For Valentine’s Day: The Many Loves of Nizar Qabbani

For Valentine’s Day, we bring you two new translations of love poems by Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani:

By Rachel Schine

Artwork by Molly Crabapple, used with permission.

In his obituary to the celebrated Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, published a few days after his death in May 1998, Adel Darwish writes that “for Qabbani, national liberation was meaningless without sexual liberation.”

Qabbani, who had spent much of his life as a diplomat and ardent Arab nationalist, also spent much of his life as a romantic in more conventional terms, and through verse he brought his world and its muses into vivid, living color. Much of the way in which Qabbani achieved this was by using the language of the everyday, stripped of pretense and elitism. In the plain speech of the two poems presented in translation below (an “Ode to Sadness,” or, Qaṣīdat al-Ḥuzn, and “You Want,” or Turīdīna), one may detect a sort of plaintive hope laced with a countervailing, often tongue-in-cheek cynicism: there is a hope that the narrator can be enough for the woman he adulates, that his words can satisfy, and that she can fulfill him in turn.

There is also a hope in these poems that the landscapes the poet has traversed — the cities and communities that he has had occasion to inhabit and speak on behalf of throughout his life — might meld with, accommodate, or elucidate his love for another human being. In the first poem, we are told that his lover has taught him “how to see Beirut” (to which he migrated after ending his government career) as a harlot on promenade, bedecked with beautiful robes but also divulging pain. In the second poem, the narrator laments that he is unable to give a woman all that she dreams of because he is “A laborer from Damascus — poor,” who “soak[s his] morning loaf in blood/ [his] hair in spit.” Wrapped up in the complications of love are the complexities of the poet’s relationship with these classed geographies, lending credence to Darwish’s point that Qabbani viewed the health of the nation and the free expression of sexuality as intertwined; his humble Damascene roots are thus both a source of pride and anxiety during courtship, while his lurid portrayal of Beirut goes hand in hand with learning the art of sadness from a practiced, female teacher. Indeed, it is through these ambivalent depictions of contemporary locales and the socioeconomic realities that they intimate that the poet fashions some of the most poignant portions of the poems.

In contrast, one of the great joys of these verses is that Qabbani consciously relishes looking backward through the centuries and across a more extensive regional terrain, revivifying the clichés of classical Arabic love poetry. In the spirit of rediscovering old chestnuts anew, he tells the reader in “Ode to Sadness” (the title of which is itself a throwback to the traditional qaṣīda with its opening refrain of love lost and its peripatetic, camel-mounted middle section) that his lover teaches him to act like a child, to read stories of knighthood and gallantry, and to think of women in terms of all the visually delighting but timeworn tropes that the canon has to offer; reading across the two poems, we find a woman whose lips are like pomegranates and whose eyes are like gulf water — she is redolent with fragrance and her eyes are kohl-rimmed. With respect to imagery, this is a very back-to-basics, classicizing approach to depicting a lover, though encased in the modern structure of free verse rather than the old-school ghazal, or metered love poem. In addition to pairing himself with his beloved, Qabbani marries his Christian, Arab, and more trans-regionally Middle Eastern identities and experiences in these pieces: we find references to church bells and heaven-sent manna alongside allusions to the erstwhile courtyard of the Sasanian sovereign Khosroes (the iwān kisrā) in Ctesiphon and the Thousand and One Nights.

It seems fitting, given the date but also the times, to dive into some poetry that deals in the many and hybrid types of love described above, for women, memories, nations, cultures, and of course, for one’s own self.

An Ode to Sadness

By Nizar Qabbani, tr. Rachel Schine

Your love has taught me… how to be sad.

And I have needed, for ages

A woman to make me sad

A woman in whose arms I could weep

Like a sparrow,

A woman—to gather up my pieces—

Like shards of shattered crystal

 

Your love has taught me, my dear,

The worst of habits

It has taught me to fill up my glass

A thousand times per night

And to sample the treatment of druggists

To knock at the diviners’ door

It has taught me— I now leave my home

To comb the roadside flagstones

And I stalk your visage

In the rain, and in the lights of cars

I stalk your specter

Even… even…

In sheets of advertisements…

 

Your love has taught me…

How I’ve been love-lost in my own face—for hours

Searching for a gypsy poem,

That every gypsy girl might envy

Searching for a face—a voice—

Your love is all the faces and all the voices.

