Born: 23 March 1923, Damascus, Syria
Died: 30 April 1998, London, UK
Qabbani was a diplomat, poet, writer, and publisher. His poetry is best known for combining simplicity and elegance to explore the themes of love, eroticism, feminism, Arab nationalism, and religion. Qabbani is among the most revered and respected contemporary poets from the Arab world and is considered Syria’s national poet.
Born in Damascus, the capital of Syria, to a middle-class merchant family, Qabbani was raised in the neighbourhood of Mi’thnah Al-Shahm, in Old Damascus. Between 1930 and 1941 he studied at the National Scientific College School in the city. Qabbani went on to study law at Damascus University, graduating in 1945
While a student Qabbani wrote his first collection of poems, ‘The Brunette Told Me,’ which he published in 1942. Sending shockwaves through Damascus society the collection of romantic verse made several references to a woman’s body. To give the work some acceptability Qabbani showed it to the minister of education, Munir al-Ailani, who was also a friend of his father’s and a leading nationalist. Ailani liked the poems and gave them his endorsement by writing the preface for Qabbani’s first book.
Qabbani worked for the Syrian Foreign Ministry after his graduation from law school. He served as Consul in several capital cities, including Cairo, Beirut, London, and Madrid. On the formation of the United Arab Republic, Qabbani was appointed Vice-Secretary of the UAR for its embassies in China. During these years he wrote extensively and his poems written in China are considered to be among his finest. Qabbani continued to work as a diplomat until 1966, by which time he had established a publishing house in Beirut.
Qabbani was 15 when his older sister of 25 committed suicide because she refused to marry a man she didn’t love. Whilst at her funeral he decided to fight the social conditions that caused her death. Qabbani is one of the most feminist and progressive intellectuals of his time.
Damascus remained a powerful muse in Qabbani’s poetry, particularly in the “Jasmine Scent of Damascus.” The 1967 Six-Day War was also influential in his work and lament for the Arabic cause. It marked a qualitative shift in Qabbani’s writing – from erotic love poems to overly political themes of rejectionism and resistance.
Qabbani’s father was Syrian and his mother was of Turkish descent. A factory owner, his father helped support fighters resisting the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon, resulting in being imprisoned numerous times, greatly affecting Qabbani’s upbringing into a revolutionary in his own right.
Qabbani married twice. With his first wife, Zahra Aqbiq, he had two children, a daughter, Hadba, and a son, Tawfiq who died of a heart attack at aged 22. His second wife Balqis al Rawi was killed in the 1981 Iraqi embassy bombing in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. They had a son, Omar, and a daughter, Zainab.
Qabbani left Beirut after the death of Balqis, moving between Geneva and Paris before settling in London, where he spent the remaining years of his life in exile. He continued to write poems and articles raising controversy and arguments. Qabbani died of a heart attack in London in 1998 and wished to be buried in Damascus. The great Arab poet was mourned by Arabs across the world.
Bread, Hashish and Moon by Nizar Qabbani
When the moon is born in the east,
And the white rooftops drift asleep
Under the heaped-up light,
People leave their shops and march forth in groups
To meet the moon
Carrying bread, and a radio, to the mountaintops,
And their narcotics.
There they buy and sell fantasies
And die - as the moon comes to life.
What does that luminous disc
Do to my homeland?
The land of the prophets,
The land of the simple,
The chewers of tobacco, the dealers in drug?
What does the moon do to us,
That we squander our valor
And live only to beg from Heaven?
What has the heaven
For the lazy and the weak?
When the moon comes to life they are changed to
And shake the tombs of the saints,
Hoping to be granted some rice, some children…
They spread out their fine and elegant rugs,
And console themselves with an opium we call fate
In my land, the land of the simple
What weakness and decay
Lay hold of us, when the light streams forth!
Rugs, thousands of baskets,
Glasses of tea and children swarn over the hills.
In my land,
where the simple weep,
And live in the light they cannot perceive;
In my land,
Where people live without eyes,
And live in resignation,
As they always have,
Calling on the crescent moon:
" O Crescent Moon!
O suspended God of Marble!
O unbelievable object!
Always you have been for the east, for us,
A cluster of diamonds,
For the millions whose senses are numbed"
On those eastern nights when
The moon waxes full,
The east divests itself of all honor
The millions who go barefoot,
Who believe in four wives
And the day of judgment;
The millions who encounter bread
Only in their dreams;
Who spend the night in houses
Built of coughs;
Who have never set eyes on medicine;
Fall down like corpses beneath the light.
In my land,
where the stupid weep
And die weeping
Whenever the crescent moon appears
And their tears increase;
Whenever some wretched lute moves them…
or the song to "night"
In my land,
In the land of the simple,
where we slowly chew on our unending songs-
A form of consumption destroying the east-
Our east chewing on its history,
its lethargic dreams,
Its empty legends,
Our east that sees the sum of all heroism
In Picaresque Abu Zayd al Hilali