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.”

Click HERE to read more from this author.


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