Art in the press

Nizar Kabbani

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.


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,
Come close,
Think of the fate of your breasts
With the turn of the seasons.
Don’t panic,
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.

Introduction - Continue...
Bassam K. Frangieh

A year after the controversial collection was published, Kabbani joined the Syrian diplomatic corps, subsequently serving in Cairo, Ankara, London, Madrid, Beijing, and Beirut. This experience played an important role in his life and his art, for his ever more complex and allusive style seems to reflect his long immersion in foreign cultures. Nevertheless, he continued to publish poems in which he described his deepening feelings about women and his sympathies for their deprivations and unequal treatment.

By 1948, he published his second collection, Tufulat Nahd (Young Breast), another important achievement. The relative openness of Cairo, his first post, had further liberated the artist in him and refined his poetic language, introducing sensuous images within a complex aesthetic framework and symbolic expressions. In his collection Qasa’id (Poems), published in 1956, Kabbani further explored the inner world of women and established new trends in feelings and thought. Here, for the first time, he expressed himself in the first-person feminine. This is an important aspect of his poetry, through which the reader experiences the hidden world of women and hears their bitter words against men and society. In a sense, he was doing what his artistic uncle had done—using male voices to speak for the generations of silenced women.
Kabbani said it better in the introduction to his collection Yawmiyyat Imra’a La-Mubaliya (Diary of an Indifferent Woman), 1968, where he elaborated further on the societal pressures on Arab women: “This is the book of every woman. . .sentenced and executed before she could open her mouth. The East needs a man like me to put on the clothes of a woman and to borrow her bracelets and eyelashes in order to write about her. Is it not an irony that I cry out with a woman’s voice while women cannot speak up on their own?”

From the very beginning of his poetic career, Kabbani held Arab men and the society they dominated responsible for the wrongs done to women. He early understood the problems of women, and his position on the issue of women’s rights remained unchanged. His poetry, early and late, with its social and aesthetic dimensions, made a difference. Kabbani, allying himself through his art with liberal forces at work in the Arab world, courageously produced vivid verses that created an atmosphere encouraging women to abandon the veil, to choose their marriage partners, and to gain a modest level of independence.

In the spring of 1966, Kabbani left the diplomatic service to devote himself entirely to his poetry. He remained in Beirut, his last post, and founded the publishing house Manshurat Nizar Kabbani to produce his works. Kabbani wrote: “When I sat behind the desk and lit the first cigarette in my Beirut office, I felt like a king with real authority.” The concept of love that Kabbani developed in his 1966 publication “Painting with Words” was one result of his twenty years of emotional, social, and poetic experience outside of Syria.

In his 1972 collection, Ash’ar Kharija ‘ala al-Qanun (Poems Outside the Law), the reader finds symbolism intermixed with romanticism. It is a sharp and sensitive collection in which each poem changes into a symbol. The beautiful poem “Tanwi’at Musiqiyah ‘an Imra’ah Mutajarridah” (Musical Variations of a Naked Woman), for example, is a creative and innovative work depicting the feelings of a poet before two naked breasts. His feelings expand to include visions and images transferring the movements of the breasts into voices, smells, tastes, flames, and colors. The poem is an artistic mixture of images, thoughts, and feelings, rich in details:

Two beautiful roosters
Crow on your chest
And sleep.
I remained sleepless.
The hand-embroidered sheet
Was covered with birds,
Roses and palm trees.

The fields of Ceylon,
The forests of spices,
And the coconuts
Call me,
Keeping me from sleep.
My nerves are pieces of straw,
My face a newspaper clipping.
I am not a killer,
But the jumping shark
In the gulf of your wild breasts
Seduced me into committing a crime.

Your half-open red gown
Revealing two firm breasts
Sliced my wound open.
I dreamt of you in your bath,
The iridescent bubbles
Floated by the chandelier, flicked my skin,
Broke me on the ground into pieces.

Your breasts were two baby lambs
Nuzzling on the grass of my chest,
Cashmere fleeced my face, my shirt.
I, shattered, glittered on the floor like beads . . .
Drinking coffee,
And your gown
Roused me,
Millions of gifts you offered.

