Whether it’s the motivation to simply get out of bed in the morning or a philosophical mantra to live by, nothing beats a reading good quote to use as food for thought.
But some of us, those with a love of literature need something a little more than “follow your dreams” or “be the change you want to see”.
Arabic, being one of the oldest and most poetic languages in the world has many profound authors as well as a myriad of creative influencers with plenty to say on life, love, and happiness but also politics and social issues.
It is a beautiful culture that has seen vast changes with plenty of literature old and new to explore and share.
Today we’ll take you through a few poignant Arabic quotes from internationally recognized writers and creative Arab souls.
There is no better Arab poet to get the ball rolling with than Ali Ahmad Said Esber, better known as Adonis; A regular Nobel Prize in Literature nomination since the late 1980s.
Although the Syrian-born poet is yet to win it, he has received many other prestigious awards such as the renowned Bjørnson Prize in 2007 by the Norwegian Academy for Literature and Freedom of Expression, and the Goethe Prize in 2011 by the City of Frankfurt.
He has published over 20 volumes of poetry and released multiple anthologies that cover nearly two millennia of Arabic verse making him an important Arabic literary icon.
Often people find a lot of anger in his work, having lived through a lot of troubling times and war with poignant lines like;
“A child stammers the face of a jaffa is a child/ how can withered trees blossom” and he writes his poetry with the use of a slash/ to represent how life is cut short.
But the following excerpt is the opening fragment for “Beginnings of the body, Ends of the sea” and is quite beautiful;
َخَرَجَ الوردُ من حَوْضِهِ لمُلاقاتها،
كانتِ الشَّمسُ عُريانةً
في الخريفِ، سِوَى خَيْطِ غيمٍ على خَصْرها.
هكذا يُولَدُ الحبُّ
في القريةِ التي جئتُ مِنها
“The rose leaves its flowerbed to meet her
The sun is naked in autumn;
Nothing except a thread of cloud around her waist
This is how love arrives in the village where I was born.”
2. Nizar Qabbani
Another much-loved and respected poet to emerge from Syria that deserves mentioning is Nizar Qabbani.
Below is a simple example love poem entitled “In The Summer” that serves to show the imagery he strongly conveyed.
في أيّام الصيف..
أَتمدّد على رمال الشاطئ
وأمارس هوايةَ التفكير بكِ..
لو أنّني أقول للبحر..
ما أشعر به نحوكِ
“In the summer
I stretch out on the shore
And think of you.
Had I told the sea
What I felt for you,
It would have left its shores,
And followed me.”
After war broke out in Lebanon his themes shifted to politically edged. So, aside from being known for his elegant and romantic writing, he dabbled heavily in Arabic empowerment and feminism.
He is still regarded as an important figure for the progressive voice he gave to feminist movements.
As a lawyer and diplomat, beneath many of his works is a deep social statement.
3. Saadallah Wannous
We are still in Syria with this next writer and still on a political theme. Saadallah Wannous was an influential playwright whose plays explored the human condition and made astute political commentaries on the Arab world.
This is largely thanks to his background as a journalist before he became involved in theatre. He used the theatre as a means to get his message across.
In 1996, on his birthday he was invited to give a now infamous speech, the prestigious World Theatre Day address. Saadallah did so while battling cancer, he died the following day and his words were;
إننا محكومون بالأمل وما يحدث اليوم لا يمكن أن يكون نهاية التاريخ
This should be translated as “We are doomed by hope, and come what may, today cannot be the end of history.” however “mahkumun bil-amal” was first translated as “condemned to hope” it became “doomed” after massive uprisings. His ideologies and work still hold significance in current times for Syrians two decades later.
4. Hafiz Ibrahim
We can’t write Arabic quotes without the inclusion of the poets of the Nile.
Although there are many, notably Ahmad Shawqi, another great poet who arose at the same time in Egypt was Hafiz Ibrahim.
He again was a women’s rights advocate and is quoted as saying “when you educate a woman you create a nation” and “A mother is a school. Empower her, and you empower a great nation.”
He greatly influenced Arab literature by reviving Arabic poetry in the classical language form and even wrote a poem entitled “The Arabic language mourns its luck among its people” اللغة العربية تنعي حظها بين أهلها. It is a poem about how rich and beautiful the Arabic language is.
The poem begins with this opening line;
أَنا البَحرُ في أَحشائِهِ الدُرُّ كامِنٌ
“I am like the sea, deep inside of me are hidden pearls”
His works were often socially themed and he became known as the poet of the people for his concern for the poor, addressing class and economic disparity in his prose.
5. Mahmoud Darwish
The acclaimed poet Mahmoud Darwish is recognized as the literary voice of the Palestinian people.
After the occupation of his village, his family went into exile for many years. Having not been registered on the census they were considered internal refugees.
