Stanzas of Defiance: The Powerful Poetry of Egyptian Women
Aisha Taymur, Gamila El Alaily, Doria Shafik, Céline Axelos, Joyce Mansour and Sabrina Mahfouz are just six of the many Egyptian writers who have inspired generations with their powerful poetry. These six exceptional poetesses see work as a form of unlimited expression, inviting readers into their worlds, to understand their struggles and victories.
Aisha Taymour was one of Egypt’s most distinguished poets, novelists and social activists. Born in 1840 into a family of Kurdish descent and literary roots, Taymur was a symbol of the women’s liberation movement since Ottoman rule. She was well acquainted with the Holy Quran and Islamic jurisprudence, and also wrote poetry in Arabic, Turkish and Persian.
Taymur used traditional poetic devices in her poetry – she wrote about women defying societal expectations, especially during 19th century Egypt, the concept of love towards others, as well as love in the religion. Her writings on how love reflects a deep connection with God, which has led many to consider her a Sufi poet. She wrote many poems about women’s relationship with the veil; in one of his most famous religious poems’Be Yad Al E’faf Asoon Izz Hijabi ‘(With the hand of pure virtue, I guard the power of my hijāb, 1894), she made it clear that the veil instilled in her pride, honored her position in society. It is believed that one of Taymur’s most iconic poems, perhaps the ‘the best of its kind in modern times“was about her mourning the loss of her eldest the girl Tawidah. She wrote phenomenal poems about how the loss of a child can affect a person’s life and wrote many elegies lamenting her own loss and grief. Below is an excerpt from Taymur’s most famous elegy, Hilyat Al Tirazmourning the loss of his daughter.
بنتاه يا كبدي ولوعة مهجتي O my daughter…my sorrow
قد زال صفو شأنه التكدير Sweet placidity, is now so confused
لا توصي ثكلي قد أذاب فؤادها Never ask a bereaved mother
حزن عليك وحسرة وزفير Whose heart melted with sighs and sorrow
وبقبلتي ثغراً تقضي نحبه With a kiss on your face,
فحرمت طيب شذاه وهو عطي Departure has come, Drifting me from your perfumed ai
والله لا أسلو التلاوة والدعا To God I solemnly swear never to cease
ما غردت فوق الغصون طيور pray, as long as life continues to be
كلا ولا أنسى زفير توجعي No, and I will never dare to forget
والقد منك لدي الثرى مدثور The burning sighs of sorrow, as I laid you down to your eternal rest
Gamila El Alaily
Considered a key figure in the revival of modern Egyptian art, Gamila El Alaily was an Egyptian poet and essayist, who broke new ground for women in the Arab world and inspired a generation of writers. El Alaily was born in 1907 in Mansoura, but moved to Cairo as a young woman early in her career. She began her career contributing poems to the famous Egyptian literary journal Apollo, and later became the only female member of the Apollo Society, a group of modernist writers and artists in Cairo. Like a writer, El Alaily discussed philosophy, ethics and the role of women in society. In 1936, she published Sada Ahlami (The echo of my dreams), which was the first of his three volumes of poetry, the second volume was Nabadat Sha’era (A Poet’s Pulse) in 1951, and the third and final one was called Sada Emany (The Echo of My Faith) in 1976. Here is an excerpt from Qalb Ghareeb (Stranger Heart) from the third collection of El Alaily.
“رباه قلبي صاد كيف أرويـه.. من ذا يهدهد ما فيه ويسقيـه؟
صوت الجحود يرن اليوم في أذني.. لولا الإباء لرحت اليوم أحكيـه
حب طهور فهل من ثم يدريـه؟
وقد غدوت وحالي في الورى عجـب.. وليس في الحب ما أخشى فأخفيـــه
― جميلة العلايلي
O God, my heart is awful. How can I revive it?
Who can put to sleep and calm my heart?
The sound of arrogance deafens my ear today,
I would have talked to him if I hadn’t been praising myself.
