Qabbani, Nizar (1923–1998)

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Qabbani, Nizar
(1923–1998)

Nizar Qabbani was a renowned Syrian poet and diplomat. Known for his progressive thinking, his fame reigned supreme during his lifetime and seems to persist beyond his death.

PERSONAL HISTORY

Qabbani was born on 21 March 1923 in Damascus, Syria, to a middle-class merchant family with a Syrian father and Turkish mother. He was related to the pioneering Arab playwright Abu Khalil al-Qabbani. Nizar Qabbani studied law at the University of Damascus where he graduated in 1945 and subsequently launched a diplomatic career that year which took him to all five continents. He served in the Syrian embassies in Egypt (1945–1948), Turkey (1948), Lebanon, Britain, China, and Spain. His posting in Spain was his favorite; there he wrote some of his most memorable verse. In 1966 he retired as a diplomat and moved to Beirut, Lebanon, where he founded a publishing company called Manshurat. He became one of the Arab world's greatest poets, living the rest of his life outside Syria. He died in London on 30 April 1998.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

Qabbani's poetry covers a host of different topics and themes. More than any other modern Arab poet he has become identified with writings about the role and status of Arab women. He has been dubbed in some circles both as women's champion and detractor. He has adopted the feminist cause, defended their usurped rights, and called for them to rebel and take up arms. Yet, at the same time, he has written poetry that adulates women's beauty and bodies in the most traditional vein. Qabbani stands out amongst contemporary Arab poets as one who has written most memorable verses in defense of Arab women very often in a first person narrative:

     My dear sir
     I fear to say what I have to say
     I fear if I do
     The skies will burn
     Your East, dear sir
     Confiscates blue missives, confiscates the dreams stored in women's safes
     You may censure our feelings, use knives and axes to speak to us
     Slaughter the spring and the desires
     Your East dear sir weaves of women's skulls
     A crown of refined honorability. (tr. M. Mikhail)

He speaks in the voice of untold women when he cries out:

     Forgive me sir
     If I dared venture into the kingdom of men
     Classical literature of course has always been men's literature
     And love has always been men's prerogative
     And sex always the opium sold to men
     A myth women's freedom in our land. (tr. M. Mikhail)

The suicide of his beloved sister who refused to marry a much older man she did not love had a profound effect on Qabbani's outlook on society and women. He decided to fight the social conditions he saw as leading to her death. His first of four collections, Qasa'id min Qabbani (1956), in many ways outlined the trajectory his work would take. His resentment of male chauvinism can be seen in the following:

     I AM WOMAN
     I am Woman
     The day I came into this world
     I found the verdict of my execution ready. (tr. M. Mikhail)

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Nizar Qabbani

Birth: 1923, Damascus, Syria

Death: 1998, London, United Kingdom

Nationality: Syrian

Education: B.A. (law), Damascus University, 1945

Family: Married twice. First wife: Zahra (died); one son, Tawfiq; one daughter, Hadba; second wife: Balqis al-Rawi (died 1982); one daughter, Zaynab; one son, Umar

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1944: Publishes first poem, "Qalat li al-Samra"
  • 1945: Enters Syrian diplomatic service
  • 1956: Publishes first diwan (collection of poetry), Qasa'id min Qabbani (Poems from Qabbani)
  • 1966: Resigns from Syrian diplomatic service, moves to Beirut
  • 1975: Moves to London
  • 1998: Dies in London

He also wrote the collections Qalat li al-Samra (The brunette told me, 1942), Tufulat Nahd (The childhood of a breast, 1948), Samba, 1949, Anti Li (You are mine, 1950), Qasa'id (Poems, 1956), Habibati (My beloved, 1961), and Rasm bi'l-Kalimat (Drawing in words, 1966). In addition to his deep concern and love for women, Qabbani was poignantly involved in the politics of his society. Many are his famous poems memorized by the masses and the Literati. "Bread, Hashish, and the Moon" is a harsh assessment of impoverished Arab societies, which inevitably led to their defeat on all fronts. His "Hawamish ala daftar al-naqsa" (Marginalia on the notebook of the disaster, 1967) was an embittered and stinging critique of the bankrupt Arab leadership during the June 1967 debacle when Israel defeated the armies of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. He also wrote Fath (Palestine Liberation Movement, 1968), Shu'ara al-Ard al-Muhtalla, al-Quds (Poets of the Occupied Land, Jerusalem, 1968), Manshurat Fida'iyya ala Judran Isra'il (Commando graffiti on the walls of Israel, 1970).

