One-hundred years later: Reflections on Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani's centenary

Syrian Poet Nizar Qabbani as a student in the Faculty of Law in Damascus in 1944. Wikimedia commons. Art work by Mariam A.

This piece by Samy Marwan Mobayed was first published by Raseef22, an Arabic media platform, on March 21, 2023.  An edited version is republished here, under a content-sharing agreement.

March 21 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nizar Qabbani, the renowned Syrian and Arab world poet of the modern era. He was born in Damascus in 1923, and passed away in London on April 30, 1998.

It appears that amidst the various concerns and challenges faced in Syria, the commemoration of this occasion has slipped from the collective consciousness of Syrians, with only a handful of individuals remembering it.

Among these people is journalist Nidal Qushaha, who wanted to organize a televised seminar in Nizar’s old house in the al-Shahem Minaret district in the center of old Damascus, in the presence and with the participation of great music artists who sang his verses, such as Najat al-Saghira, Kadim al-Sahir, Majida el-Roumi, and contemporaries who knew him closely such as the writer Colette Khoury. However, the country's circumstances and the devastating earthquake that struck Syria on February 6, 2023, prevented this from taking place during this time.

Qabbani himself wrote about his birthday, saying:

I was born on March 21, 1923 inside one of the old Damascene homes. Earth was also giving birth anew, the verdant embrace of spring readied to unfurl its green arms. The earth and my own mother conceived at the same time, and gave birth at the same time. Was it a mere coincidence that my arrival was heralded in the season when the earth revolts against itself, while the trees shed their worn garb? Or was it a destiny decree that I, like the month of March, should embody the essence of transformation and perpetual change?  All I know is that my birth witnessed nature’s uprising against winter, urging the fields and grasses to join in its momentous uprising against the ennui of earth’s rhythms.

Enduring popularity

While critics may have varying opinions on the merits of Qabbani's poetry, there is no denying the significance and enduring popularity of the man himself even a quarter of a century after his passing.

In 2017, a remarkable sculpture of Qabbani was unveiled by Syrian sculptor Wissam Qatarmiz at a ceremony held by the Ministry of Culture, where it was installed in the lobby of the Damascus Opera House. Additionally, another statue of Qabbani, crafted by Syrian artist Leila Khoury, was displayed in Cleveland, Ohio

Before these events, Bassel al-Khatib directed a television series that recounted Nizar Qabbani's life, where the Syrian actor Taim Hassan portrayed a young Nizar, while Salloum Haddad played an older version of the poet.

Nizar Qabbani embarked upon his literary journey in 1943 and did not stop writing until periods of profound sorrow and grief overtook him, such as the day his son Tawfiq passed away or when his Iraqi wife Balqis al-Rawi was tragically killed in 1981. His elegy for his son speaks of the cruel, overwhelming force of death that attacks mankind suddenly and without warning, with the words:

O Tawfiq,

If Death had begotten a son, he would know the agony of the death of sons 

And if Death possessed reason

We would inquire how he rationalizes the death of nightingales and jasmine

And if Death had a heart

It would waver the thought of slaughtering our good children.

The unsung legend

Nizar Qabbani was not bestowed with any medal of merit from his country, even though he was most deserving of Order of Civil Merit of the Syrian Arab Republic — a prestigious accolade granted in recognition of a person's exceptional achievements and meritorious services rendered to the state or the Arab world. 

In his poetic verses, Qabbani often extolled the magnificence of the Umayyad capital, and sang the praises of the Arab glories, as evidenced in his lines, “Umayyad's flags are raised… And her horses are attached to mine,” which alludes to the Umayyads raising their banners after conquering Andalusia.

It was not until the final weeks of his life, after over 50 years of writing poetry, that Nizar Qabbani was finally granted the honor of having a street named after him in his birthplace of Damascus. This gesture of recognition brought him such great joy and that his final written words expressed gratitude towards the city that had raised him as a son and revered him as its poet.

It would have been great for Nizar's centenary to be marked with more fanfare, akin to the millennial celebrations of al-Mutanabbi, al-Ma'arri, and other great poets, and to have cemented his place in the collective memory of millions, with or without formal ceremonies. He stands as Syria's equivalent of Beethoven to the German people, Mozart to Austria, or Chaplin to world cinema: a towering figure, a trailblazer, and a legend whose like cannot be duplicated by time.




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