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Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998), also: Nizar Kabbani


Syrian diplomat, poet, essayist and playwright, one of the most popular love poets in the Arab world. Besides running his own publishing house, Qabbani wrote over 50 volumes of his own. His central theme in his early erotic works was the physical attractiveness of women. He also revealed chauvinist attitudes of men towards women and urged women to rebel against their status in society. Later he portrayed the complex relationships between men. In the 1950s, Qabbani was with 'Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati among the pioneers, who started to use the simple language of everyday speech in verse.

Who are you
woman entering my life like a dagger
mild as the eyes of a rabbit
soft as the skin of a plum
pure as strings of jasmine
innocent as children's bibs
and devouring like words?

(from 'Poems')

Nizar Qabbani was born in Damascus, the son of Tawfiq Qabbani (d. 1954), a rich  merchant and a member of the National Bloc, a nationalist movement created to end the French rule. Because of his anti-French activity, he was frequently arrested and once his factory was burned by the authorities. His residence in Ma'zanat A-Shah'am, one of Damascus's old districts, was a gathering place for the National Bloc. Sahab, Qabbani's brother, became the director of Syrian Television and a career diplomat, who retired in the early 1980s. Qabbani's grandfather, Abu Khalil al-Qabbani (1835-1902), a playwright and composer, is remembered as the "Father of Syrian theatre".

Qabbani studied at the National Scientific College School in Damascus and entered then the University of Damascus, graduating in 1945 with a law degree. Following his legal studies, he embarked on a diplomatic career, which enabled him to tour different cities. Qabbani served in the Syrian embassies in Cairo (1945-48), Ankara (1948), Lebanon, London (1952-55), Beijing (1958-60), and Madrid (1962-66). Syria had gained independence in 1946 and after several coups the power was seized by the Ba'ath Party. Due to his poem, 'Bread, Hashish, and the Moon,' the men of religion in Syrian parliament considered in 1954 demoting him from his diplomatic post. Qabbani retired in 1966 and moved to Beirut, Lebanon, where he worked in literary journalism and eventually founded Manshurat Nizar Qabbani publishing house. Along with Bader Shaker al-Sayyab, Yusuf al-Khal, Onsi al-Hajj, Mohammad al-Maghout, and Adonis, he helped created modernism in Arabic poetry. In the 1980s he moved to London.

While still a student, Qabbani published his first collection of poems. His love poems,  Qalit Li al-Samra' (1944), written in ordinary language, attracted especially young readers. Conservative critics called his work blasphemeous. Of his second collection, Tufulat Nahd (1948), Qabbani said: "Let us then read these poems as we would look at the moon." ('Poetry as a Social Document: The Social Position of the Arab Woman as Reflected in the Poetry of Nizar Qabbani' by Arieh Loya, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 6, No. 4, Oct. 1975) This book "broke all the taboos of Arabic poetry and was highly criticized for its sexual content. (Steel & Silk: Men and Women who Shaped Syria 1900-2000 by Sami M. Moubayed, 2006, p. 562) However, from the beginning of his career, Qabbani himself ignored all criticism.

Qasa'id min Nizar Qabbani (1956) is Qabbani's most outstanding early collection, in which he assumed a female persona in three poems, 'Pregnant,' 'A Letter from a Spiteful Lady,' and 'The Vessels of Pus.' In the following works Qabbani also wrote from a woman's viewpoint and urged women to fight against discrimination and defend their social freedoms. Generally his readers paralleled these themes with the fate of the Arab people, but there is also a personal level: when he was fifteen his sister Wisal committed suicide because the family wanted her to marry a man she did not love. Qabbani referred to her as "the martyr of love".

