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Tribute to Warda al-Yaziji

Mid-May, 1924 — YMCA, Cairo, Egypt


Warda al-Yaziji died at the beginning of this year in Alexandra. Salim Sarkis, whose style is elegant in prefacing certain subjects and in pointing out certain matters, one day published a letter of his to Warda al-Yaziji in heaven, and at the end he told her that I was planning to study her oeuvre in the same manner in which I have studied the works of Bahithat al-Badiya. This gave me encouragement and spurred me o. I wanted to do my duty by al-Yaziji even though I knew of the difficulty of her work because of its ambiguity, both in the poetry and in the prose, and its lack of personal detail. When I received the Association’s invitation to give a lecture on any topic I wished, Sitt Warda’s spirit was floating through my mind as I was browsing through her anthology, relishing its perfume.

I have only time to indicate in passing my esteem of what women from earlier generations have done to open up the way for us. I say: “Open up the way”, even though all they did was to put up a signpost at the threshold of unknown territories. However, this signpost has value and use, especially when we remember when it was put up. It was left to us to uncover and register n existence the nature of the eastern woman, and to struggle thereafter to make sure that we help it to grow and that we polish it so that it appears the way it is in essence as a work of art, as a resource and as a treasure.

It seems that the goddess of wakefulness and activity wished to neglect the East for about half the last century, then there arose a group of learned women next to the men who were considered to group of learned women next to the men who were considered to be responsible for raising up the new east. Aisha Ismat al-Taimuriya was born in Egypt in 1840, and around that time Warda al-Turk lived in Syria as did Warda Kubba and Labiba Sidqa and others, Zainab Fawwaz the writer of the Zainab Letters and Scattered Pearls was born in Sidon in 1860. In that same year Fatima Aliya was born, the daughter of the Turkish historian Gaudat Pasha. Although she wrote in Turkish, she has the right to be mentioned along with Arab women writers because she knew their language she was known in their lands and she lived long among the; she had gone there as a three year old when her father took over the Aleppo region after having been Minister of Finance in the Ottoman State. In the year when Zainab Fawwaz and Fatima Aliya were born, that is in 1860. Warda al-Yaziji was 22, because she was born in 1838, the same year as Marianna Marash, the Aleppo poet.

Ladies, remember that geniuses are divided into two leading groups which are in turn multipally subdivided. The first group does not fit into its environment, and is before its time in understanding, perspicacity and creativity. The second group is a product of its environment and its time, and in it are contained the cognitions and the emotions of its society. This group talks to its society eloquently and clearly. (In the first group is Qasim Amin.)

The second group talks the language of its age and speaks of its needs and feels what it feels. As though they feed the people with that which helps them grow and leads step by step toward a future which will be shaped by members of the first group. Warda al-Yaziji is from this group.

[Ziyada tells of Warda’s education.]

Georges Baz, the poet’s son-in-law and her most loyal assistant in Syria, said about The Rose Garden that it is the only anthology by a contemporary poet to have been printed three times. This is the only work of hers that is left to us. Clearly she must have taken the name of the anthology from her own.

Among the most important of her prose writings was the correspondence with the Egyptian poet, Aisha Ismat al-Taimuryia. The latter praised her in the introduction to her anthology Beautiful Embroidery and then gave her a copy. Afterwards there was a delightful exchange of poetry and prose I which the poets competed in praising each other. Zainab Fawwaz published this correspondence in Scattered Pearls. In The Rose Garden we found poems by al-Yaziji for al-Taimuriya, such as this one in thanks for a gift:

Time has returned Aisha to live the remnants
        of an ancient knowledge
My heart was enraptured at the sound and mentioning
        her was my only pleasure and joy.

In another poem she wrote about The Results of Circumstances:

A young woman who has emblazoned the peaks with
         pearls from the fresh jewels of literature
I am enraptured by her from a distance, how would it
         have been if the fates had allowed me to be close

We do not know if the two poets met after this correspondence. Warda al-Yaziji came to Egypt I 1899 three years before Aisha al-Taimuriya died.

We now turn to the dark roses, the roses of death and eulogy scattered on graves. Elegies make up more than half of this anthology. According to the custom of the time she wrote eulogies to the great, to scholars and to friends. These elegies begin with well-known proverbs abut death and the impossibility of combatting it and its lack of mercy to anyone.

She eulogised her six brothers, a sister, her father, her husband, two sons and a daughter.

[Extracts from these and other elegies follow]

Ladies and young women, I see that you are weeping, and it is precious to me to know that I have brought you to tears. So I shall refrain from reciting to you her eulogy for her last brother.

[At this point Miss Milia Badr, the superintendent of the American school for girls, stood up and said: “It is your delivery that has made us weep. But do not cut your words short.”

Ziyada: “Despite the tears and these kerchiefs waving in our sisters’ hands?”

Badr: “Yes, Despite the tears.”

“There’s no harm in grief and weeping,” several voices said.

All right, Ladies. You are right. There’s no harm in weeping over the pains of others. Poetry needs grief and tears. Edgar Allen Poe, after many others, said that the poetic genius is sad in its essence and that those who reach this sadness and love it, approach that genius when they feel compassion for sadness and distress.

Do not believe the accusation directed against her, and other women, that men write for her. She was the one who wrote her poetry. The greatest proof is that in the beginning they claimed that her father and brothers, Habib and Khalil, had composed it for her. Then they died and she eulogised them. So the people said; “Shaikh Ibrahim is alive. He must be the one who composed the eulogies I her name.” Then Shaikh Ibrhim died and she eulogised him in verses that are among the most profound and sincere of anything she had ever written.

[Ziyada introduces the section on prose by describing al-Yaziji’s warning against unquestioning emulation of women of the West and her advocacy of education so that mother hood is not the only future women can anticipate.]

I learned yesterday that the women of Beirut contributed to a portrait of Warda al-Yaziji and donated it to the public library I that city so that the poet’s picture should hang next to those of the great men. That is in Beirut. That Egyptian and non-Egyptian women gathered to salute her is a sig of the respect in which she is held.

May you retain a memory that endures beyond this meeting. May housewives thin of her because Warda of the Arabs was a blessed daughter, a judicious sister, a loyal wife, a good mother! May the school superintendents and teachers think of her because the poet was exemplary in her commitment to education and in her care for her siblings. May the students who will soon be finished with the end-of-year examinations think of her because al-Yaziji was an eager student. Even though , without their means, she continued learning throughout her life. May everyone be reminded by her that whatever good a woman does outlives her time and serves coming ages, like the grain of wheat in fertile soil that stores nutrients for the future.

May the women of Egypt remember Warda al-Yaziji and her emergent Syrian sisters just as the women of Syria remember Aish al-Taimuriya and Bahithat al-Badiya and their emergent Egyptian sisters. May they be moved by her memory and her virtues just as the Syrian women are influenced and excited by the renaissance of the Egyptian woman.

I, the daughter of two continents, consider myself happy to have been able to draw the portrait, however pale, of an eastern woman for eastern sisters whose nationalism I admire. Like them I cry out enthusiastically and, following their model, I call for progress, understanding and the good of the nations!


Translation by Miriam Cooke.



Source: Al Muqtataf, 1924.


Also: Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing, eds. Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) 1990, pp. 240-243.


Copyright © 2021. Miriam Cooke. Reprinted with permission of Indiana University Press.