"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
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.
It was rebellious poetry which directly and bravely attacked all taboos. His extreme
popularity lent him immunity from the suppressive arm of the authorities offended by his
denunciations. Add to this the fact that popular stars like Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Um
Kulthum, Abdel-Halim Hafiz and Nagat El-Saghira competed to put music to and sing words
written by him, and you get a glory never attained before by any other Arab poet.
Qabbani is a confusing poet. Most of his readers do not pause before the questions his poetry raises though there are some who do and insist on an answer. His poetry seems, more often than not, very simple. His vocabulary is not unusual, his syntax is mundane and his rhyme schemes are not complex. In short, there is nothing philosophical about his poetry. This lack of philosophising is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives his poetry an attractive spontaneity. This very spontaneity, however, dilutes its character since it becomes merely a reaction to, rather than an act of critical engagement with, life.
The simplicity of Qabbani's poetry does not mean that it is without value. It is true Qabbani can be read with great ease, but this does not mean that his poetry was written with the same degree of ease. He took great care to write in a way accessible to anyone and because of this his poetry will remain rich material for critics to analyse.
Each of us has his own Nizar Qabbani: discovering Qabbani is a part of the process of self-discovery during youth. Collections like "The Dark One Told Me" or "Childhood of a Breast" or "You are for Me" inserted us right into the heart of our youth. Without them we would not have realized that youth has a language proper to itself or that adolescent longing and anxiety have a place in writing.
© 1998 -2000 Arab World Books