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Arabs stung by the lash of verse Moving finger writes up storm

ARABIC pens, traditionally mightier than swords, are engaged in a fierce clash, not over oil or peace with Israel, but over a new work by a 72-year old self-exiled Syrian poet.

The tumult is less surprising given that the poem is entitled "When will they announce the death of the Arabs?" and its creator is Nizzar Qabbani, one of the best known - and most provocative - modern Arabic poets.

Almost three months after it first appeared - in the London based daily Al-Naquid, and since reprinted across the Arab world - Arab nationalists are still queuing up to savage Qabbani for such lines as: "The nations who call themselves Arabs are all dead, but no one has yet dared to sign the death certificate."

Qabbani, a former diplomat who served in Egypt, Britain and Spain, paints an unflattering picture of tribes who retreated from the universal world of knowledge into "burrows of fear" and of a culture of bigotry and ignorance that "oppresses women body and soul".

Qabbani's Arabs are misruled nations, misled by newspapers that "bow down to oil-money, a tyrant ruler or a colonel who steps over the beheaded bodies of the people". In one notable verse, he writes:

For fifty years now,

I have been watching the Arabs

Thundering without rain

Entering wars without exiting

Chewing the skin of rhetoric

Without digesting.

Nizzar Qabbani's fame - and notoriety - dates back to the late 1950s. He replaced the romantic symbolism of classical Arabic poetry with powerful erotic verse featuring graphic, often pornographic, description of the female anatomy and dashing images of passionate love-making. Defying censors throughout the Arab world, his anthologies sold by the thousands, mainly to women - as young as 14 and as old as 80.

Never one to pour oil on troubled waters exactly, following the humiliating defeat of Arab armies in the 1967 Six Day War, Qabbani composed "The Sultan's Soldiers" in which he criticised the Arabs as "idles posturing in mosques, praying to Allah to defeat the enemy". He then likened "his excellency's regiment" to an army of ostriches -traditionally a symbol of cowardice in Arabic literature. An enraged President Nasser promptly banned Qabbani and his books from Egypt

He finally alienated the mainly Saudi-controlled Arab press in Europe with his 1990 poem "Abu Jahl [the father of philistinism] buys Fleet Street", depicting oil Sheikhs as abusing their wealth to corrupt the world's cultural heritage.

Some of those who now attack Qabbani condemn him for sniping from his English exile. Qabbani has no right "to draw a map of the Arab world while staying in your London hotel" wrote one Egyptian critic.

But for others, Qabbani's poem has struck a chord, at a time of great uncertainty among Arabs, and in a form with great resonance for them. "Poets, the good ones, still play a key role in arousing [our] feelings," wrote the Egyptian columnist Salama A Salama. "They have always been the best in carrying and conveying Arab sentiments and convictions."