Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October/November 1998, pages 74-76
Thoughts Inspired by PBS’s Two-Sentence Report on The Death of Syrian Poet Nizar Qabbani
By Salman M. Hilmy
Last May 1, while listening to the opening news summary of PBS’s “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” I was taken aback at an unusual kicker. The summary ended with a two-sentence item announcing the death of Syria’s most popular poet, Nizar Qabbani, whose poetry was described as “sensual.”
My initial reaction was one of pleasant surprise because Arab cultural developments almost never make news in America, much less prime time news. And, as an Arab-American, I was proud and delighted that Mr. Lehrer had chosen to include a reference to an Arab poet—albeit on a sad occasion.
Arab countries normally make the news in America for reasons entirely unrelated to cultural events. The U.S. media thereby indirectly contribute to America’s appalling ignorance of Arab society, culture, individual mentality and the emotions and attitudes that make people tick as human beings.
As my initial emotional reaction to the unexpected news on public TV wore off, I came to the conclusion that Mr. Lehrer’s decision to report the passing of Nizar Qabbani was merely a “news judgment” oddity that served absolutely no real purpose— neither informing contextually nor enlightening substantively.
To Arabs everywhere, this cursory, out-of-the-blue reference to a major modern poet would probably be more of an embarrassment than a compliment, considering the fact that in Arab countries, unlike the United States, prominent poets may come to be regarded as social and political superstars deserving of more attention in a proper perspective.
Despite the Arabs’ late start in modern poetic (metrical, stylistic and thematic) experimentation, the one shining example of cultural achievements all Arabic-speaking people are proud of is the abundance, richness and complexity of their poetic heritage, dating back to pre-Islamic times.
Poetry is and has always been a major component of culture and socio-political psychology in every Arab society. This is not to imply that Arab societies have a larger proportion of citizenry with impeccable discriminating taste or talent for good, effectively written verse than any other society.
However, poetry—in one form or another—has always inspired more passion and admiration in Arab hearts and minds than any other form of literary expression. That is why a poet like Nizar Qabbani could aspire to see poetry placed as a nourishing necessity “beside the bread and water in every home,” as he put it in 1954.
Poets have more often than not been the activist conscience of Arab society, a mirror of its hopes and frustrations, and the creative revitalizers of its language and outlook on life. They have also at different times served as the artistic equivalent of today’s reporters, promoters, philosophers, publicists, spinmeisters, political scientists, and social critics.
Mr. Qabani was born 75 years ago in a Syria that, like other Middle Eastern Arab countries, had just been pulled out of the searing frying pan of centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule, and dumped forcibly into the rapacious fire of West European treachery and domination. As he came of age in the late ’30s and early ’40s, his immediate societal environment, along with other Arab lands, was buffeted by the repercussions of a catastrophic world war initiated in Europe, and by internal turmoil, factionalism and frustrations stoked by strong conservative social traditions and strictures, economic backwardness, political impotence, military powerlessness and lack of visionary leadership.
Mr. Qabbani, like most of his contemporary literary peers throughout the Arab world, opened his eyes on a changing society facing a stifling host of problems and challenges that included not only foreign pressures and hegemony but also internal national contradictions as well as the repressed physical and emotional hunger of egocentric youth.
Independence from France in 1944 did not seem to help much. He and many of his cultural mates in the Near East and North Africa were soon aware of the necessity of rolling back and shaking up the traditional deadweight of what Ezra Pound, America’s astute expatriate poet/critic called—in a different context—“the poetic bunk of the preceding centuries...”
It was natural, therefore, for Qabbani—the sensitive talented artist—to give rein to his rebellious spirit in search of a fresh identity that could comprehend and cope with a new world confronting the individual and the community. His tools: a rich cultural heritage that stretched “from the Ocean to the Gulf,” as the Arabs are fond of saying, and a powerful living language that had emerged intact from dark centuries of non-Arab dominance but badly in need of burnishing, resuscitation and transfusion with new blood.
Qabbani’s poetic sensibility, though firmly rooted in the best of Arabic tradition, was fully in harmony with modern innovations. He believed his poems should be read the way a child looks at the moon—with spontaneity and complete absorption.
“The task of a poem,” he wrote, “is like that of a butterfly which moves from mountain to field to fence, pouring out on the lips of flowers all the fragrance and nectar it has gathered. The poem empties into the reader’s heart a charge of spiritual energy that contains all parts of the soul, making all life fall into place.”
Qabbani subscribed to the views of Italian philosopher/critic/art historian Benedetto Croce who believed that “artistic appreciation is ”˜lyrical intuition.’ And intuition is the initial image of, and precedes all, knowledge. Intuition is a product of the imagination. In other words, it is a perception devoid of any logical element.”
To Qabbani, “...poetry is but a beautiful electric charge that shocks your nerves and transports you to light-filled oases scattered on the lashes of the clouds.” He did not believe that poetry as an artistic expression is a portrait of nature but “a remaking of nature into a more complete image, a more wonderous harmony.” He is thoroughly modern and universal in his artistic outlook when he acknowledges that he does not “dare circumscribe the essence of poetry, because it detests borders.” Poetry to him was the “weaver of the flames.”
