The death of grand poetry?
Commemorating the anniversaries of the deaths of two great Arab poets, Mona Anis investigates the contemporary role of the poet
Literary circles in the Arab world last week commemorated the tenth anniversary of the death of the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998), and this month marks 25 years since the death of the Egyptian poet Amal Donqol (1940-1983). Though they belonged to different generations -- and had very different literary sensibilities -- these two poets shared certain things: many of their poems have strong political overtones and the popularity of their poems has meant that they are still widely read and quoted from today.
Qabbani began writing poetry in the 1940s while still a law student in Damascus. His lyrical, playful poetry of the 40s and 50s, epitomised by collections such as Childhood of a Breast (1948), You Are Mine (1950), Poems(1956) and My Beloved (1961), typically dealt with love themes interwoven with a mild streak of eroticism. This shocked many conservative Arabs and led to the banning of some of his early books.
In the period between the early 1950 and mid-1960s, Qabbani became perhaps the most popular Arab poet, especially among young people. His daring love poems, and the simple yet eloquent style in which his poems were written, prompted many Arab singers to want to sing his words. Through the voices of legendary singers such as Um Kalthoum, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Fairouz and Abdel-Halim Hafez, Qabbani's poetry moved all Arab listeners.
During the same period Qabbani's work as a diplomat -- he joined the Syrian diplomatic service after graduating from law school in 1945 -- took him to many parts of the world, including Turkey, Britain, China and Spain. This wide experience endowed both his poetry and his personality with a cosmopolitan aura that contributed to his immense appeal, both as a poet and as a man of the world. In 1966 he retired from the diplomatic service and settled in Beirut, where he founded his own publishing house.
One year later, the defeat of the Arab armies in the 1967 June War with Israel dealt a cataclysmic blow to Arab aspirations and set the Arab peoples on a course of estrangement from their ruling regimes, which had promised the liberation of Palestine, but had shown themselves unable to defend even the national territories of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, which now fell under Israeli occupation.
Qabbani, who had previously written some nationalist poetry but was still primarily known for his love poems, was one of the first Arab poets to give voice to the bitter feelings emanating from the defeat. In his Hawamish 'ala Daftar al-Naksa (Footnotes to the Notebook of the Setback) written in 1967, he launched a stinging attack not only on the Arab regimes but also on all Arabs, himself included.
The opening lines of this poem announce the death of all that the Arabs had once taken pride in: "Friends, I announce to you the death of language/of old books/The death of../Our hollow words, like holes in old shoes." And with the death of all these things Qabbani himself announces he has been transformed: "My sad homeland/ In a moment you transformed me/ From a poet writing of love and nostalgia/ To a poet writing with a knife."
Qabbani ends his poem with a message to future generations in a similar vein to that which Bertolt Brecht produced in his well- known poem To Those Born After. Unlike Brecht, however, who, while admitting that "Hatred of oppression distorted our features/ Anger at injustice made our voices raised and ugly," still asks those who will come after to look back with compassion on those drowned by the flood, Qabbani's message for future generations has little compassion for the present: "Do not read our news/Do not follow in our footsteps/Do not accept our ideas/We are the generation of vomit, hacking coughs and syphilis."
Perhaps at the same time that Qabbani was writing his Hawamish 'ala Daftar al-Naksain Beirut, in Cairo Amal Donqol was writing his Al-bokaa bayn yadai Zarqaa al-Yamama (Weeping before Zarqaa al-Yamama), a poem whose words spread like wildfire throughout the Arab world, ushering in the arrival of a new poetic voice that had an immense influence, going far beyond its author's 15-year presence in the literary arena.
Unlike Qabbani, who could be considered part of the Arab establishment behind the 1967 defeat, Donqol was a young and disenfranchised Saidi (Upper Egyptian), who had arrived a few years earlier in the metropolis from his home village of Qalaa in the southern Egyptian province of Qena.
In Al-bokaa bayn yadai Zarqaa al-Yamam, which takes the form of a dialogue with Zarqaa al-Yamama, a female figure in classical Arabic culture who bears some resemblance to the Greek figure of Cassandra in her ability to warn of approaching danger, Donqol gives voice to those excluded from sharing in the wealth of the nation, though not excluded from bearing the brunt of the defeat brought about by their masters. "I ask you Zarqaa/I ask your emerald mouth about the virgin's prophecy/ About my severed armة while still holding the fallen banner," Donqol writes, proceeding to tell her that he "who has never been of consequence/and has been excluded from the meetings of noblemen/ is now being invited to die/ without ever having been invited to the party."
The poem ends with Zarqaa al-Yamama shunned, "lonely and blind," while the poet himself tries to find a place "where I can hide my distorted face/ So as not to disturb the idiotic serenity/in the eyes of men and women."
Most of Donqol's poems written between 1966 and 1968 and collected in his first book, Al-bokaa bayn yadai Zarqaa al-Yamama, were not available to the public until some years later: though the book was published in Beirut in 1969, it was banned in Egypt. But even before the book made its appearance in bookshops, Donqol's poetry was widely disseminated, often copied by hand, in literary circles and among university students. I recall seeing Donqol for the first time in a packed auditorium at the Ain Shams University School of Engineering in 1968.
Though Donqol became famous in the late 1960s for his overtly political poetry, it transpired a few years later with the publication of his Maqtal al-qamar (Death of the Moon) in Beirut in 1974 that he had also been writing love poems since the beginning of the 60s, some of which are very accomplished. While it would be interesting to know if Qabani's hugely popular love poetry had an influence on Donqol's early poetry, of greater relevance here are the parallel trajectories of these two most-gifted contemporary Arab poets writing in classical Arabic, whose political poetry still resonates throughout the Arab world many years after their deaths.
Though political poetry of the kind written by Qabbani and Donqol is no longer in fashion -- not in poetry written in classical Arabic at least -- the enduring popularity of their political poems appears to contradict what Jean-Franچois Lyotard famously said about the "end of grand narratives."
Last month, as I was innocently trying to open a Youtube link sent to me by a friend, not knowing what it contained, I was taken aback to hear Donqol's voice reciting the opening lines of one of his poems from the 1960s, The Last Words of Spartacus: "Glory to Satan, the god of wind/Who said no to those who said yes/ Who taught man to challenge nothingness." Defiant in the face of nothingness, both Donqol and Qabbani remained true to their belief in the Arab narrative of emancipation to the end of their lives.
Thus, following moves by the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to make peace with Israel in 1977, Donqol started a long poem, Aqwal Jadida an Harb al-Bassous(A New Statement Regarding the Bassous War), which he kept adding to until shortly before his death. The poem is popularly known as "Do not Make Peace" as it begins with the line, "Do not make peace/ for all the gold offered/ there are things that are not for sale."
In a similar vein, and shortly before he became too ill to write, Qabbani described the Qana Massacre in South Lebanon in 1996, during which 102 people were killed by the Israelis in Operation Grapes of Wrath. He wrote: "The face of Qana/ Pale, like that of Jesus/ And the sea breeze of Aprilة/ Rains of blood.. and tears../ They entered Qana stepping on our charred bodies/Raising a Nazi flag."
The present anniversaries of the deaths of Qabbani and Donqol are an opportunity to reflect on the magnificent poems written by both men. Judging by their continuing popularity, it is far too early to talk of the "death of grand poetry."