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In his poetry and literary criticism Abdel Aziz al-Maqalih is a modernist voice, not only in his own country of Yemen but also in the Arabian Peninsula as a whole and there he is certainly the first modernist voice. Before al-Maqalih appeared on the poetry scene in that part of the Arab world, poetry still repeated the echoes of ancient Arabic poetry, heedless of the battles raging between the old and the new in other centres of Arabic poetry such as Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Cairo.
Because of the weak educational system, poetry was more oral than written and “Nabati poetry”, oral poetry in the local Arabic dialects, was the most commonly performed in the region. But with the appearance of a poetic voice such as that of al-Maqalih, who had been educated in Cairo, this picture gradually began to change. Al-Maqalih not only offered poetic forms and topics different from those prevailing, but also strengthened modernist orientation in the Arabian Peninsula through his literary criticism. In other words, he moved into Yemen the battle for modernism, which subsequently proceeded in various degrees to the other countries of the Peninsula. In this sense, al-Maqalih is considered there the pioneer of poetic modernism.
However, the great influence that this Yemeni poet and critic wielded did not stop there; he also played an eminent educational role, realising that modernism could not be victorious, nor become rooted in societies suffering from comprehensive backwardness. He put his efforts into strengthening the role of education especially at university level; he participated in the establishment of the University of Sana’a, of which he was for many years president.
As president of the first university in Yemen, al-Maqalih attracted a number of professors from other parts of the Arab world known for their modernist orientation; he held many literary conferences and meetings which, while strengthening this orientation, displeased the traditionalists especially those of a religious leaning whose hostility to him went so far as to become a threat to his life.
But al-Maqalih did not change course, neither as modernist poet nor as president of a university from which graduated thousands of students who had become open to the modern literary programs prevailing in the world. Yemen today has a lively cultural movement, fully involved in issues such as modernism (and poetic modernism, in particular), that could not possibly have existed with this richness had it not been for the pioneering efforts of Abd al-Aziz al-Maqalih, whose poetry was the seed from which the tree of poetic modernism in Yemen has grown.He is currently Cultural Advisor to the President and Director of the Yemem Centre for Research and Study.
Introduction to the poetry of Abdel Aziz Al-Maqalih, published in Banipal 15/16, Spring 2003