The Poetry of Arab Revolt
“Dive into the sea, or stay away”
- Nizar Qabbani
Nizar Tawfiq Qabbani (21 March 1923 – 30 April 1998)
Assassin’s Gate, George Packer’s book about his time in occupied Iraq has this epigraph:
Dive into the sea, or stay away.
- Nizar Qabbani
Andrew Bacevich found this noteworthy:
As the epigraph for his new book on the politics of America’s intervention in Iraq, George Packer has chosen a verse by the Arab nationalist poet Nizar Qabbani: “Dive into the sea, or stay away.” The poet’s charge aptly captures the thesis of “The Assassins’ Gate”: a great enterprise requires unequivocal commitment; to act halfheartedly is worse than not acting at all.
|Born||March 21, 1923(1923-03-21)
|Died||April 30, 1998(1998-04-30) (aged 75)
|Occupation||diplomat, poet, writer, publisher|
Nizar Tawfiq Qabbani (21 March 1923 – 30 April 1998) was a Syrian diplomat, poet and publisher. His poetic style combines simplicity and elegance in exploring themes of love, eroticism, feminism, religion, and Arab nationalism. He is one of the most revered contemporary poets in the Arab world.
Qabbani as a youth.
Nizar Qabbani was born in the Syrian capital of Damascus to a middle class merchant family. Qabbani was raised in Mi’thnah Al-Shahm, one of the neighborhoods of Old Damascus. Qabbani studied at the national Scientific College School in Damascus between 1930 and 1941. The school was owned and run by his father’s friend, Ahmad Munif al-Aidi. He later studied law at the Damascus University, which was called Syrian University until 1958. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in law in 1945.
While a student in college he wrote his first collection of poems entitled The Brunette Told Me. It was a collection of romantic verses that made several startling references to a woman’s body, sending shock waves throughout the conservative society in Damascus. To make it more acceptable, Qabbani showed it to Munir al-Ajlani, the minister of education who was also a friend of his father and a leading nationalist leader in Syria. Ajlani liked the poems and endorsed them by writing the preface for Nizar’s first book.
Qabbani as a law student in Damascus, 1944.
After graduating from law school, Qabbani worked for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, serving as Consul or cultural attaché in several capital cities, including Beirut, Cairo, Istanbul, Madrid, and London. In 1959, when the United Arab Republic was formed, Qabbani was appointed Vice-Secretary of the UAR for its embassies in China. He wrote extensively during these years and his poems from China were some of his finest. He continued to work in the diplomatic field until he tendered his resignation in 1966. By that time, he had established a publishing house in Beirut, which carried his name.
When Qabbani was 15, his sister, who was 25 at the time, committed suicide because she refused to marry a man she did not love. During her funeral he decided to fight the social conditions he saw as causing her death. When asked whether he was a revolutionary, the poet answered: “Love in the Arab world is like a prisoner, and I want to set (it) free. I want to free the Arab soul, sense and body with my poetry. The relationships between men and women in our society are not healthy.” He is known as one of the most feminist and progressive intellectuals of his time.
The city of Damascus remained a powerful muse in his poetry, most notably in the Jasmine Scent of Damascus. The 1967 Arab defeat also influenced his poetry and his lament for the Arab cause. The defeat marked a qualitative shift in Qabbani’s work – from erotic love poems to poems with overt political themes of rejectionism and resistance. For instance, his poem Marginal Notes on the Book of Defeat, a stinging self-criticism of Arab inferiority, drew anger from both the right and left sides of the Arab political dialogue.
Qabbani, his family, his parents and brothers.
Nizar Qabbani had one sister, Wisal; he also had three brothers: Mu’taz, Rashid, and Sabah. The latter, Sabah Qabbani, was the most famous after Nizar, becoming director of Syrian radio and TV in 1960 and Syria’s ambassador to the United States in the 1980s.
Nizar Qabbani’s father, Tawfiq Qabbani, was Syrian while his mother was of Turkish descent. His father had a chocolate factory; he also helped support fighters resisting the French mandate of Syria and was imprisoned many times for his views, greatly affecting the upbringing of Nizar into a revolutionary in his own right. Qabbani’s great uncle, Abu Khalil Qabbani, was one of the leading innovators in Arab dramatic literature.
