Today marks the 20th anniversary of the passing of legendary Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, who died at a London hospital, aged 75, back in 1998.
An Arab nationalist at heart and a Nasserist, he was always critical of military dictatorships and firmly opposed to any peace with Israel.
During a prolific career that started in 1943 and lasted until his death, he often made indirect reference to Arab presidents and kings in his poetic verse, mocking their incompetence, corruption, and submissiveness to the United States.
He was outspokenly critical of Anwar Al Sadat of Egypt and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for their respective peace deals with Israel, only praising one Arab leader by name, being Jamal Abdul Nasser.
Thirteen years after his death, during the early stages of the Arab Spring, his revolutionary poetry inspired millions of young people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and then in his native Damascus.
“When will you go away” wrote Nizar back in 1967, addressing Arab kings and presidents.
“The theatre has collapsed over your heads and the audience is cussing and spitting at you.”
Those were among the thousands of verses that young Arabs printed on their secret pamphlets in 2011, calling for street demonstrations throughout Arab capitals. In another popular poem, eulogised after the Arab Spring, Nizar wrote: “Twenty years have gone by, while civilisations have passed right over over our heads. Twenty years have passed and we are living in marble-made coffins, pledging allegiance to any general who seizes power and licking the shoes of any regime!”
In a 1989 poem, entitled “Dailies of an Arab Executioner” Nizar wrote: “I am the omnipotent, the most wise and beautiful. Since I came to power as a young man, nobody has ever said no to me. Neither my ministers nor advisers said no; they taught me how to see myself as a God and to look down on the people as sand from my window. Forgive me if I have killed you all. I kill so that you don’t kill me and I burry you in that collective jail so that you don’t jail me.”
That poem, where Nizar speaks in the first person of an Arab leader (without naming him), he adds: “Be silent when I address you, for my words are like the Holy Quran.” It was banned in Iraq, Libya, Egypt, and Syria.
Other notable themes of Nizar Qabbani’s poetry were love, lust, and his native Damascus, a city that was abundantly eulogised in all his works.
He wrote extensively about the fabled beauty of Damascus—a beauty that has now long passed, after years of negligence, war, corruption, and bad government.
So popular was Nizar that his funeral was a historic moment in Damascus’ history, where thousands of mourners carried him shoulder-high, draped with the Syrian Flag, chanting praise of their poet.
Fans continue to see Nizar’s works as the bible of their passion, making reference to it daily in all their articles, lectures, and books about the city—realising, however, that the Damascus that Nizar knew and talked about no longer exists.
He also wrote notably about Beirut, Cairo, and Jerusalem, but Damascus continued to be the apple of his eye, occupying an all-time favorite position in his heart.
He once wrote: “The pigeons of Italy don’t match those of the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, and Buckingham Palace to me doesn’t match the Azm Palace of Damascus, and nor does that tomb of Napoleon in France match that of Saladin in Damascus.”
Many Syrians ask themselves what Qabbani’s position would be on the Syrian conflict.
Qabbani was a staunch opponent of the Baath Party that has ruled Syria since 1963 but he also held equal disdain for Islamists and the US.
In as much as he would have hailed democracy advocates in Syria and the Arab World, Qabbani would have had a hard time digesting western ambitions in Syria or Islamist rebels shelling his beloved Damascus.
Nourallah Qaddura, a Dubai-based ophthalmologist and poet, told Gulf News: “Nizar was never a poet of ideology, but rather, the poet of victims—whomever they may be and wherever they may stand. He was also against the torturer, whoever that torturer was.”
“There are many proofs of Nizar Qabbani’s genius, the most basic of which was the bravery of his topics, while the most important was his method. He did not live in an ivory tower, like other poets and intellectuals. Based on that unique mix, ease and quality, he was able to occupy first place in the consciousness of his readers, being simply, Nizar Qabbani.”