His first collection of romantic lyrics, “The Brown-Skinned Lady Said To Me,” though showing some influence of 19th century French symbolists Beaudelaire and Verlaine and European art theories, burst forth in 1944 with new poetic voice and vocabulary, daring and dazzling images, and fresh vulnerable spontaneity. His artistry and technical skills were at the same time grounded in the areas of strength of such classic masters of Arabic poetry as Omar bin abi Rabee’a, Al Mutanabbi, Al Buhturi, Abu Nawwas and many more.
Let us read a few stanzas from a poem he calls “Statement to the Reader” which also sounds like a sort of artistic credo:
I fill my pocket with stars; And build for myself a place to sit; On the seat of the sun.
Sunset weeps on my balcony; And cries for a rendezvous with me.
I am a sail that cannot stand a journey’s end; I am a loss that wants no guidance.
My letters are swarms of swallows; That drape the clear sky with their black mantle.
I have imagined till I made perfumes visible; And resonance of the echo smell.
In my red veins is a woman; Who walks with me in the folds of my gown; Hisses and blows in my bones; To turn my lungs into a brazier.
Your beauty springs from me—without me;You’d be nothing, without me you wouldn’t be; Without me no rose would bloom; No breast would bubble or revel.
O reader, my travel companion; I’m the lips and you’re the echo.
I plead with you, be soft and tender; If tomorrow you embrace my letters; When you pass by them remember; The torture of these letters to exist.
No one dies who in time has loved; No one dies who—like a bird—has sung.
Singing, music and sophisticated rhythm are intimately intertwined with a great deal of Qabbani’s poetry, including his poems that are directly inspired by the 1948 catastrophe of Palestine and the suffering of its people. He became a towering, popular figure lionized by countless millions throughout the Arab world.
On a visit to the United States in May 1994 at the invitation of the AUB Alumni Association of North America, he gave a poetry reading at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC which was attended by over 800 admirers, a huge audience for any literary recital in this country.
Some of his poems have been set to music and performed by prominent singers such as his “I Have Now Acquired A Rifle” stirringly sung by Egypt’s pre-eminent diva, the late Um Kulthoom. The poem celebrates Palestinian freedom fighters. Addressing the subject of the Palestinian children’s revolt against Israeli occupation, he says:
O students of Gaza, teach us; Some of what you know, for we’ve forgotten; Teach us how to be men, For our men have become putty.
The loss of Palestine to, and dispossession of its Arabs by, an alien onslaught in the heart of the Arab world were defining moments in the area’s tragic modern history—equaled only by the West’s cynical double-cross and massive deception following the Turks’ defeat in the First World War.
These were natural reality themes vigorously and bluntly and imaginatively treated by modern Arab poets like Qabbani. So were other egregious national topics: disenfranchisement of the Arab masses, authoritarianism, dictatorship and corruption, lack of strong and experienced leadership, capitulation under foreign pressures.
Here are excerpts from a long, impassioned poem by Qabbani on what is called terrorism:
We are accused of terrorism If we write about the remnants of a ...homeland Naked, disintegrated, tattered, Its limbs scattered— A homeland in search of its address And a nation that has no name.
A homeland That walks to peace talks Without dignity And without shoes.
No one is left who can say “No” To those who gave away Our home, our bread, our oil, And transformed our brilliant history Into a grocery store.
We’ve become accustomed to degradation: What does a man have left When habituated to disgrace?
This kind of poetry understandably infuriated most or all Arab rulers and governments, and Mr. Qabbani’s work was banned by censors but circulated among millions either through contraband copies or by word of mouth. His enormous popularity, however, compelled officials to refrain from publicly attacking or criticizing him.
National and international politics were not the only issues that worried Arab officials. Qabbani’s lifelong preoccupation with the themes of love, women, nature and the mysteries of desire and lust in vibrant images that at times verge on the erotic was no less disturbing to the political and religious establishments.
He was a fierce advocate of women’s rights, and urged women to take a stand against confining conventions in terms that contributed significantly to the enormous social changes of the last 50 years:
Rebel— I’d love for you to rebel— Rebel against customs and the grand ...illusion. Fear no one. Rebel against an East That sees you as a banquet on the bed.
Let us now return to Mr. Lehrer’s May 1 news summary and ask ourselves a few questions. Did his reference to Mr. Qabbani’s death serve the cause of Arab culture? Not really, because it was a most anemic and fleeting whiff of a closer.
Did the adjective “sensual” tell us anything significant about Qabbani’s poetry? Absolutely not.
Did the summary item do justice to Mr. Qabbani’s lifetime of poetic creativity? Of course not, and for obvious reasons.
Did Mr. Lehrer’s viewers learn anything about Qabbani the poet and the man? Hardly.
The logical next question is: Should and could the PBS anchorman have had a feature segment to eulogize Qabbani and spotlight a fair appreciation of his output? I seriously doubt it—and there are a hundred reasons why I say that.
One of these reasons is simply that Mr. Lehrer would have been crazy to risk big dips in his show’s rating by devoting any length of time to the art of an Arab poet completely alien to his American audience. PBS’s “News Hour” has already become increasingly parochial in order to hold on to viewers.
News shows in this country do not make room for high culture. They cannot afford to. Even if the subject were an American poet.
Which brings us to the final question. Was the mere passing reference to Qabbani’s death an act of journalistic courage? Considering the sad state of affairs in America’s mainstream news coverage of the Middle East, we have to believe so.
Salman M. Hilmy, a retired foreign service officer, translated the poems of Nizar Qabbani discussed in this article.