Your breasts were two unbridled horses
Drinking water from the bottom of mirrors. . . .

Kabbani rejected the silencing of love, just as he opposed societal values based on repression. Many of his verses sought to incite women to liberate themselves from constricting society.

Love me and say it out loud,
I refuse that you love me mutely

There is no poem by Kabbani that is free of a female presence, and there is nothing about women that Kabbani could not transform as an inspiration for his verse.

I become ugly when I don’t love
And I become ugly when I don’t write

The supreme importance of women to Kabbani is indicated in the following verse, which depicts women as a source of protection, salvation, and supernatural power in the face of death:

Nothing protects us from death
Except woman and writing

The poet paid a great deal of attention to the emotional lives of women and was fond of the “little things” that shape how they think and feel. In his poem “Shu’un Saghirah” (Little Things), he speaks in a woman’s voice to reveal the way she feels when she is in love, describing the details and inner world that fill her life and enrich her imagination, and conveying her passion, warmth, and innocence:

Little things
Which mean the world to me
Pass by you
Without making an impression.
From these things
I build palaces,
Live on them for months
And spin many tales from them,
One thousand skies,
And one thousand islands,
But these little things
Mean nothing to you.

When the telephone rings in our house
I run to it
With the joy of a small child,
I embrace the emotionless machine
And squeeze
Its cold wires
And I wait
For your warm, full voice to come to me
Like the music of falling stars
And the sound of tumbling jewels.
I cry
Because you have thought of me
And have called me
From the invisible world.

When I return to my room in the evening
And take off my dress,
I feel your hands
Mercifully wrapping around my arms.
Although you are not in my room
I worship
The place where your warm hands
Held the sleeve of my blue dress
And cry.

Kabbani played an important role in bringing poetic language closer to the language used in everyday life. Poet Salma Jayyusi argues that Kabbani did more than any other contemporary Arab poet to unite the language of poetry with contemporary language, both written and vernacular. In much of his erotic and sociopolitical verse, he managed to approximate the rhythms of common speech. His poetry produces an instant effect on the audience. His contemporary voice is heard not only in the use of the single word, but also, and this is most important, in his style, his word arrangement, and the very spirit of the language.

Leading critic Ihsan Abbas has argued that, if not for Nizar Kabbani and some of the poetry of Salah Abdul Sabour, love would not have taken the form of an independent poetic theme in the Arab world. Before these two poets, love had been mixed and blended with other themes. Kabbani gave the theme of love distinct dimensions that guaranteed its independent existence, and as a result, he was named the poet of love. Kabbani made love one part of an equation between two great powers: women and poetry.

Kabbani also addressed problems facing women from a psychological or sociological point of view. The reaction of a woman to an unfaithful husband is examined in “Risalah Min Sayyidah Haqidah” (Letter from an Angry Woman). The problem of a pregnant woman whose lover turns his back on her is the subject of “Hubla” (Pregnant). How a woman might express her sexual hunger when the man close to her does not satisfy her is the theme of “Aw’iyat al-Sadid” (Vessels of Pus). And how this same woman then ceases from making love to men and begins to make love with women is the subject of “Al-Qasidah al-Shirirah” (The Evil Poem).

Kabbani’s poetry was not inspired by a single love or a single woman; it was the product of multiple relationships and much experience. His love had a universal tone and universal dimensions—a lover for the entire world. He felt that he was part of the land, society, culture, and history, and that each word a poet puts on paper carries within it an entire humanity. “Woman for me is a continent that I travelled to, but she is certainly not the entire world. Love for me embraces the entire universe. It exists in the soil and water and in the night; in the wounds of fighters and in the eyes of children; in the revolutions of students and in the furor of angry men. Woman is a seaport among many seaports that provided me with bread, water, silk, and incense, but the rest of the ports continue calling to my ship.

Kabbani saw in women a revolution and a means of liberation for both men and women. He linked women’s rights with the war for social liberation in the Arab world, maintaining: “Unless we stop considering women as sex objects, there will be no liberation. Sexual repression is the biggest problem in the Arab World.” He called for an end to the game of love behind closed doors: “I have moved my bed to the open air and I have written my love poems on trees in public parks . . . to put an end to secretive and marshal laws imposed on the body of the Arab woman and make love legitimate.” “People who are possessed with sex, he wrote, “cannot write, think, or undertake any civilized achievement.” Thus, he was convinced that sexual repression is one reason behind the economic backwardness of the Arab world, and that any revolution concerned solely with an individual’s thoughts and not with his or her body is only half a revolution.

