Nizar Qabbani is arguably the most popular and widely read poet in the Arab world, renowned particularly for his poems on themes such as religion, love and femininity, which challenged taboos about eroticism. As a former Syrian diplomat, he was also deeply political, spurred on by the failures suffered by the Arabs in the conflict with Israel.
Qabbani was critical of the authoritarianism that had become deeply embedded in the post-colonial Middle East. Nevertheless, he was a committed Arab nationalist with tributes made to several Arab cities, including his most beloved of all, his native Damascus.
He authored over 50 collections of poetry and prose in his lifetime. Several of his works found their way into lyrics sung by legendary Arab artists like Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafiz and Fayruz.
Nizar Qabbani was born into a wealthy family in Damascus on 21 March 1923, a year after the formal dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate, which led to Syria being divided into statelets created by the French. His father, a factory-owing nationalist, supported the armed struggle for Syrian independence against the French mandate and was arrested several times as a result. His paternal grandfather, Abu-Khalil Al-Qabbani, was a well-known poet, composer and actor. Inevitably, this had an effect on Nizar’s upbringing and shaped his outlook. The tragic suicide of his older sister as she expressed her refusal to marry someone she did not love when Qabbani was 15 also stayed with him and may have influenced his keenness to address cultural and societal restrictions on women in his later work. He appealed to Arab women readers by writing in the feminine first person in several pieces.
Attending a private school for the middle classes which taught in both Arabic and French, Qabbani was exposed to the French language, which was his gateway to French literature. However, it would be the influence of his Arabic literature teacher at school, Khalil Mardam, a notable Syrian poet who composed the lyrics for the Syrian National Anthem, which inspired Qabbani to devote himself to poetry.
His first book was published whilst still a student at Syrian University (later renamed Damascus University); it shocked the conservative society of the day by his use of overtly sensual language. Upon graduating in 1945 with a law degree, Qabbani joined the Syrian Foreign Ministry a year before Syria attained its independence. As a diplomat, he served in several cities around the world, including Cairo, Beirut, Ankara, Madrid, London and Beijing before ending his career in 1966. By then he had established a publishing house in Beirut, the Arab world’s printing capital, from where he could dedicate himself to his poetry for the next 16 years. It was said that his move to Lebanon in 1963 followed the Baathist-led coup in his native Syria.
However, it was the humiliating defeat of the Arab states in the Six Day War against Israel a year later that pushed Qabbani to shift from his usual poetic themes of love and sensuality towards more overtly political issues. He was affected profoundly as an Arab nationalist, blaming the authoritarian governments and lack of freedom in particular for the humiliating defeat, although he was in no way a proponent of normalisation with the occupation state of Israel.
Addressing the widespread political realities of dictatorships and oppressive regimes in the region, Qabbani wrote:
Ah my country! You have transformed me / from a poet of love and yearning / to a poet writing with a knife
”O Sultan, my master, if my clothes are ripped and torn it is because your dogs with claws are allowed to tear me”
He never explicitly criticised the Syrian government or long-time ruler President Hafez Al-Assad, who would later name a Damascene street in the poet’s honour. This helps to explain his enduring widespread popularity across the political spectrum as a Syrian patriot.
The only Arab leader who was referenced in Qabbani’s work was Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom the poet admired greatly for standing up to the Western powers. Following Nasser’s death in 1970, Qabbani composed the poem entitled “We Murdered the Prophet”. In his 1990 poem entitled “Abu Jahl” he condemned Arab journalists for selling out to their Gulf sponsors.
The death of his beloved wife Balqis Al-Rawi had a major impact upon him. She was an Iraqi school teacher and his second marriage, and features in many of his poems. She was killed in a 1981 bombing at the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Qabbani could never get over his loss, and blamed the whole Arab world for her death.
On 30 April 1998, Nizar Qabbani died of a heart attack aged 76 in London where he lived in self-imposed exile for the last 15 years of his life; he left behind two children, Zaynab and Omar. An obituary in the New York Times quoted another Syrian poet, Youssef Karkoutly, who said of Qabbani, “His poetry was as necessary to our lives as air.”
In light of the ongoing conflict in his native land, it has been speculated by some about which side Qabbani would take. We will never know, but he was a staunch opponent of the Baath Party and had disdain for Islamists, who currently dominate the armed opposition, not least because of his progressive attitude and views.
Nevertheless, Qabbani’s poems critical of authoritarianism in the Arab world found renewed relevance during the early days of the Arab Spring across the region. In Syria, young protesters drew inspiration from his famed line: “When will you go away?” As long as injustice and repression continue to exist, so will the timeless poetry of Nizar Qabbani be just as relevant.