- Rejuvenating T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land
English poetry remained for decades a prime component of the programmes in departments of English at Arab universities, especially when some Arab countries were under British colonial rule. For relatively long periods of time, many acclaimed Arab poets studied William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Ben Jonson, the Romantic poets, and many others. Some of them also studied, or read, English modernists, including T.S. Eliot. Among these Arab poets, a new phenomenon appeared: it became a mode that a poet’s name was linked to a western ‘master’ and a Western poem might have, for example, created a real change in the literary reception of an Arabic poem. An obvious instance is T.S. Eliot’s impact, felt almost everywhere in the Arab world. His poem, The Waste Land, has been the most celebrated poem in several Arab countries, especially Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon. For decades, the poem was the centre of literary attraction for quite a good number of Arab poets and critics. In addition to fascinating those who could read it in English, the poem’s translated version, rendered into Arabic by many translators, engaged the minds of young poets who were yearning for modern models in poetry. They found in Eliot’s poem stylistic innovations that could reconfigure, in Arabic, the model capacities of poetics. This explains why The Waste Land has been translated into Arabic many times: the first translation, made by Tawfiq Sa’igh, was published in the leading literary journal Al-Adāb in January 1955. Other translations followed: by Nabila Ibrahim (1959) and Luis ‘Awad (1962), and “by the middle of the [sixth] decade [of the twentieth century], the list of Eliot’s translators was distinguished by at least a dozen prominent names in Arabic poetry” (Asfour 49). The translations of the poem were not without a context: the corpus of criticism it received may have been beyond expectation and thus another translation was published in Baghdad in 1980 by Abdul-Wahid Lu’lu’a. After a few years, the edition ran out of print, and a second one appeared in 1986, [End Page 112] which soon ran out of print again. The translator noted that the relatively short time during which the editions of the translated poem ran out of print indicated the serious attention paid by Arab readers to Eliot’s poem. In 1995, this translation appeared in a revised edition and the book, T.S. Eliot, al-Ard al-Yabab, ash-Sha’ir wal-Qasida, which contained an extended review of the poem’s criticisms, indicated–once again according to Lu’lu’a–that the poem was still widely read by the Arabs.
Besides, Eliot’s poem has always been considered one of the major factors which contributed to modernizing Arabic poetry and this explains why many critics attribute the revolutionary change in Arabic poetic form brought about in the 1940s and 1950s to this poem in particular (Jabra, “Modern Arabic Literature” 76). In this regard, a significant role was especially played by the Beirut-based literary journals, Al-Adāb1 and Shi’r2 in the 1950s and 1960s, after the impact of Eliot’s poetry reached its peak in the Arab world.
This significant position The Waste Land occupied may be attributed mainly to the fact that T.S. Eliot offered the stylistic, prosodic and thematic freedom Arabic poetry needed; he provided to many Arab poets a form that “permits the poets to treat their subject unhampered by the rhetorical conventions” (Asfour 49). However, taking into consideration the fact that any literary pulsate throbbing in the West usually resonates in the Arab countries, one may also think that the attention paid to the poem may have also reflected the poem’s unprecedented critical reception in the West.3
The rise of Badr Shakir As-Sayâb4 and the publication in 1954 of his masterpiece, Unshudat al-Matar (Hymn of Rain), undoubtedly marked a new poetic trend in Arabic poetry, though the poem also highlighted a beginning of an interminable and tiresome debate about T.S. Eliot in the Arab world. Unshudat al-Matar has, since...