Among Qabbani's most famous poems is 'Bread, Hashish and Moon,' in which he castigated Arab societies for their weakness, drug-induced fantasies, and stagnation. "In the night of the East and when / the moon grows full / the East is stripped of all dignity / and initiative to struggle." The collection sparked a parliamentary debate and demands for his dismissal from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Qabbani saw new hope for wider political and social transformation in the Palestine Liberation Movement. Ala hamish daftar al-naksa (1967) was born under the devastating shock of the Six Day War. Qabbani criticized Arab leadership during the war. "The stage is burned / down to the pit / but the actors have not died yet." (from 'The Actors') He was banned from entering Egypt, partly due to a poem in which he asked President Gamal Abdul Nasser: "When will you go away?" After Nasser's death he eulogized him as "the Fourth Pyramid" in La! (1970) – Qabbani idolized the Egyptian strongman for standing up for the British. Quabbani called  Nasser the only true giant "in an age of dwarfs". Noteworthy, he also supported Saddam Hussein.

Shaken by the vicious circle of violence in the Middle East, Qabbani shifted from love themes to political ones. 1967 is said to have been a watershed for many Arab intellectuals. "Ah my country! You have transformed me / from a poet of love and yearning / to a poet writing with a knife." In a poem written immediately the June defeat Qabbani used the image Harun al-Rashid in a negative sense, as a symbol of tyranny, although in popular memory this famous caliph was the archetype of a great ruler. In 'Marginal Notes on the Book of Defeat' from 1967 he wrote: "My master Sultan, / You have lost the war twice / / because half of our people have no tongues. / And what is the worth of a voiceless people?"

When many other poets found their main subjects from the world politics and the fight for human dignity, Qabbani still revisited his erotic poems, but giving the concept of love a broader meaning: "If only they knew / that what I write about love / is written for my country." ('Politics and Erotics in Nizar Kabbani's Poetry: From the Sultan's Wife to the Lady Friend' by Mohja Kahf, World Literature Today, Vol. 74, No. 1, Winter, 2000) His early political verse were mostly collected in Al-A 'mal al-styasiyya (1974). Qabbani's stand against dictatorship is seen in the bitter lines: "O Sultan, my master, if my clothes / are ripped and torn / it is because your dogs with claws / are allowed to tear me. And your informers every day are those / who dog my heels, each step / unavoidable as fate." Qabbani clashed with King Hussein of Jordan, accusing him of murdering Palestinians living in Amman during the Jordanian-Palestinian war of September 1970. From Egypt he was banished in 1977 after criticizing President Anwar al-Sadat's visit to Israel, labelling Sadat as an agent of Israel who was "mad" and who had "raped" Egypt.

Qabbani was married twice. With his first wife, Zahra Aqbiq, he had two children, Tawfiq and Hadba; Tawfiq died in a car accident. His second wife was Balqis al-Rawi, an Iraqi schoolteacher, whom he had first met at a poetry recital in Baghdad, She inspired many of his love poems, of which 'Choose' has been read as his marriage proposal. Balqis was killed in 1981 at her Beirut office in a bomb attack by pro-Iranian guerrillas. Qabbani remained deeply devoted to her memory for the rest of his life. The death of his eldest son, a medical student, led him to write  Ila al- Ameer al-Dimashqi Tawfiq al-Qabbani (To the Damascene Prince Tawfiq al-Qabbani). Qabbani's niece, the feminist writer Rana Qabbani, was married to the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish.

In the 1980s, Qabbani wrote poems, which celebrated the teenage rebels of the Palestinian intifadah. 'I Am a Terrorist' was directed against Western media for labelling Arab men terrorist when they defend their homes and their people's dignity. Following the Oslo Peace Accord, the accord between Israel and the PLO, he wrote against the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, accusing him of having conducted "peace of the weak" at a time when what the Arabs needed was "peace of the brave." 

After Balqis's death, Qabbani wrote several poems dealing with his grief and loss. "I knew that she would be killed / she was beautiful in an age that was ugly / pure in an age that was contaminated / noble in the age of hoodlums." (from 'Twelve Roses in Balqis's Hair, On Entering the Sea, 1996) He left the Arab world, and lived during the subsequent years in Geneva, Paris, and London in self-imposed exile. Qabbani died of a heart attack in London on May 1, 1998. His body was flown to Damascus for burial. Qabbani's funeral was broadcast live all around the Arab world. A street in Abu Rummaneh neighbourhood in Western Damascus was named after him.