Strange my heart has fallen in love.
It’s pure love, anyone to perceive it?
I became flabbergasted by my ordeal,
I do not hide any of my love fears.
I ask God to inspire me.
Do I have a living heart or should I mourn his death?
Doria Shafik was an Egyptian feminist, poet, journalist and political activist. She is known for challenging oppressive social and cultural barriers for women in the mid-1940s, and was particularly praised for granting Egyptian women the right to vote. She was editor-in-chief of Bint Al Nil (Daughter of the Nile, 1948) and The New Woman (The Modern Woman, 1944). Through his numerous collections of poetry, his words have left the shadow of a gentle, intelligent and imaginative spirit. Her poetry, in which she finds comforthad a philosophical tone and his free writing touched on aspects of love, freedom, exploration and activism.
“Encountering the work of Doria Shafik has been transformative for my artistic practice. All of her work – as a poet, feminist and mother,” said Sherine Guirguis, an Egyptian-American artist.
Excerpt from Cynthia Nelson’s book “Doria Shafik Egyptian Feminist: A Woman Apart”, here is a eloquent plays by Shafik.
In this desert,
where I drown
you open more than one path.
In this silence,
the awful silence
that surrounds me,
in the torment of my becoming
you allow me
Céline Axelos was a poet, a speaker and a woman who loved letters. She was born in Alexandria in 1902 and her interest in poetry was ignited by her older brother, who died at the age of 22. Axelos wrote his poems in French and compiled them into two collections; Les Deux Chapelles (Les Deux Chapelles) in 1943, which contains 61 poems, and Les Marches d’Ivoire (The Ivory Steps) in 1052, which has 101 poems.
In 1975, she received the title of Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters.
Joyce Mansour was a French-Egyptian poet, born into an Egyptian family who lived in the UK. Mansour moved to Cairo as a child, where she not only excelled in writing, but was also Egyptian champion in the 100 meters and high jump. She began writing poetry shortly after 1942 and published her first collection of poems, screams (Screams) in 1953. His poetry was ambivalent and had elements of surrealism. His poetry is said to have drawn inspiration from ancient civilizations and cultures, such as ancient Egypt, particularly how death is seen as a transition to another reality. She was a strong supporter of the feminist movement, which was represented in her poems about the female body.
Mansour’s poems are short and have no titles, a strategy that allows readers to enter the poems unarmed.
Blue like a desert
Happy the lonely
Those who sow the sky in the greedy sand
Those who seek life under the skirts of the wind
Those who run panting after a vanished dream
Because they are the salt of the earth
Happy are the watchers on the desert ocean
Those who pursue the fennec beyond the mirage
The winged sun loses its feathers on the horizon
Eternal summer laughs at the wet grave
And if a great cry echoes in the bedridden rocks
Nobody hears nobody
The desert still howls under an impassive sky
The fixed eye hovers alone
Like the eagle at daybreak
Death swallows the dew
The snake chokes the rat
The nomad in his tent listens to the weather cry
On the gravel of insomnia
It’s all there waiting for a word already said
[From the collection Posthumes et divers (1991)]
Sabrina Mahfouz is an Anglo-Egyptian poet, playwright and screenwriter, born in 1984 and raised between London and Cairo. Her most famous works are the 2016 poetry book “How You Might Know Me” (an exploration of the lives of four sex workers), which has been named Guardian Best Summer Read, and its anthology, “The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write”. Mahfouz has produced diverse bodies of work in various forms: she has written 18 plays since 2010, as well as a collection of poetry and contributions to over 10 anthologies.
In the revolutionary smoking room
Open the window. Is not it –
despicable deplorable shameful suspect untenable untouchable delicious delicious unbelievable unstoppable grateful grateful curious
filmable tweetable this is fucking serious
inflatable questionable never tedious
remarkable reliable villain pretentious
manager blameworthy handsome fierce
– Yes. Can I have another cigarette please?
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