SIS Publications Previous Issues Issue No. 19-Fall 1999

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Book Review

Glimpses of Ahmed Shawki’s Life and Works

    A new outstanding translation into English verse of his play "Majnun Laila" by Dr. Jeanette W. S. Attiya

    "Ahmad Shawqi is the only poet in the Arab literary tradition who was granted the title of " Amir al- Sho’araa’, literally trhe ‘Prince of Poets (1927). His twofold contribution to the arab literary tradition residesnot only in a sizable body of poems published in an anthology known as " Sawqiyyat’' , but also in his pioneering introduction of poetic drama into the Arabic literary tradition. Commenting on Shawqi’s use of rhymed verse in drama for the first time, critic Taher at-Tanahi (1967) popints out that Shawqi did for Arabic literature what Shakespeare had done for English literature.

    Shawqi was born in Cairo, in 1870, during the regn of Khedive Ismail in Egypt . After completing his high school education, he joined the Department of Translation of the School of Law ., His poetic genius , which had revealed itself early on, won him a scholarship to France , where he resumed his study of lawat the Universities of Montpellier and Paris , respectively.It was during his stay in France that he was heavily iinfluenced by French drama , particularly the plays of Moliere and Racine. back home , he was appointed at the court of Khedive Abbas. Upon the outbreak of World War I, the Khedive was dethroned and Shawqi himsellf was exiled to Spain. . When the war was over , he returned to Egypt where he became a member of the Parliament. Hedied in 1932.

    The important events in Shawqi’s life shaped his poetic output, so that it consists of three main stages:

1- The first,that coincides with the period when he occupied a position at the court, consisted of eulogies to the Khedive: praising him or supporting his policy.

2- The second comprised the period of his exile in Spain. During this period, his feeling of nostalgia and sense of alienation directed his poetic talent to patriotic poems on Egypt as well as the Arab homeland.

3- The third stage occurred after his return from exile: during that period he became preoccupied with the glorious past history of Pharaonic Egypy and Islam. That was the time he wrote his religious poems such as The imitation of al- Burda , in praise of Prophet Mohammad. to this pertiod , marked by maturationm of his poetic talent, also belong his dramas.

    As a poet , Shawqi belongs to the classical school, which was mainly influenced by the poet Mahmoud Sami al-Baroudi. His classicism is manifested in his ahderence to a unified pattern of rhyme throughout a poem; and also in his view of a line of poetry as a self-contained unit. Although he used traditional poetic forms, he imbued them with the fineness and genius of his talent.In content, he departed from the genres established by the old Arab poets: since many of his poems are rootedin the socio-plitical climate of his time.

    Shawqi’s dramatic contribution does not only in his introduction of poetic drama, but also in colloquial Arabic that had becomeso common in his time.

    Shawqi wrote seven plays: six tragedies and one comedy. Three out of the six are historical plays with patriotic themes: The Death of Cleopatra, Qambeez and Ali Bey Al-Kabeer.

    The other three plays are more embedded in the Arab Islamic background: namely, Majnun Laila, Antara and The Princess of Andalusia.

    His greatest play is The Death of Cleopatra, where Shawqi portrays his own version of as a woman torn between her love and her sense of duty towards her country. Shawqi interprets the events of of the battle of Actium to show that Cleopatra’s patriotism truimphs over her love for Antonio.

    The play "Majnun Laila", literally " Laila’s Love Lunatic" , writtenin 1931, is considered as one of Shawqi’s major plays, ranking second in importance to The death of Cleopatra. The play was translated into English verse by Dr. Jeannette W.S. Attiya, professor of English at Ein Shams University, Cairo. In spite of the dificulties normally involved in translating Arab poetic works that were written in a setting unfamiliar to English-speaking readers, the translator managed to produce a masterpiece of translation, rendered in beautiful, smooth and higly communicative English verse.

Courtsy to Dr. Jeannette W. S. Attiya, Ahmad Shawqi’s Qais and Laila, ( Majnun Laila), Translated into English Verse, published by The Egyptian General Book Organisation, Cairo, 1990.


O’ God !

I wander all day and pine through time,
And seek some comfort in my rhyme.
The noblest of rhymes overflow with love,
The sweetest line - the musical and pure -
Are written down for the heart as a cure.
Men turn as they pay to the holy place;
To Laila’s home I turn my face.
Twice people say their payers at dawn;
When I think 0of her’
I know not the times I repeat my own,
Laila hid behind a crowd;
Her lip betrayed a smile,
Like the break of morn,
Or the sun as it shone.
Her sweet breath filled the air,
Made perfumed roses seem less fair.
A shiver ran through my form
From head to toe
As though my eye had met her own.
Let’s love:
All men are mortal but love never dies:
Laila and I loved with young eyes:
Our love story which is now alive,
To our successors will continue to survive.
Generations of men will die and go past,
But our true love will forever last.