From Arabian Love Poems by Nizar Kabbani, translated by Bassam K. Frangieh and Clementina R. Brown. Copyright (c) 1999 by Bassam K. Frangieh and Clementina R. Brown. Used with permission of Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. Order the Book
Bassam K. Frangieh
NIZAR KABBANI, THE MOST INFLUENTIAL AND BEST-KNOWN Arab poet in modern times, penetrated and captured the hearts and souls of millions of Arabs. During a career that produced fifty volumes of poetry, Kabbani became the Arab world’s greatest love poet. He was a champion of women’s rights, urging women to take control of their lives, bodies, and destinies. A proponent of women’s liberation, he initiated a change in attitudes about sexuality, erotic freedom, and the right of women to celebrate ecstasy.
He asserted that freedom of the body was a path to freedom of the spirit for everyone, thereby helping the new generation to erase the guilt, fear, and embarrassment that had been associated with sex. He also strived to change the repressive relationship between the two sexes to one of openness.
Kabbani was born in Damascus, Syria, on March 21, 1923, to a traditional well-to-do family. He was the second of six children—two girls and four boys. During his youth, the resistance movement against the French mandate was mobilizing the population, and the modern nation of Syria was in the process of being born. Along with the other merchants and professionals, his father, Tawfiq Kabbani, a respected national figure, helped finance the national movement and was one of its leaders. The spacious Kabbani house, located in Al-Shaghur, the most conservative section of the city, was used for secret resistance meetings, and the child Nizar would sit in the huge courtyard near fountains and flowers listening to political leaders speak out against the French occupation.
There were calls for revolution and freedom, and plans for strikes and demonstrations were often completed in the Kabbani home. Early one morning when Nizar was ten, French soldiers entered the house and arrested his father, imprisoning him for a time in the Syrian desert outside Palmyra. The example set by his father, who was willing to sacrifice for political and social freedom, laid the foundation for Kabbani’s later work and influenced his poetic development.
Kabbani may also have been influenced by his father’s uncle, Abu Khalil al-Kabbani, who was an unusual and gifted nineteenth-century Syrian figure. Abu Khalil was a well-known author, composer, singer, dancer, actor, and poet who was strongly influenced by Western theater. He translated Moliere into Arabic and established the first theater company in Syria. He long dreamed of creating a “Broadway district” in the city of Damascus.
Because women were not allowed to act in the Syrian theater during Abu Khalil’s time, he gave female roles to young men with high-pitched voices. This female impersonation enraged the sheikhs and religious figures in Damascus, and they sent a delegation to the capital of the Ottoman Empire to complain to the caliph. A decree was issued to close Abu Khalil’s theater, the only avant-garde theater in the Middle East at that time. Forced into exile, Abu Khalil went to Egypt, where he soon began to contribute to the establishment of the Egyptian theater at the end of the century.
Nizar Kabbani attended primary and secondary school at the National College of Science, located in the heart of old Damascus. This college, established for the Damascene bourgeois, combined in its curriculum Arabic and French languages and cultures, in contrast to the missionary schools, where only French language and culture were emphasized. The faculty of the National College included leading intellectuals, writers, and poets, and Kabbani was fortunate to have been taught by the gifted poet Khalil Mardam.
Kabbani completed secondary school and then earned his bachelor’s degree in law from Damascus University. Although it was his major, he did not like law, preferring instead to jot down love poems in the margins of his notebooks during classroom lectures.
According to the poet, he came from a family that falls in love easily, “Love was born in my family as natural as sweetness is born in apples.” For generations, men in the Kabbani family were known for falling in love with the first pair of beautiful eyes they saw. Wissal Kabbani, one of the poet’s sisters, was herself a martyr to love. Kabbani was fifteen when Wissal committed suicide, “simply and poetically,” because she couldn’t marry the man she loved. The image of his sister dying for the sake of love lived on in his memory, and he often thought of her “angelic face and her beautiful smile” while she was dying.
Nizar Kabbani believed that his sister’s suicide may have been one of the factors that led him to devote himself to love poetry. He wrote, “The death of my sister, the martyr, broke something inside me and left on the surface of the lake of my childhood more than one ripple and more than one question mark.”
He wrote his first poem in 1939, at age sixteen, and in 1944 published his first collection of love poems, Qalat Ii al-Samra’ (The Brunette Said to Me). In this collection, the twenty-one-year-old poet described how he had discovered the world of women and the world of love. Full of sexual images, the work became available during a time when love and sex were forbidden topics in Arab society, especially among the youth, and it sold out within a month. Verses in the collection spread like wildfire, and one poem, “Your Breast,” catapulted Kabbani to fame. In it, the poet talks to a brunette:
Unlock the treasury!
Lay bare your burning breasts
Don’t smother your imprisoned fire.
Your breasts are the two most beautiful paintings,
Two balls of silk spun by the generous morning,
So come close to me my little cat
Let yourself free,
Think of the fate of your breasts
With the turn of the seasons.
Foolish is she who hides her breasts
And lets her youth pass without being kissed.
I pulled her body to me
She neither resisted nor spoke,
Intoxicated she swayed against me
And offered her quivering breasts
Saying in drunken passion
“I cannot resist touching fire.”
Students gathered together to recite this poem, copying lines in their schoolbooks, and verses appeared on every schoolroom blackboard in Damascus. In appreciation of his young fans, Kabbani noted, “Throughout my poetic history, students have been my troops, my voice, and my passport to the world.”
The collection—twenty-eight poems written in a new style, simple, direct, and honest—appeared toward the end of World War II, when Damascene society was undergoing a transformation. Previously, literary life had been isolated from the people and molded by rigid rules and traditional themes. During the war years, however, an intergenerational struggle began, which Kabbani embodied. Expressing the needs of the new generation for openness and social freedom, he broke the entrenched walls of silence about love and sex and established a contemporary, liberated love poetry. The younger generation also responded enthusiastically to the poet’s style, in which classical Arabic was linked with colloquial words. Kabbani often used pure Damascene idioms in his verses. His work was read by young men and women in their bedrooms and in the streets. They felt that this poet was speaking their language and using a vocabulary of yearning, excitement, love, lust, and rebellion—a true expression of their lives. Predictably, the poet was attacked by conservatives in Syria and other Arab states who had a vested interest in traditional lifestyles.
Harshly criticized by the clergy and religious leaders as had been his uncle earlier in the century, Kabbani also was attacked by the media. Among his most bitter critics were Sheikh Ali Tantawi, who published a series of caustic articles in Al-Risala Journal. Sheikh Tantawi wrote:
A year ago in Damascus a little book was published with a glossy,
smooth cover like the fancy paper which is used to wrap chocolate
at weddings. The book is tied with a red ribbon like the one the
French used at the beginning of their occupation of Damascus to
girdle the hips of some women. This book is supposed to be poetry
but the verses are of equal length only if you measure them with
a ruler. The collection contains a description of a shameless whore
and every festering and sinful thing. It is a realistic description
but without imagination because the author is not an imaginative
man. Rather he is a spoiled school boy, rich and dear to his parents.
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