Darwish was imprisoned for reciting poetry and traveling between villages and a poetry foundation was named in his honor.
He wrote over 30 books of poetry and eight books of prose, and some of the prizes he was awarded include; The Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize, the Lenin Peace Prize, and the Knight of Arts and Belles Lettres Medal from France.
His writing style is lyrical and chock full of imagery. His early work reflected the way he felt imprisoned in his homeland.
وَسِجْنٌ بِنَافِذَةٍ بَارِدَهْ…
وَلِي مَوْجَةٌ خَطَفتْهَا النَّوارِسُ. لِي مَشْهَدِي الخَاصُّ. لِي عُشْبَةٌ زَائِدَهْ
وَلِي قَمَرٌ فِي أقَاصِي الكَلاَم، وَرِزْقُ الطُّيُورِ، وَزَيْتُونَةٌ خَالِدَهْ
And [I have] a prison cell’s cold window, a wave
Snatched by seagulls, my own view, an extra blade
Of grass, a moon at word’s end, a supply
Of birds, and an olive tree that cannot die
His later work was more provocative;
على هذه الأرض ما يستحقُّ الحياة
تردُّد إبريل، رائحة الخبزِ في الفجر
آراء امرأة في الرجال،
أول الحب ، عشب على حجر
أمهاتٌ تقفن على خيط ناي
و خوف الغزاة من الذكرياتْ
“We have on this earth what makes life worth living:
April’s hesitation, the aroma of bread at dawn,
A woman’s point of view about men,
The works of Aeschylus, the beginning of love, grass on a stone,
Mothers living on a flute’s sigh and the invaders’ fears of memories.”
5. Naguib Mahfouz
Regarded as one of the first contemporary writers, Egyptian-born Naguib Mahfouz achieved an extraordinary amount in his lifetime. During his 70-year career, he wrote over 50 novels, 350 short stories, movie scripts, and plays for the stage.
Many of his published works were made into movies and he won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Mahfouz presents his prose very bluntly, much of his work centers around development in Egypt but he even tackled taboo subjects that were banned in Egypt at the time, such as socialism, homosexuality, and God.
His political stance shines through his first two books which are clearly influenced by socialist ideals and show an antipathy towards Islamic extremism.
Here are some of his best quotes;
الخوف لا يمنع من الموت ولكنه يمنع من الحياة
‘’Fear doesn’t prevent death. It prevents life.’’
املأ عينيك فما تغادره لن تراه مرة أخرى. كل لحظة هي اللحظة الأخيرة
“Fill your eyes, what you leave you will never see again, every moment is the last moment.”
إن الثورات يدبّرها الدهاة وينفذها الشجعان ثم يكسبها الجبناء
“Revolutions are orchestrated by the cunning, carried out by the brave, and then won by the cowards”.
6. Khalil Gibran
This Lebanese writer and artist are still celebrated as a literary hero today. Born at a time in which poverty prevailed he became known for his philosophical edge, with many giving him the title philosopher. A title he personally rejected!
He had a romantic prose writing style that broke away from classical Arabic.
Gibran published many works with strong moral themes, notably On Children in which he instructs parents not to impose their thoughts upon their children because they do not belong to them. They are vessels for the divine with souls that shouldn’t be limited.
Other notable works include ‘The Prophet’ which centers around spiritual freedom. He has some inspirational ideas on how to live a good and happy life in the face of difficulties that the human condition brings with it.
المحبة هي الحرية الوحيدة في هذا العالم لأنها ترفع النفس إلى مقام سام لا تبلغه شرائع البشر وتقاليدهم، ولا تسود عليه نواميس الطبيعة وأحكامها
“Love is the only freedom in the world because it so elevates the spirit that the laws of humanity and the phenomena of nature cannot alter its course.”
One of my favorite Gibran poems has to be “Half a Life” which philosophizes about giving everything in life all that you have, because when we do less than our best we are not living up to our potential.
ا تجالس أنصاف العشاق ، ولا تصادق أنصاف الأصدقاء
“Do not sit with half-lovers, and do not befriend half-friends”.
Further, into the prose it continues;
نصف شربة لن تروي ظمأك ، ونصف وجبة لن تشبع جوعك ، نصف طريق لن يوصلك إلى أي مكان ، ونصف فكرة لن تعطي نتيجة … النصف هو لحظة عجزك وأنت لست بعاجز … لأنك لست نصف إنسان. إنسان وجدت كي تعيش الحياة ، وليس كي تعيش نصف حياة
“Half a drink will not quench your thirst, half a meal will not satisfy your hunger, half a road will not lead you anywhere, and half an idea will not produce results…
Half is the moment of your helplessness and you are not helpless.. because you are not half a human. A whole human being was made to live a whole life, not to live half a life.”
