Obituary: Nizar Qabbani

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The Independent Online
WRITERS, artists, intellectuals across the Arabic-speaking world are lamenting Nizar Qabbani, the master of love, defamation and lament verse who died on Thursday at the age of 75 in London. In a career spanning five decades Qabbani expressed the aspiration and frustration of millions of Arabs, especially women.

Conservative and authoritarian Arab regimes disliked and often banned his poetry as it embodied assaults on social and sexual taboos; for Qabbani national liberation was meaningless without sexual liberation. He became the most popular Arab poet in the second half of this century. He was even popular in Israel, despite his poems' justifying violence against the Jewish state, with which he fiercely resisted the idea of normalisation.

"His poems about love are extremely poetic; about politics, really sharp," said the former prime minister Shimon Peres, who was also touched by Qabbani's love poems for his wife Balqis. "He talked about the unforgettable kiss of yesterday - not just romantic. That's really moving, very moving."

Qabbani's poetry was romantic, political, erotic, bold and, above all, controversial; people hated it or loved it. His 1954 poem "Bread, Hashish and a Moon" offended the sensibilities of Syrian parliament members, who demanded he be put on trial. The Syrian president Hafez Assad sent a plane to fly the dead poet home for burial in Damascus, where a street was named after him last year.

Nizar Qabbani was born in Damascus in 1923 to a known, but not rich family. His great-uncle was Abu Khalil el-Qabbani, a 19th-century pioneer of Arab theatre. His niece is the feminist writer Ranna Qabbani. He joined the Syrian diplomatic service as a law graduate in 1945. He served in Cairo, Ankara, London, Madrid, Peking and Beirut, which he made his home after leaving the diplomatic service in 1966.

In 1973 he married, as his second wife, the love of his life, Balqis al-Rawi, when she moved to the Iraqi embassy in Beirut to be near him. Balqis was killed in an explosion in the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in 1981. He entitled an anthology of that year To Beirut, the Female. Arab women were the largest market of his anthologies, as he excelled in expressing the way the Arab female experienced love.

His sister's suicide, when she was forbidden to marry the man she loved, had deeply affected him as a teenager. Again, he always remembered his illiterate mother selling her jewellery to raise the money to publish his first anthology. Its provocative title The Childhood of a Bosom caused a scandal in the conservative Damascus of 1948. (The word bosom in Arabic relates only to a naked female in an erotic way.) His Wild Poems, also published in 1948, was about eroticism and gay love.

His later poetry attacked the tyranny and corruption of Arab regimes; yet he supported the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He worshipped the populist leader Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who eradicated pluralist liberal democracy from Egypt. He was impressed by Nasser's anti-British stance during the ill-fated Suez campaign. He was later taken with Nasser's romantic vague idea of one Arab nation - which never worked since citizens of Arabic-speaking nations often don't understand one another. He named Nasser "the last of the prophets", in a poem lamenting his death in 1970 and defaming Arab leaders who

Walked behind the prophet's coffin,

Holding their daggers under their

mourning cloaks.

In 1995 he caused another uproar by declaring the death of the Arabs as a nation:

A horrifying chain of degenerations,

Swiftly soaked us into the age of


His 1990 masterpiece "Abu Jahl (the Father of Ignorance) Buys Fleet Street" appealed to many Arab journalists who were helplessly enslaved by petro- dollars in the hands of illiterate conservative paymasters. The closing stanza was a satirical and bitter appeal to an unnamed conservative Arab ruler:

O long-lived one,

We promise never to seek a share of

your rule.

O long-lived one,

Go on killing as many of your sub-

jects as you wish,

And fuck as many of your slave girls

as you wish,

We only have one wish:

Spare us the words, and spare us the


By the time of his death, Qabbani's 1990 prophecy was complete: not one single Arab media organisation in Europe was left independent to report freely on Arab or international affairs.

Nizar Qabbani, poet: born Damascus 21 March 1923; married first Zahra Aqbiq (one daughter, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved), second 1973 Balqis al-Rawi (died 1981; one son, one daughter); died London 30 April 1998.