Qabbani was a frequent contributor to the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat. His poems have been translated into English, French, Spanish, Italian, Persian and Russian. Although his work assailed Arab leaders and they were  banned, people obtained copies illegally. Many of his lyrics have been popularized by Lebanese, Syrian, and Egyptian vocalists, including the Egyptian Um Kalthum, the musician Mohammad Abd al-Wahab, the singer Abd al-Halim, the Lebanese star Fayruz. The Iraqi born the top-selling artist Kazem al-Saher acquired the rights to several of Qabbani's lyrical works, such as 'The Impossible Love,' Qabbani's last poem. The Syrian novelist Colette Khury based her bestseller Ayyam Ma'ahou (1959, Days with Him) on her real-life friendship with Qabbani.

Although Qabbani's poems continue the sixteen centuries old tradition of Arabic love poetry, they are updated with modern experience and echo the rhythms, intonations, and idioms of everyday language. His early works Qabbani wrote in classical forms. Love is for Qabbani something that is mystical, but at the same time very sensual. Saudi Arabia blacklisted Quabbani for the sexuality of his poetry. "Strip naked... disrobe. / I am mute – / Your body knows all languages." (from 'The Book of Love') Qabbani could also use Christian images: "... I bleed in your love / Like Christ." ('Book of Love') Influenced by the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, he saw a poem as a painting - one collection was even entitled 'Drawing with Words' (Al-rasm bi-al-kalimat, 1966).

Parvin Loloi has considered in Contemporary World Writers (1993), that Qabbani's "artistic achievement lies, in a manner familiar from classical Arabic poetry, in the creation of variations on the same theme -through its musicality, and in its variety of tone. Above all he has trodden ground where no Arab poet had dared to step before – seeking to revolutionize women's attitude towards their own sexuality." Salma Khadra Jayyusi said in her introduction to Modern Arabic Poetry: "His abundant love poetry is the major source of hope that the human heart can finally transcend pain and fear and dare to assert its capacity to summon joy and engage passion. His poetry brings freedom from tension, liberation from gloom, a refreshing release of laughter and gaiety. Above all, it proudly proclaims a new reverence for the body; it washes away the traditional embarrassment, now many centuries old, which was linked to woman's physical passion."

For further reading: al-Marjiʻiyāt al-turāthīyah fī shiʻr Nizār Qabbānī by Nizār Yāsīn Rabābiʻah (2021); Artists, Writers and The Arab Spring by Riad Ismat (2019); Nizar Qabbani by Kameran Hudsch (2010; German Edition); 'Qabbani, Nizar' by Spencer C. Tucker and Sherifa Zuhur, in The Encyclopedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Volume One, A-H, ed. by Spencer C. Tucker (2008); Steel & Silk: Men and Women who Shaped Syria 1900-2000 by Sami Moubayed (2006);  'Metaphor, Image, and Music in a Line by Nizar Quabbani' by Z. Rihani, Z., Translation Review, ISSU 64 (2002; 'Politics and Erotics in Nizar Kabbani's Poetry: From the Sultan's Wife to the Lady Friend' by Mohja Kahf, in World Literature Today, 74:1, Winter (2000); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); On Entering the Sea: The Erotic and Other Poetry of Nizar Qabbani, by Lena Jayyusi, et al. (1996); Contemporary World Authors, ed. by Tracy Chevalier (1993); Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry by S.K. Jayyusi (1977); A Critical Introduction to Modern Arabic Poetry by M.M. Badawi (1975); 'Poetry as a Social Document' by A. Loya, in Muslim World 63:1 (1973); 'Nizar Quabbani, the Poet and His Poetry' by Z. Gabay, in Middle Eastern Studies 9:2 (1973)

Selected bibliography:

  • Qalit Li al-Samra', 1944 [The Dark Lady Told Me]
  • Tufulat Nahd, 1948 [Adolescence of a Bosom]
  • Samba, 1949
  • Inta Li, 1950
  • Qasaid min Nizar Qabbani, 1956
  • Habibati, 1961
  • Al-Shiir Qindil Akhdar, 1964
  • Al-Rasm b'il-Kalimat, 1966 [Drawing with Words] 
  • Hawamish ala Daftar Al-Naksa, 1967 [Margins on the Notebook of Defeat] 
  • Yaumiyat Imraa la Mubaliyah, 1968
  • Ifadah fi mahkmat al-shir, 1969
  • Al-Mumaththilun, al istijwab, 1969
  • Kitab al-Hubb, 1970
  • Qasaid Mutawahisha, 1970
  • La!, 1970
  • Me'at Resalit Hubb, 1970 
  • Ahla qasa idi, 1971
  • Ashaar Khariga Ala al-Qanoun, 1972  
  • Al-A'mal al-Siyasiyya, 1974
  • Kitabah Amal Inqilabi, 1975
  • Ila Bayrut al-untha, 1976
  • Uhibbuki, uhibbuki wa-al- baqiyah ta'ti, 1978
  • Kulu Aam wa Anti Habibati, 1978
  • Shay min al-Nathr, 1979
  • Ashhadu an la Imraa Illa Anti, 1979
  • Hakatha Aktubu Tarikh al-Nisaa, 1981
  • Al Asafir la Tatlubu Tashirat Dukhul, 1981
  • Qamous al-Asheqeen, 1981
  • Qasaidah Balqees, 1982
  • Qassiti Maa al-Shir, 1983
  • Ash'ar majnunah, 1983
  • Wa-al-kalimat Taarifa al-Ghadab, 1983 (2 vols.)
  • Al-Hub la Yaquf ala al-Daw' al-Ahmar, 1983
  • Qasaid Maghdoub Alaiha, 1986
  • Ashaar Majnouna, 1986
  • Qassati Maa al-Shir, 1986
  • Sayabqa al-Hubb Sayyidi, 1986  
  • Joumhouriyat Janounstan, 1988
  • Tazawajtik ayuha Al-Houreyya, 1988  
  • Al-Kabrit fi Yaddi wa Duwail Atikum Min al-Warraq, 1989
  • La Ghalib Illa al-Hub,  1989
  • Al-Awraq al Sirriya Li Ashiq Qurmuti, 1989
  • La'ibtu bi-itqan wa-ha hiya mafatihi, 1990
  • Hawamish alla Al-Hawamish, 1967-1991, 1991
  • Arabian Love Poems: Full Arabic and English Texts, 1993 (by Nizar Qabbani, et al.,  translated by Bassam K. Frangieh and Clementina R. Brown)
  • Qasidat Maya, 1993
  • Ana Rajul Wahid wa anti Qabila min Al-Nisaa, 1993
  • Khamsuna Aman fi Madih Al-Nisaa, 1994
  • Dimashq Nizar Qabbani, 1995
  • Po'emot, 1995 (with Mahmud Darvish; selections in Hebrew)  
  • Tanweeat Nizariya Ala Maqamat al-Ishq, 1996
  • On Entering the Sea: The Erotic and Other Poetry of Nizar Qabbani, 1996 (trans. Lena Jayyusi, Sharif Elmusa, Jack Collum, Diana Der Hovanessian, W. S. Merwin, Christopher Middleton, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jeremy Reed)
  • Min qasa'id al-'ishq wa-al-manfa, 1998 (selected by Sa'dun al-Suwayh)
  • Nizar Qabbani al-Ashiq, 1998
  • Abjadiyat al-yasmin takhsaru shairaha, 1998
  • Nizar Qabbani, sha'ir al-hubb wa-al-watan, 1999 (edited by Hasan Bisharah)
  • Tefoulat Nahd, 1999
  • Diwan al-hubb wa-al ghazal, 2001
  • Ma Hu al-Shir?, 2000
  • Min al-Wariki al-Majahula, 2000
  • Bahjat al-iktishaf, 2003
  • Qasaid li-Nizar Qabbani rafadatha al-raqabah, 2003
  • Rawa'i Nizar Qabbani, 2006
  • Nizār Qabbānī, mutanāthiran ka-rīsh al-ʻaṣāfīr --- : 14 risālah ghayr manshūrah min Nizār ilá al-muʼallif maʻa wathāʼiqihā wa-al-taʻlīq ʻalayhā, 2013

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