“The bird returns to its nest and the child to its mother’s breast” — words from Nizar Qabbani’s last testament. Qabbani, who died at the age of 75 and was buried in his native Damascus, achieved unprecedented fame as an Arab poet, commanding a mass audience. The political stands struck in his later work fanned the flames of controversy to which Qabbani was never a stranger. Outspoken, never shying away from taboos, Qabbani nonetheless maintained a popularity that allowed him to abandon his career as a diplomat and concentrate full-time on his writing.
Before him, Arabic poetry was formal and grand. He inserted it into the language of everyday, modern life, thus making poetry a common property. His poetry accompanied kitchen utensils and became a fluid expression of the normal, the familiar and the simple in life, politics and sentiment. The reconciliation he effected was between poetry, on the one hand, and young students, housewives, clerks, professionals and heads of state, on the other.
He never paid attention to criticism. He broke away from the conventional and traditional structures of Arabic poetry without paying the least attention to what a modernist poet should aim to be or to related intellectual questions.
Qabbani was known and loved by those who do not read poetry — even by those who do not read at all. There were elements other than love of poetry involved in knowing and loving Nizar Qabbani. One such element was the need to fantasise, to create an idol corresponding to fantasies that may have very little to do with the reality of the man idolised.
I do not resemble your other lovers, my lady
should another give you a cloud
I give you rain
Should he give you a lantern, I
will give you the moon
Should he give you a branch
I will give you the trees
And if another gives you a ship
I shall give you the journey.
When I Love
When I love
I feel that I am the king of time
I possess the earth and everything on it
and ride into the sun upon my horse.
When I love
I become liquid light
invisible to the eye
and the poems in my notebooks
become fields of mimosa and poppy.
When I love
the water gushes from my fingers
grass grows on my tongue
when I love
I become time outside all time.
When I love a woman
all the trees
run barefoot toward me…
On Entering the Sea
Love happened at last,
And we entered God’s paradise,
Under the skin of the water
We saw the precious pearls of the sea
And were amazed.
Love happened at last
Without intimidation…with symmetry of wish.
So I gave…and you gave
And we were fair.
It happened with marvelous ease
Like writing with jasmine water,
Like a spring flowing from the ground.
A Lesson In Drawing
My son places his paint box in front of me
and asks me to draw a bird for him.
Into the color gray I dip the brush
and draw a square with locks and bars.
Astonishment fills his eyes:
“… But this is a prision, Father,
Don’t you know, how to draw a bird?”
And I tell him: “Son, forgive me.
I’ve forgotten the shapes of birds.”
My son puts the drawing book in front of me
and asks me to draw a wheatstalk.
I hold the pen
and draw a gun.
My son mocks my ignorance,
“Don’t you know, Father, the difference between a
wheatstalk and a gun?”
I tell him, “Son,
once I used to know the shapes of wheatstalks
the shape of the loaf
the shape of the rose
But in this hardened time
the trees of the forest have joined
the militia men
and the rose wears dull fatigues
In this time of armed wheatstalks
and armed religion
you can’t buy a loaf
without finding a gun inside
you can’t pluck a rose in the field
without its raising its thorns in your face
you can’t buy a book
that doesn’t explode between your fingers.”
My son sits at the edge of my bed
and asks me to recite a poem,
A tear falls from my eyes onto the pillow.
My son licks it up, astonished, saying:
“But this is a tear, father, not a poem!”
And I tell him:
“When you grow up, my son,
and read the diwan of Arabic poetry
you’ll discover that the word and the tear are twins
and the Arabic poem
is no more than a tear wept by writing fingers.”
My son lays down his pens, his crayon box in
front of me
and asks me to draw a homeland for him.
The brush trembles in my hands
and I sink, weeping.
Jerusalem, luminous city of prophets,
Shortest path between heaven and earth !
Jerusalem, you of the myriad minarets,
become a beautiful little girl with burned fingers.
City of the virgin, your eyes are sad.
Shady oasis where the Prophet passed,
the stones of your streets grow sad,
the towers of mosques downcast.
City swathed in black, who’ll ring the bells
at the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday mornings?
Who will carry toys to children
on Christmas Eve?
City of sorrows, a huge tear
trembling on your eyelid,
Who’ll save the Bible?
Who’ll save the Qur’an?
Who will save Christ, who will save man?
Jerusalem, beloved city of mine,
tomorrow your lemon trees will bloom,
your green stalks and branches rise up joyful,
and your eyes will laugh. Migrant pigeons
will return to your holy roofs
and children will go back to playing.
Parents and children will meet
on your shining streets,
my city, city of olives and peace.
I Conquer The World With Words
I conquer the world with words,
conquer the mother tongue,
verbs, nouns, syntax.
I sweep away the beginning of things
and with a new language
that has the music of water the message of fire
I light the coming age
and stop time in your eyes
and wipe away the line
time from this single moment.
When I Love You
When I love you
A new language springs up,
New cities, new countries discovered.
The hours breathe like puppies,
Wheat grows between the pages of books,
Birds fly from your eyes with tiding of honey,
Caravans ride from your breasts carrying Indian herbs,
The mangoes fall all around, the forests catch fire
And Nubian drums beat.
When I love you your breasts shake off their shame,
Turn into lightning and thunder, a sword, a sandy storm.
When I love you the Arab cities leap up and demonstrate
Against the ages of repression
And the ages
Of revenge against the laws of the tribe.
And I, when I love you,
March against ugliness,
Against the kings of salt,
Against the institutionalization of the desert.
And I shall continue to love you until the world flood arrives;
I shall continue to love you untill the world flood arrives.
Do not say my love was
A ring or a bracelet.
My love is a siege,
Is the daring and headstrong.
Who, searching sail out to their death.
Do not say my love was
My love is a burst of sparks.
A Brief Love Letter
My darling, I have much to say
Where o precious one shall I begin ?
All that is in you is princely
O you who makes of my words through their meaning
Cocoons of silk
These are my songs and this is me
This short book contains us
Tomorrow when I return its pages
A lamp will lament
A bed will sing
Its letters from longing will turn green
Its commas be on the verge of flight
Do not say: why did this youth
Speak of me to the winding road and the stream
The almond tree and the tulip
So that the world escorts me wherever I go ?
Why did he sing these songs ?
Now there is no star
That is not perfumed with my fragrance
Tomorrow people will see me in his verse
A mouth the taste of wine, close-cropped hair
Ignore what people say
You will be great only through my great love
What would the world have been if we had not been
If your eyes had not been, what would the world have been?