In addition to individual poems, Qabbani wrote more than twenty poetry collections (diwans). The most famous amongst them are Habibati (My beloved, 1961), Al-Rasm b'il Kalimat (Drawing with words, 1966), Qasa'id hubbarabiyya (Arabian love poems, 1993), and Mudhakirat Imra'a la mubaliyya (Memoirs of a carefree woman), which contains perhaps the largest compilation of poems narrated in the first person, as seen in the following:

     YOU WANT
     You want like all women
     Solomon's treasures
     Like all women
     Pools of perfumes
     Combs of ivory
     A horde of slaves
     You want a lord
     Who will sing your glory like a parrot
     Who says all day, "I love you" in the morning
     Who says I love you in the evening
     Who washes your feet in wine
     O Shahrazad
     Like all women….
     I am no prophet
     Who throws the rod
     And the sea breaks open
     O Shahrazad
     I am a mere worker from Damascus
     I dip my loaf of bread in blood
     My feelings are modest, my wages, too
     I believe in bread and prophets
     And like others dream of love. (tr. M. Mikhail)

THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE

Qabbani has been recognized as one of the Arab world's greatest modern poets. Because his language flowed beautifully in free verse form, and often captured the rhythms of everyday Syrian speech, his lyrics also readily lent themselves to song. Some of the best-known Arab singers, both men and women, have immortalized some of his best poems, thus contributing in popularizing his poetry on even a much wider scale. The well-known and beloved Abd al-Halim Hafiz—who dominated the world of song in the sixties, seventies and eighties, and continues to be popular with new generations—sang his poems to adoring crowds, so did Najat al-Saghira and Warda Jaza'iriyya among many others.

This is not to say that everyone loved Qabbani's work. His childhood and youth in Damascus left a deep imprint on his writings, not only the physical realities of minarets, bazaars, food, and accents. He captured the rebelliousness within the conservative city as evidenced in his early poem "Qalit li Al-Samraa" (What the brunette said to me), which he published at his own expense early in 1944. This poem created a controversy that was to be the hallmark of his whole career. He subsequently wrote a book Qissati maa Al-Sh'ir (My story with poetry) speaking of this specific poem where he denounced his countrymen's torpor and their confined lives, living loving in total oblivion of the world progressing around them. Yet his beloved city remained addicted to his words. When he wrote "Balqis" in honor of his beloved wife who was killed in a bombing at the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in 1982, the poem was smuggled and read widely. "The Autobiography of An Arab Executioner" was celebrated by the Damascenes as they had never celebrated a written text before. In 1988 he read it to huge applause, but also managed to anger the authorities who cut short his visit.

CONTEMPORARIES

Salah Abd al-Sabbur (1931–1981) was born in Egypt and educated at Cairo University. Well versed in English literature, especially T. S. Eliot, he worked in literary journalism, contributing weekly essays on literary criticism to al-Ahram newspaper. He was the leading poet in Egypt until his premature death in 1981. He started writing in the romantic vein, quickly moved to socialist realism, and later showed interest in metaphysical issues. His collections include al-Nas fi Biladi (The people in my country, 1957), Aqulu Lakum (I say unto you, 1961), Ahlam al-Faris al-Qadim (The dreams of an ancient knight, 1964), and Ta'amulat fi Zaman Jarih (Meditations in a wounded time, 1971). His essays were collected in Aswat al-Asr (Voices of the age, 1961) and Hatta Tabqa al-Kalima (And the word remains, 1970). His famous poetic drama Ma'sat al Hallaj (The tragedy of al-Hallaj) was translated into English as Murder in Baghdad by I. Semaan in 1972. His other plays in verse include Musafir Layl (Night traveler), al-Amira Tantazir (The princess is waiting), Layla wa'l-Majnun (Laila and the madman), and Ba'da an Yamut al-Malik (After the king dies). He became head of the General Egyptian Book Organization, a prestigious position that also included the Egyptian National Archives at the time.

Qabbani is quintessentially a Damascene poet. Damascus had a lasting influence and central place in his life although he lived most of his life away from Syria, and rarely returned. His work was often denounced in political forums, such as the Syrian Parliament where he was publicly chided for his daring political stances. His collection al-Shi'r Qindil Akhdar (Poetry is a green lantern, 1963) comprised essays on his poetic art, and his views on literature in general. When his famous poem "Bread Hashish, and the Moon" was published, the Syrian government wanted to prosecute him for his outspoken attacks on religion and Arabism. It was then that he took refuge in Lebanon, and set up his publishing house, before finally settling in England.

LEGACY

Qabbani will be remembered as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth-century Arab world.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Modern Arab Poets 1950–1975, Three Continents Press, 1976.

Nizar Qabbani's offical Web site. Available from http://www.nizar.net/english.htm.

Paintbrush. Journal of Poetry and Translation, ed. Ben Bennani, Truman State University.

                                                Mona Mikhail

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