Nizar Qabbani is one of the most famous Arab poets of the 20th century. From his direct, erotic poetry, addiction to women, and impulsive and passionate verses, to his constant criticism of Arab leaders and powerful calls for justice, sixteen years after his death, Qabbani remains an indispensable voice throughout the Arab world.
Born in 1923 in Damascus, Qabbani was raised in a traditional middle-class merchant family. He loved writing even as a child and had sensed it would became his profession.
To understand the greatness of Qabbani’s works, one must understand the heights poetry has reached in the Arab world, particularly over the last 100 years or so. During the 20th century, poetry was an essential form of resistance in Arab states. The poetry of this period was powerful and groundbreaking. Poets were warriors and poetry a weapon of choice. In Palestine, poets Mahmoud Darwish and Rashid Hussein were spokesmen for their people’s struggles. For, his part, Nizar Qabbani called for Arab unity and women’s rights in Syria.
For Qabbani, writing was the art of involvement. InPoetry Buses, he writes: “Three fourths of Arab writers are ‘civil servants’ who write while holding in their pockets an insurance policy against poverty, illness, old age, and arbitrary expulsion….”
Although Qabbani was able to produce complicated, abstract verses, his poetry remained simple, and accessible to the average person. He was among the first Arab poets to use colloquial language. In the introduction to Taha Muhammad Ali’s So What: New & Selected Poems, Gabriel Levin, a poet and translator, makes this observation about Qabbani’s work:
Individual poets and writers, among them the Egyptian Salah Abd el-Sabur and the Syrian Nizar Qabbani, have experimented with dialect and the local vernacular, and with rhythms of common speech.
Qabbani’s greatest revolution was perhaps writing about women in a way few poets in the region had previously done. His bold, sensual images envoked the beauty of women, their nude bodies and free sexuality. Qabbani directed harsh and extensive criticism toward Arab men and their acceptance of old social norms, particularly where women’s capabilities and right were concerned. In his work Qissati ma’ al-Shi’r, he writes:
They ask me: why do you write about the woman? And I answer with the utmost innocence and simplicity: And why do I not write about her?
When Qabbani was fifteen years old, his sister, who was twenty five at the time, committed suicide, after she was forbidden to marry the man she loved. The event had a great influence on Qabbani and his poetry. Through his verses, Qabbani questioned how a society that marginalized half of its population could ever hope to compete with the West. In Complete Political Poems (al-Amal al-siyasiya al-Kamilah) Qabbani writes:
I am a woman
I am a woman
The day I came to this world
I faced the judgement of my execution
While I didn’t see the doors of my court
While I didn’t see the faces of my judges
Qabbani adressed many gender-related taboos, from the frustration of a woman whose husband will not satisfy her sexual needs, to the anguish of a pregnant mistress thrown out on the street by her lover for refusing to get an abortion.
Qabbani also unmasked the hypocracy of society and the hollow manipulating of religion, writing:
And we twisted the words of Allah in the way that benefits us…
And we took nothing from these words
Except our four wives.
An incurable romantic and brash activist, Qabbani was somewhat similar to Chile’s great Pablo Neruda. Their lives and works remain a testimony to the importance of poets and their art. In Politics of nostalgia in the Arabic novel: Nation-state, Modernity and Tradition, Wen-chin Ouyang, a professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at SOAS, writes:
The 100 Love Letters (1970) by Nizar Qabbani are, in one important aspect, homage to Pablo Neruda’s 100 Love sonnets. It is not possible, in Neruda’s sonnets or Qabbani’s letters, to divorce the woman from the nation. But Neruda and Qabbani do not have the same political agenda in their respective collections of love poems. While the exiled Neruda nostalgically carves the geography of Chile onto the body of his beloved Matilda, Qabbani revolutionises the Arabic language, not so much through bringing to the fore the repressed sexual underground, as Mahfouz does in Palace of Desire, but more by pushing to the limit the ‘traditions’ framing, assessing and making judgement on how, when, where and why the Arabic language may be used.
In 1981, Qabbani’s second wife, the love of his life, Balqis al-Rawi, was killed in an explosion at the Iraqi embassy in Beirut. Qabbani was broken hearted, but kept on writing. His materpeice, Balqis, was reportedly written the same day she passed away:
Sadness, Balqis, makes my heart bleed
As if it were an orange squeezed.
Now; I know the distress of words,
The plight of impossible language.
I, who have coined letters,
Don’t know how to start this one.
Attempting to keep his wife alive through his poetry, Qabbani created a parallel universe for her and many other Arab women, where they could experience a life they did not have in reality. Through Qabbani’s poetry , these women were admired, respected, and praised, forever.
He praised the beauty hidden in the Arab world behind every corner. He wrote some of the most poingnant and lyrical verses about Damascus, green almonds, and the smell of jasmine, and never forgot how his illiterate mother sold her jewellery to raise money to publish his first anthology.
Out of his enormous love for the Arab world, Qabbani criticized what was wrong with the region, in the hope that progress and change for the better would come.