Nizar Qabbani

Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) was born into a prominent Damascene family. His father Tawfiq was a leading member of the anti-French National Bloc, arrested frequently for bankrolling the anti-Mandate street in Syria. Nizar grew up under the towering influence of his father and was inspired by his great-uncle Abu Khalil Qabbani, founder of Arabic theatre in the 18th Century. Nizar studied law at Damascus University and enrolled at Syrian Foreign Ministry in 1945. He served as consul in several countries including China, Spain, and Great Britain, resigning in 1966, three years after the Baath came to power in Syria, to devote his life to poetry. Qabbani was revered by generations of Arabs for his sensual and romantic verse. His work was featured not only in his two dozen volumes of poetry and in regular contributions to the Arabic-language newspaper Al Hayat, but in lyrics sung by Lebanese and Syrian vocalists who helped popularize his work. Through a lifetime of writing, Qabbani made women his main theme and inspiration. He earned a reputation for daring with the publication in 1954 of his first volume of verse, "Childhood of a Breast," whose erotic and romantic themes broke from the conservative traditions of Arab literature. The suicide of his sister, who was unwilling to marry a man she did not love, had a profound effect on Qabbani. Thereafter, he expressed resentment of male chauvinism and often wrote from a woman's viewpoint and advocated social freedoms for women. He had lived in London since 1967 but the Syrian capital remained a powerful presence in his poems, most notably in "The Jasmine Scent of Damascus." After the Arab defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, he founded the Nizar Qabbani publishing house in London, and his became a powerful and eloquent voice of lament for Arab causes. Qabbani was a committed Arab nationalist and in recent years his poetry and other writings, including essays and journalism, had become more political. His writing also often fused themes of romantic and political despair. Qabbani's later poems included a strong strain of anti-authoritarianism. One couplet in particular -- "O Sultan, my master, if my clothes are ripped and torn it is because your dogs with claws are allowed to tear me" -- is sometimes quoted by Arabs as a kind of wry shorthand for their frustration with life under dictatorship. His second wife, Balqis al-Rawi, an Iraqi teacher whom he had met at a poetry recital in Baghdad, was killed in a bomb attack by pro-Iranian guerrillas in Beirut, where she was working for the cultural section of the Iraqi Ministry. Nizar Qabbani died in London of a heart attack at the age of 75 and received a massive heroic funeral in Damascus.