7. Ahlam Mosteghanemi
Born in Algeria, the daughter of a militant activist and revolutionary leader Mohammad Cherif Ahlam Mosteghannemi was forced into exile.
She is considered the worlds first female Algerian to publish in the Arabic language She received the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for her first novel and has achieved awards since.
Her writing tackles fundamentalism, corruption, injustice, and the denigration of women’s rights.
أصبحت امرأة حرة .. فقط لأنني قررت أن أكف عن الحلم, الحرية أن لا تنتظر شيئاً..والترقب حالة عبودية
“I became a free woman.. only because I decided to stop dreaming. Freedom is not to wait for anything.. and anticipation is a state of slavery”
قرأت يومًا إن راحة القلب في العمل، وأنّ السعادة هي أن تكون مشغولًا إلى حدّ لا تنتبه أنّك تعيس
“I read one day that the rest of the heart is at work and that happiness is being so busy that you do not realize that you are unhappy”
ارقص كما لو أن لا أحد يراك،
غَنِّ كما لو أن لا أحد يسمعك،
أحبَّ كما لو أن لا أحد سبق أن جرحك
“Dance like nobody’s watching
Sing like no one is listening,
Love as you’ve never been hurt.”
8. Amin Maalouf
Novelist and journalist Amin Maalouf is a master storyteller, known for weaving historical events, romantic love, and fantasy, into his imaginative works.
The Lebanese author was awarded the Calouste Gulbenkian Prize in the field of Human Rights. His writing gives a sensitive view of cultural values throughout the Middle East.
Following his exile to France in the 70s as a result of the Lebanese war, he publishes mainly in French rather than Arabic.
Here are some top Arabic quotes from Amin Maalouf;
هل أنت واثق أن حياة الإنسان تبدأ بولادته؟
“Are you certain that a man’s life begins with his birth?”
فقانون الأكثرية ليس دائما مرادفا للديمقراطية و الحرية و المساواة بل هو أحيانا مرادف للطغيان و الاستعباد و التمييز العنصري
“The majority law is not always synonymous with democracy, freedom, and equality, but sometimes it is synonymous with tyranny”.
لأنَّ لهم دين، يظُّنون أنهم مُعفوْن من أن تكون لهم أخلاق!
“Because they have a religion, they think that they are exempt from having morals!”
9. Ghada Al-Samman
Ghadah Al-Samman is a prolific female Syrian writer with a huge range of works in several genres she is highly respected in the Arab world.
Her journalistic exploits honed in on Lebanese life, the plight of the poor, and neglected areas. This was mostly ignored within the mainstream but unfettered and unwilling to be quietened Samman established her own publishing company.
Early on her poetry and fiction stories were romanticist but later in her career began to present a bold, unrestricted defiance that she is now known for.
Samman’s writing is laden with imagery and wit with a real cry for liberty at its heart.
في المسافة بين غيابك وحضورك انكسر شيء ما،
لن يعود كما كان أبدً
“In the space between your absence and your presence, something broke.
It will never be the same again.”
لن تغفر لك الأسماك انحيازك إلى البركة الآسنة ، نكاية بالبحر
“The fish will not forgive you for siding with the stagnant pond, to spite the sea”
10. Fatima Mernissi
Despite having a few feminist poets included in our article today we have few female writers included.
We would be remiss not to mention Moroccan public figure Fatima Mernissi before bringing things to a close!
She was a powerful historian, sociologist, and writer committed to changing the image of women in Islam.
Some of her theses and popular titles include “Beyond the Veil”, “The veil and the male elite”, Dreams of trespass” “Sex, Ideology and Islam, and “Islam and democracy”. The titles alone give you great insight into the focus of her writings.
Her works have been translated into several languages. She didn’t whitewash facts, as you can see in this excerpt;
“The Arabia of [the] time [of Muhammad] was unjust and brutal. Women were kidnapped, sold, and inherited. He forbade all that and put limits on the wild polygamy of those Bedouins. He made women participate in prayer and war, the two most important acts then.”
However; she had some beautiful ideologies and wisdom to impart too, such as this gem;
الطبيعة أفضل صديق للمرأة، تقول ياسمينة، إذا واجهتي مشاكل، يمكنك السباحة، التمدد في حقل، أو النظر إلى النجوم، هكذا تشفي امرأة مخاوفها
“Nature is woman’s best friend. If you’re having problems, swim in the water, stretch out in a field, or look up at the stars. That’s how a woman cures her fears.”
Arabic Quotes – Final Thoughts
Narrowing down such a wide range of Arabic literature and poetry to the handful above was no easy task!
It is a beautiful language with a lot of depth, spoken in many different countries that have seen a lot of social and political changes over the years.
Many of those we chose above, spoke for their time, some even helped shape the modern Arab world.
We have a lot of favorites, we hope you’ve enjoyed what we’ve shared, let us know in the comments!
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