Kabbani believed that, ideally, art should be able to lift the veil from tragedy without seeking solutions. He touched upon his subject with the tenderness and delicacy of a butterfly, like a painter using his brush. His skillful and hidden techniques require careful study.
Poetic language is the real key to Kabbani’s work and was his most important achievement. “I departed from the dictionary and dealt with vocabulary that everyone used. I included words that are hot, fresh, and mixed with the flesh of human beings and the incidents in their daily lives.” As he saw it, his task as a poet was to take poetry from the lips of individuals and return it to them. His words were always warm and directed to innocent, simple people, to those who “could not find clothes to wear so they wore a poem.” He portrayed the reality of his audience.
Kabbani also was an indisputable master of poetry readings. His readings were exceptional cultural events, and millions of Arabs gathered to listen to him in person, on television, or on the radio, affirming the importance of poetry in the lives of Arabs and in the molding of their consciousness. In Sudan, ten thousand people attended one of his open-air readings. During the Arab League’s 1980 poetry festival in Tunis, he read his powerful poem “Ana Ya Sadiqati Mut’abun Bi’urubati” (My Friend, I am Tired of My Arabism), which was broadcast on Tunisian National Television; it is said that the broadcast was watched by everyone in the country who had access to a television, and by the next day the poem had spread throughout the Middle East, where its verses can be found to this day framed on walls in homes.

More than those of any other contemporary Arab poet, Kabbani’s poems have been set to music and recorded. Since popular music in the Arab world has a massive audience, these recordings have broadened Kabbani’s appeal even further, capturing the hearts of millios of listeners and flowing from many lips. His verses serve as a bridge between popular music and modern poetry, and they have enriched popular Arabic music with poetic rhythms and nuances.

Although Kabbani mixed romanticism and symbolism with realism, his work is difficult to classify into one school or movement of poetic thought. He himself was well aware of this fact. In his 1990 volume Hal Tasma’in Sahil Ahzani? (Do You Hear the Neigh of My Sadness?), for example, he wrote: “Don’t bother to classify me. I’m a poet outside classification, description and specifications. I’m not a traditionalist, a modernist, classicist, neoclassicist, romantic, nor a futurist, an impressionist, or surrealist. I’m a mixture that no laboratory can analyze. I’m a mixture of freedom. This is the word that I have been seeking for fifty years and I only found it this moment.”

It was in 1954 that Kabbani added another taboo to his poetry: politics. In that year he published “Khubz wa Hashish wa Qamar” (Bread, Hashish, and Moon), in which he harshly criticized the mistakes of the Arabs, attacking all Arab leaders in his demand for radical change. More than a decade later, after the Arab defeat in the Six Day War, he announced his commitment to political poetry:

O my sad homeland
You have changed me
In a single moment
From the poet writing of love and longing
To a poet writing with a knife

“Woman has been my beloved for fifty years and still is,” he wrote, “but I added to her a second wife; her name is Homeland.”

Kabbani’s growing commitment to political poetry was not a surprise. The first poem he wrote had a nationalist theme, and he kept touching on other political and social themes. His love and compassion for his country and his longing for his land were always strong, reflecting his family’s deep roots in the national and social struggles in the Arab world. Traveling in Andalusia, he was swept by a storm of yearning for his homeland:

In the narrow streets of Cordova
I reached into my pockets more than once
To pull out the keys
To our house in Damascus

In 1956, he wrote “The Story of Rachel Schwartzenberg,” in which he summarized in poetic verses the story of the Zionist movement and the miserable situation of Palestinians living and struggling in the diaspora. Also in 1956, during the aggression of Britain, France, and Israel against Egypt, he wrote “Letter from a Soldier on the Suez Front,” denouncing the attackers and depicting the heroism of the Egyptians as they defended their land. In 1961 he wrote “Jamila Buhayred,” in which he described that woman’s bravery and her prominent role in the Algerian struggle against the French.

