When a beautiful woman dies
the earth loses its balance
the moon declares mourning for a hundred years
and poetry becomes unemployed
It was not for this woman to live any longer
nor did she wish to live any longer
she is akin to the candles and lanterns
and like the poetic moment
she needs to explode before the last line…
from “Twelve Roses in Balqis’s Hair” in On Entering the Sea. (Interlink Books: 1996) p.66.
What do we do when life goes adrift unknowingly and the unexpected arises, where do we go when all that we know disorients us, forces another definition of that fiction we call Self, forces us to make ghosts of all that we know and have known? Do we turn to drink and drugs and other excesses, or perhaps to our faith and religion.
I suggest Poetry.
The lines quoted above are from Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998), an Arab poet from Damascus, diplomat to Spain, and, I would argue, one of the strongest supporters for the dignity and equality of women in the Arab world. The lines above are from a sorrowful sequence of anger and protest. The poem is for his second wife, assassinated in the Lebanese Civil War in 1981. A bomb blast at the Iraqi embassy in Beirut left nothing of her but her passport and her handbag. I do not know whether the bomb had been intended for him. Her name was Balqis Al-Rawi.
Kabbani (an alternate spelling of his surname) was no stranger to tragedy. His sister, Wissal, committed suicide at 15 because she could not marry the man she loved. His son died at 25 from a heart ailment. Contemporary politics in his own lifetime and Arab nationalism were another source for angst and anxiety and inspiration for his poetry. All Arab poets are political, to some extent, and Kabbani was certainly a nationalist, but he attacked sexual repression of women first and foremost.
Arab poetry has one of the world’s richest traditions of erotic poetry, from Abu Nuwas to Ghalib to the Andalusia poets. Qabbani addresses the social injustices done to women in “A Letter from a Stupid Woman.” Qabbani is another erotic poet but two things that make him distinctive are his use of language and his writing often from a woman’s point of view, be it a lesbian lover to a wife betrayed by her husband’s adultery. He wrote, “Nothing protects us from death/Except women and writing” (Censored Poems, 1986, p.16, cited in the introduction to Arabian Love Poems. Translations by Bassam Frangieh and Clementia Brown).
Of course, all poets distinguish themselves through their diction. Qabbani does not use elevated language but simple, daily language and transforms events into musical emotion and evocative metaphors:
I’m not a teacher
To show you how to love
Fish don’t need a teacher
To learn how to swim
Birds don’t need a teacher
To learn how to fly.
Swim and fly by yourself
Love has no notebooks,
The greatest lovers in history
Did not know how to read.
I focus here on his eroticism instead of his political poems, because I doubt that the Christian West will ever understand the Islamic East; the cultural chasm is much too wide and the historical fissure is too deep. Take for example the fact that when the Romans were looking at Ptolemaic Egypt and the pyramids they were looking at a civilization that was as historically distant from them as we are from the ancient Romans; and yet, the Egyptians informed the Greeks and the Greeks influenced the Romans and the Romans influenced all of western Europe. Here, in America, however, our entire literature is shaped by Protestant theology and historical consciousness, always in a reactionary stance to something else in western Europe. It is after this Protestant foundation, particularly Calvinist theology, that immigrants, numerous American authors, and African-American authors have rejuvenated our literary corpus. It is this historical development that makes, in my opinion, Arab rage, their politics, so difficult for us to understand. Dismissing the Arab world, their world-view, and their literature as “other” is a form of pseudospeciation that is no different from colonial attitudes, past and present, or our not-so-distant example, Nazi Germany and European Jewry. And all of this is ironic since we live in an age where one maxim is “the personal is political.”
Qabbani was writing long before feminism appeared in the Arab world; and for many Syrian women and elsewhere in the Arab world he is a revered poet and an advocate because he attacked and questioned cultural concepts of ‘honor’ and ‘feminine purity,’ and ‘social justice.’ In his poetry, unlike traditional Arab love poetry, he does not celebrate just one woman but all women; and his women do not always act obediently or as they are idealized.
While we were at the station
That you were waiting for another man,
While I was carrying your luggage
That you would be travelling with another man
In spite of that,
I will carry your luggage
And your lover’s luggage
Because I cannot
Slap a woman
Who carries in her white handbag
The sweetest days of my life
The poet does not see man and woman, as two Platonic halves seeking reunion, because to go adrift and define Self in dualistic terms is a denial of humanity. His poetry contributes to world literature to remind us to look outside of our private pains and realize that our joys and pains are not particular to us, but shared with all other human beings. Read every Kabbani poem and look for the woman peeking from behind the lines. She is there. The feminine is always in his poetry for he refuses to make a ghost of her, because to do so would be to allow himself to become a ghost.