for Poetry in 1996. Tuqan was the subject of a documentary film “Fadwa… A Tale of a Palestinian Poetess,” (1999) directed by novelist and filmmaker Liana Badr based on Badr’s 1996 study of the poet titled “Fadwa Tuqan: The Shadow of Narrated Words.”

Tuqan died in her hometown of Nablus on December 12, 2003, after being in a coma for several days following a stroke. She will be remembered for her undying love for the land and people of Palestine. In an insert published in major Palestinian newspapers, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization presented their condolences to her family referring to her as “Palestine’s great poetess.”

Enough for Me

Enough for me to die on her earth

be buried in her

to melt and vanish into her soil

then sprout forth as a flower

played with by a child from my country.

Enough for me to remain

in my country’s embrace

to be in her close as a handful of dust

a sprig of grass a flower.

-translated by Naomi Shihab Nye with the help of Salma Khadra Jayyusi

Compiled by Osama Daher


Modern Arabic Poetry, An Anthology edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi, Columbia University Press, 1987.

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