Renowned Palestinian poet and intellectual icon Salma Khadra Jayyusi dies aged 95

Salma Khadra Jayyusi
4 min read
26 April, 2023

Renowned Palestinian poet, author, translator and anthologist Salma Khadra Jayyusi died at the age of 95. She passed away in the Jordanian capital Amman on Thursday 20 April.

Minister of Culture in the Palestinian Authority, Dr Atef Abu Saif, mourned Salma Jayyusi's death stating that with her passing away, Palestinian culture had lost one of its intellectual icons, who had made giant contributions to poetry, literature, anthology and translation.

Born in Safad in 1928 (sources differ regarding her birthdate and place) to a Palestinian father (Subhi Sa‘id al-Khadra, a prominent lawyer from Safad) and a Lebanese mother (Anisa Yusuf Salim), Salma Jayyusi spent much of her early life in Akka and Jerusalem in Palestine under the British mandate.

She later studied in Beirut, gaining a degree in Arabic and English Literature in 1945 from the American University of Beirut (AUB), before she became a teacher in Jerusalem at the Teachers College for Women.

Live Story

The devastation of the 1948 Nakba ("the catastrophe", during which dozens of massacres were systematically perpetrated by Zionist gangs leading to around 800,000 Palestinians fleeing their homes) and the ensuing collapse of Palestinian society had a profound effect on Salma who was in her twenties at the time.

One of her favourite students, Hayat Balbisi, was murdered during the Deir Yassin massacre, at the age of 18. Salma was deeply affected by her death and would go on to mention Hayat many times in her writings.

Shortly after leaving Palestine for Jordan in the aftermath of the Nakba, Salma married Jordanian diplomat (of Palestinian origin) Burhan Kamal Jayyusi and went on to travel extensively while raising their three children.

During this time she studied, wrote and translated, developing an ever deeper love of Arabic poetry and literature, especially while living in Baghdad in the 50s. She published her first poetry collection in 1960, called Returning from the Dreamy Fountain. 

In the sixties, she lived in Beirut and became immersed in its literary scene at a time when heated debate was underway between two literary schools of thought.

One centred around Arabic literary heritage, encouraged a renewal in poetry, and was committed to nationalist causes, and the other promoted modernist poetry and literature and rejected inherited literary traditions.

Salma delved into the debate and is known for her defence of prose poetry (the modernist camp) at around this time.

Salma Jayyusi had a brief stint working in radio and journalism before beginning her academic career. She taught Arabic literature, first in Sudan then in Algeria, before becoming a visiting professor at several universities in the US (she received her PhD in Arabic Literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London in 1970).

In 1980 Salma founded the Project of Translation from Arabic (PROTA), intending to spearhead an appreciation of Arabic culture in the wider world and provide high-quality translations of Arabic literature in English. In 1990 she established the East-West Nexus, another translation venture with a scholarly focus.

"It was a great hurt in my heart to see that we were not known anywhere in the world because our language was not translated […] and I thought that this all has to change, so I left everything and started work on that," she said as she accepted the title Cultural Personality of the Year at the 2020 Sheikh Zayed Book Award.

Live Story

Syrian novelist Khaldoun Al Shamaa who worked with PROTA for 40 years and knew Salma well, described her as the "Arabs' cultural ambassador to the Anglo-Saxon world", adding that she had contributed hugely to the restoration of Arabic cultural identity and an increased understanding of Arabic culture in the West.

Among her works are an Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature (1992), The Legacy of Muslim Spain (1992) and Beyond the Dunes: an anthology of Modern Saudi Literature (2005).

She also co-edited the collection My Jerusalem: Essays, Reminiscences, and Poems (2005) and received the Al Owais Award for Cultural and Scientific Achievement in 2006.