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Nizar Qabbani: The courage of a poet

The man who said Arabs have never resisted the 'imperialism of poetry' spread a subversive message

Nizar Qabbani, an Arab poet of Syrian origin, undoubtedly deserves the title of “very courageous poet.” Qabbani, who died in London in 1998 at the age of 76, remains a most distinguished poet. For almost half a century, he criticized the manifestations of injustice, corruption and apathy in Arab society.

Qabbani’s poetry sparked vehement reactions in almost every corner of Arab society. But in spite of that, Qabbani courageously continued to write verse in which he brought the social ills of the Arab world to the fore. Among his best-known themes is that of the Arab woman and her plight. He treats her in his poems with sensitivity, sincerity and moral courage, by assailing the inequity dealt her in Arab society.

Following the Six Day War, national poetry became more popular in the Arab world and Qabbani turned to angry nationalistic poetry. He attacked Arab leaders and intellectuals and blamed them for the Arab defeat. He criticized Arab leaders who denied the people the possibility of expressing their opinion freely. In his poem, The Actors, published in April 1969, he criticized the Arab leaders for exploiting “Palestine” as an excuse to rule their peoples ruthlessly.

The Gulf War of 1990 brought Qabbani back to the spotlight, when he published his famous poem, Notes on the Book of Defeat, in which he attacked the Iraqi leader Sadam Hussein:

Defeat…behind it another defeat,
Behind it another defeat.
How can we win a war
If those who acted…photographed…and directed…learned fighting at the Ministry of Propaganda?

Surely this war brought about a drastic change in the peoples of the Middle East. Although he has been dead for 14 years, Nizar Qabbani‘s intellectual legacy is of greater relevance than ever today, as we witness a cruel Arab leader, Bashar Assad, killing his own people day after day,while the Arab world looks passively on.

Below is my translation of Qabbani’s controversial poem: Poetry – The Beautiful Imperialism – in which he calls on the Arabs to free themselves from the “imperialism” of poetry for the sake of making the desert bloom. Undoubtedly Qabbani’s call was one of the seeds that grew into the uprising in the Arab countries over the past two years:  

Poetry – The Beautiful Imperialism

Arabs have been subjugated to the imperialism of poetry for over fifteen centuries. They never resisted it,
Never raised an arm against it,
Never complained against it at the Security Council,
Or before the International Court of Justice.
Poetry has been a beautiful imperialism: polite, delicate and cultural in every sense of the word. 

We opened our houses, our hearts, our souls –
Till it became the landlord and we the guests.

We are the first people in history who signed a gentlemen’s agreement with a daring-eyed conqueror called poetry.
We are the first people who did not reject the imperialism of poetry, as we rejected others.
We did not demand sovereignty, independence or liberty from the imperialism of poetry,
Because poetry in its essence is a call for freedom.
Then, how can we free freedom from the freedom? 

Arabs lived a happily married life with poetry that lasted fifteen centuries.
Between Arabs and poetry existed: Love, forgiveness, bread and salt, sons and daughters
Who were gargling poetry even before their birth.
Arabs were faithful in their marriage to poetry,
United in their exclusive view of her.
They did not have sentimental relations with other forms of art, like painting, sculpting and acting and playing. 

An Arab man is known for his many desires, hopping from one beauty to another, from one bed to another and from one pillow to another…
But poetry remains his first and last love
And after fifteen centuries poetry still lives with him under one roof. 

It may be that the comparison between poetry and imperialism is not to your liking.
But how can I explain the behavior of two hundred million Arabs prostrating day and night,
burning incense and offering sacrifices to poetry;
purifying themselves in its music,
blessing themselves in its words,
believing in its prophecies and waiting for miracles? 

How otherwise can I explain the collective hysteria which is inflicted on Arabs when they listen to poetry?
How they change, in a few seconds, from a state of consciousness to a state of coma…and unbalance?
How can poetry change the color of the sand
on the map of the Arab World;
lead the Arab masses from a state of fear, poverty and plunder to the industrial garden, underneath which rivers flow?
How do Arabs tear their birth certificates, passports, after a successful night of poetry and demand to join the party of poetry? 

An Arab cannot hide his passion for poetry;
It comes from under his skin,
as water comes out from under the ground,
as sweat through the pores of his skin during summer time,
and as red and white blood cells are created in his blood.
An Arab cannot dislodge himself from books of poetry…
His identity will be abolished:
As a Chinese cannot escape from being Chinese,
An Indian from being Indian
An African from being African… 

An Arab consumes poetry, Breathes poetry, Sleeps with poetry,
Flirts with poetry, And bears children on seas of poetry.
An Arab is surrounded with poetry from birth,
Like a fish in water, An eye in an eyelid, A cat in fur,
A bird in feathers. The sky in blue color.
And the fetus in its mother’s womb. 

Poetry is tattooed on our bodies…and souls;
It cannot be removed with water…soap…or a chemical solution.
We are subjected to the whims of Poetry
Whether we like it or not. As Venice is to her water
Brazil is to her coffee. France is to her wines.
Spain is to her Flamenco songs, Egypt is to her Nile.
Bassra is to her palm trees. Aleppo is to her jasmine flowers.
And Palestine is to the smell of her orange trees… 

No child is born to us unless we hang on its neck a golden ornament on which is engraved two verses of poetry.
When he dies, we inscribe on his tombstone two verses of poetry; And the Arab Lover conquers the heart of his beloved with two verses of poetry.
These are the conspiracies of history, geography, geology, anthropology and evolution. No nation can deny its origin.
We compete with each other in poetry, as we compete in nationalism, slogans and in the high honors.

Mauritania boasts that she is the land of a million poets –
A million poets!!
Is that possible?
In the Arab imagination everything is possible.

I am not inclined to deny beautiful slogans, as I am not inclined to awaken a young Arab dreaming that he carries the will of Al Mutanabbi.