 

Your love has made me enter, my dear

Cities of sorrows

Before you, I had not entered

Cities of sorrows—

I had never known—

That a tear was a person

That a person without sadness

Is the memory of a person…

 

Your love has taught me…

To behave like kids,

To draw your face—

With chalk upon the walls

And on the sails of fishermen’s crafts

Upon the church bells,

And the crosses.

Your love has taught me…

How love alters the turning of time—

It has taught me that when I love,

The earth holds back its spinning

Your love has taught me things…

That were never part of the accounting

So I read the stories of children—

I entered the palaces of the jinn kings

I dreamed that the daughter of the sultan

Married me—

Those eyes of hers… purer than the gulf waters

Those lips of hers… more luscious than a pomegranate’s bloom

And I dreamed that I safeguarded her

Like the knights,

I dreamed that I gifted her,

With strands of pearl and coral

Your love has taught me, my dear, what delirium is

It has taught me how life goes on,

With the sultan’s daughter never coming.

 

Your love has taught me…

How I love you in all things

In the naked tree

In the desiccated, yellow leaves

In the rainy weather—in the storms

In the smallest of cafes—

In which we, of an evening, drank our black coffee

Your love has taught me to seek refuge

In nameless hotels

In nameless churches

In nameless cafes

Your love has taught me…

How the night distends with strangers’ sorrows

It has taught me… how to see Beirut:

A woman… a madame of seductions

A woman, wearing each and every night

The finest garments she possesses

Sprinkling perfume on her breasts

For the sailors—and the princes—

Your love has taught me…

To weep for lack of crying

It has taught me how sadness sleeps

Like a young boy with severed feet

On the streets of Rūsha and Ḥamrā’

 

Your love has taught me… how to be sad.

And I have needed, for ages

A woman to make me sad

A woman in whose arms I could weep

Like a sparrow,

A woman— to gather up my pieces—

Like shards of shattered crystal

 

You Want

By Nizar Qabbani, tr. Rachel Schine

You want, like all women do,

The treasures of Solomon

Like all women…

Cisterns of perfume

And combs of ivory

Swarms of serving girls

You want, my Ladyship,

Him to proclaim your name like a parrot

To say, “I love you” at dawn

To say, “I love you” at dusk

While washing your legs with wine

O, Shahrazad of women,

You want, like all women do…

You want the stars of the sky from me,

And dishes of manna

And platters of quail

And slippers of chestnut blossoms

You want…

Silks from Shanghai

And from Isfahan—

Onagers’ skins.

But I am not one of those prophets,

Who casts his staff

And splits the sea

Who hews his solid stones from light…

You want, like all women do,

Fans of feathers

And kohl

And fragrance

You want a slave

Of profound idiocy

To read you bedside poetry

You want…

At one and the same time,

Rashid’s palatial court,

And Khosroes’ arching hall,

And a parade of bondsmen and captives

Keeping your skirts’ train in tow

O Cleopatra,

But I am not

Some globetrotting Sindbad,

Who can make Babel appear between your hands

Nor the Pyramids of Egypt

Nor the archway of Khosroes

I do not have a lofty lamp

With which to bring you sunrays through the night

As you desire… all you women…

And what’s more,

O Shahrazad of women,

I am a laborer from Damascus—poor

I soak my morning loaf in blood,

My hair in spit…

I live simply.

And I believe in bread and saints,

And I dream of love like the others,

And a partner patching up the holes

In my robes

A child sleeping on my lap

Like a field sparrow

Like the glow on the water

I think of love like the others

Because a lover is like air

Because a lover is a sun, shining

Upon the dreamers behind castle walls,

Upon the toiling breadwinners,

Upon the wretched

And those who lay down in beds of silk

And those who lay down in beds of sobbing

You want, like all women do…

You want the eighth Wonder of the World,

But I have nothing,

Except my boasts.

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Rachel Schine is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, focusing on premodern Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, and Persian literature. Her research interests include orality and storytelling practices, gender/sexuality and race/race-making in popular texts. Her dissertation is titled, “On Blackness in Arabic Popular Literature: The Black Heroes of the Siyar Sha‘biyya, their Conception, Contests, and Contexts.”