Nizar Qabbani was married twice in his life. His first wife was his cousin Zahra Aqbiq; together they had a daughter, Hadba, and a son, Tawfiq. Tawfiq died due to a heart attack when he was 22 years old when he was in London. Qabbani eulogized his son in the famous poem To the Legendary Damascene, Prince Tawfiq Qabbani. Zahra Aqbiq died in 2007. His daughter [Hadba], born in 1947, was married twice, and lived in London until her death in April 2009.
His second marriage was to an Iraqi woman named Balqis al-Rawi, a schoolteacher whom he met at a poetry recital in Baghdad; she was killed in a bomb attack by guerrillas on the [Iraqi embassy] in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war on 15 December 1981. Her death had a severe psychological effect on Qabbani; he expressed his grief in his famous poem Balqis, blaming the entire Arab world for her death. Together they had a son, Omar, and a daughter, Zainab. After the death of Balqis, Qabbani did not marry again.
Late life and death
After the death of Balqis, Qabbani left Beirut. He was moving between Geneva and Paris, eventually settling in London, where he spent the last 15 years of his life. Qabbani continued to write poems and raise controversies and arguments. Notable controversial poems from this period in his life include When Will They Announce the Death of Arabs? and Runners.
In 1997, Nizar Qabbani suffered from poor health and briefly recovered from his sickness in late 1997. A few months later, at the age of 75, Nizar Qabbani died in London on April 30, 1998 of a heart attack. In his will, which he wrote in his hospital bed in London, Nizar Qabbani wrote that he wished to be buried in Damascus, which he described in his will as “the womb that taught me poetry, taught me creativity and granted me the alphabet of Jasmine.” Nizar Qabbani was buried in Damascus four days later in Bab Saghir. Qabbani was mourned by Arabs all over the world, with news broadcasts highlighting his illustrious literary career.
Qabbani began writing poetry when he was 16 years old; at his own expense, Qabbani published his first book of poems, entitled The Brunette Told Me, while he was a law student at the University of Damascus in 1944.
Over the course of a half-century, Qabbani wrote 34 other books of poetry, including:
- Childhood of a Breast (1948)
- Samba (1949)
- You Are Mine (1950)
- Poems (1956)
- My Beloved (1961)
- Drawing with Words (1966)
- Diary of an Indifferent Woman (1968)
- Savage Poems (1970)
- Book of Love (1970)
- 100 Love Letters (1970)
- Poems Against The Law (1972)
- I Love You, and the Rest is to Come (1978)
- To Beirut the Feminine, With My Love (1978)
- May You Be My Love For Another Year (1978)
- I Testify That There Is No Woman But You (1979)
- Secret Diaries of Baheyya the Egyptian (1979)
- I Write the History of Woman Like So (1981)
- The Lover’s Dictionary (1981)
- A Poem For Balqis (1982)
- Love Does Not Stop at Red Lights (1985)
- Insane Poems (1985)
- Poems Inciting Anger (1986)
- Love shall Remain, Sir (1987)
- Three Stone-throwing Children (1988)
- Secret Papers of a Karmathian Lover (1988)
- Biography of an Arab Executioner (1988)
- I Married You,Liberty! (1988)
- A Match in My Hand , And Your Petty Paper Nations (1989)
- No Victor Other Than Love (1989)
- Do You Hear the Cry of My Sadness? (1991)
- Marginal Notes on the Book of Defeat (1991)
- I’m One Man and You are a Tribe of Women (1992)
- Fifty Years of Praising Women (1994)
- Nizarian Variations of Arabic Maqam of Love (1995)
He also composed many works of prose, such as My Story with Poetry, What Poetry Is , and Words Know Anger ا, On Poetry, Sex, and Revolution, Poetry is a Green Lantern, Birds doesn’t Require a Visa, I Played Perfectly and Here are my Keys and The Woman in My Poetry and My Life, as well as one play named Republic of Madness Previously Lebanon and lyrics of many famous songs of celebrated Arab singers, including:
- Mohammed Abdel Wahab
- Abdel Halim Hafez
- Kathem Al Saher
- Khalid Al Shy’kh
- Umm Kulthum
- Majida El Roumi
- On Entering the Sea (1998)
- Arabian Love Poems (1998) translated by Bassam Frangieh and Clementina R. Brown
- Republic of Love (2002) translated by Nayef al-Kalali
1. a b “Qabbani, Nizar”. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9099031/Nizar-Qabbani. Retrieved 2007-06-23.
6. “Qabbani Recovered from Sickness, Gratitude Message to Syrians”. Arabic News. 1997-12-15. http://www.arabicnews.com/ansub/Daily/Day/971215/1997121521.html. Retrieved 2007-06-23.
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