Friend and fellow artist George Wingate sent me this link to The Writer’s Almanac this morning. I can always count on George to spot the worthwhile and the memorable, with his eye and ear in full immersion with life. Thanks George, especially since Qabbani is one of those non-Western poets whose work lands fresh on your chest with all fours, taking your breath away with its undeniably moving account of a life spent laboring in a vineyard far from the one you know best.
I need more of this.
It’s the birthday of Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani born in Damascus (1923). His father owned a chocolate factory, and he gave money to support the resistance of Syrian guerillas, so he was put in prison on various occasions. When Nizar Qabbani was 15, his older sister committed suicide rather than marry a man she did not love. After that, he devoted his writing to championing romantic love and urging women to break the constraining bonds of the traditional roles Arab society set out for them. He said: “Love in the Arab world is like a prisoner, and I want to set it free. I want to free the Arab soul, sense and body with my poetry.”
He published his first book of poetry, The Brunette Told Me (1944), when he was 19 years old. Its erotic poems created a controversy in conservative Syrian society. He went to law school and then became a diplomat, serving in Cairo, Istanbul, Beirut, Madrid, London, and China. He continued to write poetry. He wrote many love poems, like “My Lover Asks Me”:
My lover asks me:
“What is the difference between me and the sky?”
The difference, my love,
Is that when you laugh,
I forget about the sky.
His wife was killed in Beirut in 1982 by a bomb set off by pro-Iranian guerillas during the Lebanese civil war. He was devastated, and he blamed “the entire Arab world” for her death. Qabbani left Beirut, moved to Europe, and never remarried.
He continued to be a prolific poet, publishing about 40 volumes over the course of his 50 years of writing. He died from a heart attack at the age of 75.
Light is more important than the lantern,
The poem more important than the notebook,
And the kiss more important than the lips.
My letters to you
Are greater and more important than both of us.
They are the only documents
Where people will discover
And my madness.