“Bread, Hashish, and Moon” (1954), however, was perhaps his most famous sociopolitical poem. In it he shook the foundations of Arab society by revealing a collapsing social system and calling for immediate change. The poet described in clear words the miserable situation of the masses who live in poverty, superstition, and backwardness:

When the moon is born in the east,
The white roofs sleep
Beneath the heaps of light,
People leave their shops and depart in groups
To meet the moon,
Carrying their bread and songs to the mountaintop,
And their drugs,
Where they buy and sell fantasies
And images,
And die if the moon comes to life.
What does that luminous disc
Do to my land,
To the land of the prophets,
To the land of the simple,
The chewers of tobacco and dealers of narcotics,
What does the moon do to us,
That we lose our pride
And live only to beg from heaven?
What does heaven have
For the lazy and the weak? . . .
They spread out their fine and elegant carpets
And console themselves with an opium
Called destiny and fate
In this land, the land of the simple.

After the poem was published, the Syrian parliament met to discuss its implications, and some members of parliament demanded that its author be expelled from the Syrian foreign service.
The poem “Hawamish ‘ala Daftar al-Naksah” (Marginal Notes on the Book of Defeat), which Kabbani wrote immediately after the 1967 Arab defeat, contained harsh criticism for the political, psychological, and strategic mistakes of the Arabs. This poem resulted in pitting both the right and the left against him because he attacked all Arab leaders without exception, calling for democracy, freedom, and justice:

It is not surprising that we have lost the war.
For we fought it
With all the East’s rhetorical talents
And empty heroism.

The secret of our tragedy:
Our cries are more powerful than our voices,
Our swords taller than our men.

Our skins are numbed.
Our souls bankrupt,
Our days wasted in witchcraft, chess and sleep.

O Sultan, O my lord,
Because I came close to your deaf walls,
Trying to reveal my sadness and my misfortune,
I was beaten with shoes.
Your soldiers forced me to eat out of my shoes.
O Sultan, O my lord,
You have lost the war twice
Because half of us has no tongue
What value are people with no voice?

The poem found a large audience among the many Arabs who read in it what they had wanted to say but were not able to put into words.
As happens to many artists of courage and vision, Kabbani paid a high price for writing political poetry. At one time or another, most of the Arab regimes have censored his books. In Egypt, after the publication of “Marginal Notes on the Book of Defeat,” all of Kabbani’s poetry, including his verses set to music, was banned; he was not allowed to enter the country, and there were calls for a trial. Eventually, however, after a personal appeal to Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Naser, Kabbani was given permission to travel in Egypt and his music and poetry were available again.
Kabbani’s message is clear and consistent: the political and social structures in the Arab world must change to better represent the people. He vowed publicly to maintain his vigil on Arab governments and societies until real change took place, and he held to his course.

Beirut, the city where Kabbani settled after his diplomatic career, was to be a site of deep personal tragedy for the poet. He lost his second wife there in 1981, when she was an innocent victim in a bomb blast during the Lebanese Civil War. Eight years earlier, he had lost his twenty-five-year-old son, a medical student, to a heart ailment. This double tragedy left a deep mark on his life. His moving poem “Balqis,” about his murdered wife, is a lengthy and powerful attack on all parties in the Lebanese Civil War who had abandoned major problems in the Arab world in order to fight each other. In “Balqis” he came close to naming those whom he believed had planted the bomb that killed his wife. Although he vowed in this poem never to write again, the prolific writer did not keep his pledge. He left Beirut after her death to reside in France and Switzerland, and finally settled in England where he lived until his death in May 1998.
There is a close harmony between Kabbani the man, his poetry, and his beliefs. This harmony produced a special musicality in his poetry that is more important than rhyme and meter. He also wrote from the heart—“I felt something, so I created something” —and the qualities of innocence, truthfulness, and simplicity permeate his work. Perhaps the most important praise of any writer is the excitement and anticipation with which his or her followers wait for new work. The Arab world always anxiously awaited Kabbani’s next poem, whatever the subject matter. It is still difficult to accept that there will not be one.