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May 1, 1998

Nizar Qabbani, Sensual Arab Poet, Dies at 75


CAIRO -- Nizar Qabbani, who left life as a Syrian diplomat to become one of the Arab world's greatest poets, died today in London, where he lived.

He was 75.

The cause was a heart attack, his family said.

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.

Conquering the World With Words

If an audience could be arranged
and also my safe return
this is what I'd tell the Sultan.
This is what he'd learn:
O Sultan, my master, if my clothes
are ripped and torn
it is because your dogs with claws
are allowed to tear me.
And your informers every day are those
who dog my heels, each step
unavoidable as fate.
They interrogate my wife, at length,
and list each friend's name.
Your soldiers kick and beat me,
force me to eat from my shoes,
because I dare approach these walls
for an audience with you.
You have lost two wars
and no one tells you why.
Half your people have no tongues.
What good their unheard sigh?
The other half, within these walls,
run like rabbits and ants,
silently inside.
If I were given safety
from the Sultan's armed guards
I would say, O Sultan,
the reason you've lost wars twice
was because you've been walled in from
mankind's cause and voice.

Notes on the Book of Defeat
("On Entering the Sea" by Nizar Qabbani, translated by Lena Jayyusi and Sharif Elmusa, Interlink Books, 1995)

Twenty years on the road of love
but the road is still unmapped.
Sometimes I was the victor.
More often the vanquished.
Twenty years, O book of love
and still on the first page.

Painting With Words
(On Entering the Sea)

The Syrian poet Youssef Karkoutly said in Damascus today that Qabbani had been "as necessary to our lives as air."

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," which broke with the conservative traditions of Arabic literature. But it was not until he resigned from the Syrian diplomatic service in 1966 that Qabbani reached full flower. 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. But his writing also often fused themes of romantic and political despair, and it sometimes treated the oppression of women as a metaphor for what he saw as the Arabs' cursed fate. In his poem "Drawing with Words" he wrote: When a man wishes a woman he blows a horn, But when a woman wishes a man she eats the cotton of her pillow.

The Egyptian novelist Mona Helmi said of Qabbani today, "His greatness came from his ability to put into beautiful words not only the ordinary actions between men and women, but also between the ruler and ruled and the oppressor and the oppressed."

Gamal el-Ghitanti, the Egyptian novelist and editor of the weekly News of Literature, praised Qabbani as having been "by any measure a great Arab poet who made a big effort to make his poetry understandable to all people and not only to the elite."

Qabbani published his first poem, "The Brunette had Told Me," in 1944, a year before he graduated with a law degree from the University of Damascus. He held diplomatic posts in Cairo, Ankara, London, Madrid, Beijing and Beirut before resigning, and 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." In his later years, Qabbani's 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. Still, Qabbani never explicitly criticized his native country or its long-reigning leader, President Hafez al-Assad, and that allowed him to be hailed across Syria as a national hero. Assad, who recently named a main street in Damascus after the poet, was reported today to be planning to dispatch a special plane to London to carry Qabbani's body home to Syria for burial.

Born on March 21, 1923, Qabbani was married twice.

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. The poet had been in poor health for many months. He is survived by two daughters and a son.

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