Glimpses of Ahmed Shawki’s Life and
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.
people say their payers at dawn;
When I think 0of her’
not the times I repeat my own,
Laila hid behind a crowd;
lip betrayed a smile,
Like the break of morn,
Or the sun as it
Her sweet breath filled the air,
Made perfumed roses
seem less fair.
A shiver ran through my form
From head to
As though my eye had met her own.
are mortal but love never dies:
Laila and I loved with young
Our love story which is now alive,
To our successors
will continue to survive.
Generations of men will die and go
But our true love will forever