From the grave, Qabbani’s poems lay bare Syria’s agony
Beirut - During Lebanon’s civil war, local radio stations affiliated with the various feuding militias would broadcast endless hours of sectarian vitriol through the night, calling young men to arms, only to then collectively switch to the music of Fairuz to start the day with songs for an hour before the main morning news bulletin.
The Lebanese were willing to brand each other as traitors and tear their country to pieces for 15 years but they were not willing to give up one voice that seemed to unite them during their long, bitter conflict — Fairuz, the iconic Lebanese chanteuse whose haunting songs so reflected the hopes and fears of the entire country.
In the war that is now destroying Syria, Nizar Qabbani, the legendary poet who died April 30, 1998, in London has come to be the voice of his tormented nation, the everyman transcending rival loyalties to lay bare the country’s agony and its soul.
During a prolific career that began in the early 1940s, Qabbani took the Arab world by storm. He produced tomes of romantic verse peppered with sexual overtones, breaking taboos and shocking Muslim society out of is stuffy mores.
After the withering Arab defeat in the six-day war of 1967, he turned to political poetry denouncing Arab dictators, the United States and Israel.
In the late 1980s, Qabbani famously conducted a recital in Damascus, which was to be his last, with a scathing political poem titled “The Journal of an Arab Executioner.”
This indictment of authoritarian Arab regimes was immediately banned throughout the Arab world. The poem declared:
“O people; I have become your sultan
So break your idols and worship me.”
“Thank God for his grace
For he has sent me to make history…”
“O people; I own you like I own my horses and slaves;
And I tread upon you like I walk on the carpets of my palace.”
Qabbani inspired four generations of Arab lovers and revolutionaries alike and famously refused to praise a single Arab king or president, except for Gamal Abdel Nasser — but only after the Egyptian leader’s death in 1970 when he eulogised Nasser in “The Fourth Pyramid.”
Qabbani trashed Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor, by name after the 1978 Camp David peace accords, saying that he was a “madman” who had “drugged and raped” Egypt.
Qabbani also denounced Yasser Arafat in a poem after the US-brokered 1993 Oslo Accords, which the Palestinian leader hailed as the “peace of the brave.” Qabbani called it a “peace of the cowards.”
Qabbani wrote: “America is a god and a thousand cowards kneel at its feet.”
His romantic verse was often transformed into popular music and performed by prominent artists such as Fairuz, Iraqi crooner Kazem al-Saher, Lebanese singer Majida el- Roumi and Egyptian legends Abdel Halim Hafez and Um Kalthoum.
A scion of Damascene notability, Qabbani was born in 1923 during the years of French Mandate rule. His father was one of the leaders of the anti-French movement. The young Qabbani began writing nationalistic verse while a student at Damascus University.
He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during Syria’s democratic years, drifting through diplomatic posts in Madrid, Cairo, Ankara and London, where he was greatly influenced by European theatre, art and life.
Qabbani quit government service after the Ba’ath Party seized power in 1963 and moved first to Beirut and then to London after the 1975 outbreak of the Lebanese war. He died there at the age of 75.
He never reconciled with the Ba’athists and saw them as the cause of all Syria’s woes.
The Syrian government only laid claim to Qabbani after his death, naming a street in his honour and allowing his burial in Damascus. His funeral became a massive event with thousands of young men joining the procession carrying his casket, draped in the Syrian flag.
He was laid to rest in Damascus, a city that Qabbani cherished throughout his life. He called it “the city of jasmine.”
Since then the anniversary of his death has brought together Syrians of all religious and ideological faiths.
In the bitter aftermath of the uprisings against autocratic Arab regimes that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and the dashed expectations of a new era of open government, young people across the Arab world have turned to Qabbani’s political poetry and his bitter stanzas against authoritarian regimes.
When Syria too was caught up in the ferment in March 2011, young protesters found inspiration in Qabbani’s poetic verse, often repeating his famed: “When will you go away?”
“The theatre has collapsed over your heads
And the audience is cursing and spitting on you.
Thanks to you our boundaries have become paper borders;
When will you go away?”
Even the Damascus government has taken to using Qabbani’s writings, seeking to cloak its actions with his imprimatur. Large photos of him are plastered on the walls of the capital along with stanzas from his poems, invoked in countless government speeches and public rallies and even cited by Syria’s mission at the United Nations.