Cry Out with a Woman’s Voice: Love, Resistance, and the Erotic Verse of Syria’s National Poet

When my grandmother’s sister was killed, my grandmother inherited her sister’s identity.

Born in Saidnaya, Syria, in 1926, my grandmother entered the world three years after the French Mandate—the period of French rule after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire with World War I—went into effect. A mountain town roughly 20 miles north of Damascus, Saidnaya is one of the Christian-majority areas of the country (many biblical scholars consider it to be the site where Cain killed Abel). At the beginning of the 20th century, it was one of the many sites where Ottoman forces were killing Christians en masse. At the time, my grandmother’s parents had been on a waiting list to get out of the country with their two daughters, Mary and Ossin. If there were any changes to the names on the list, they would need to start the process over.

And then my great-grandmother became pregnant for a third time. This could have meant disaster for the family, but by coincidence Mary died in an attack on their farm shortly before my grandmother was born. So they gave my grandmother the name Mary, and kept their place on the list.

Half a world and 16 years later, my grandmother was sitting on her parents’ bed in Rhode Island, ear pressed to the bedroom door as her father and extended family convened to discuss what they considered to be another desperate situation: My grandmother was accepted to college. With the Orthodox priest in tow, they made the case that allowing her to have an education would turn her into a fājira—a loose woman. My great-grandfather’s response was that his daughter could do as she damn well pleased.

Like my grandmother, Syria’s national poet Nizar Qabbani was born in the era of the French Mandate (to an upper-middle-class Muslim family in Damascus). And, like my grandmother, he also lost his eldest sister, albeit to a different form of violence inherent to the land. In an era of rapid westernization due, in no small part, to colonial influence, Qabbani’s Syria was keeping up appearances, but struggling to come to terms with its long-held traditions and taboos, especially around women’s equality.

This dichotomy hit home when the 15-year-old Nizar lost his sister Wisal to suicide after she wasn’t allowed to marry the man she loved. In the wake of that loss, which he describes in characteristic plainspoken style in My Story with Poetry, Qabbani began to question love and lust and how they related to beliefs that had thrived for centuries in Arabic culture.

“Were my writings about love the natural substitute for everything that my sister was deprived of,” Qabbani would later ask of himself in My Story with Poetry. “And were they to avenge her death from a society that rejects love and chases it with axes and guns?” In the same memoir, Qabbani would later describe the act of “penetrating” the fortress of Arabic poetry as “an act of madness rather than an act of sacrilege and blasphemy… linguistic terrorism and historical, rhetorical, grammatical, moral and religious terror as well.”

At roughly the same time that my grandmother broke through as the first in her family to go to college, Qabbani broke through the “fortress” and published his first poetry collection, What the Brunette Told Me. He paid for the publication (a trend that would continue for most of his works) and wrapped each of the 300 copies in the same paper that was used in his father’s chocolate factory. An Egyptian magazine noted with derision that each book was also tied with a red string akin to those that the French required to be wrapped around the waists of Syrian prostitutes for easier access. The magazine then tore into the verse itself for its depictions of “fornication, injury, and the depiction of the experienced, impudent and shameless prostitute.”

Despite the conservative outcry (even his own father bemoaned that his son was “full of illusions [and] will never be of any use, either to himself or the world”), Qabbani’s family contacts in the government allowed What the Brunette Told Me to be reprinted several times. Reading the poems as an American in 2019, it’s almost easy to miss the fuss. “Do I love you?/No, no, that’s impossible/I never like or fall in love,” protests the narrator in “Obstinacy”:
But by the night,

My pillow starts to cry…

The stars fill my bed…

Then, I ask my heart

‘Do you know her?’

But my heart laughs at me,

I do not know why.
Yet to read this in Damascus in 1944 was to enter the heads of every Syrian youth—male or female—unable to reconcile the tyranny of tradition with a sense of inevitable modernity.

Tracing both form and focus of these works also gives us a Damascene Road of sorts to the poets and predicaments of our time. Rupi Kaur cites Qabbani as one of her greatest influences. It’s easy to see how many of his short, simple, yet supple verses—inspired by the rhythms of the Mediterranean Sea as opposed to the complex meters of classical Arabic poetry—would just as easily spread across Instagram today. Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple, cocreators of the memoir Brothers of the Gun, cite Qabbani’s Sparrows Don’t Need Entry Visas as an inspiration for their book.

Qabbani’s fascination with love and women didn’t stop with his first book. As early as 1975, critics like Arieh Loya noted that early Qabbani was unable “to view women as entities in themselves or to be concerned for their inner spiritual life. They were just beautiful females, alluring and disturbing, who he seemed unable yet to see as equals.”

Without sacrificing much of his Arabic machismo, Qabbani began to morph from the empirically erotic (“When I kissed your right breast/You exclaimed: ‘What about the left one?’”) into a voice for the silenced Arabic woman.

Rather than painting women as patriarchal property, he asserts that love is only genuine in the absence of coercion and with a sense of mutual desire. In “On Entering the Sea,” he writes:
Love happened at last

Without intimidation … with symmetry of wish.

So I gave … and you gave

And we were fair.

It happened with marvelous ease

Like writing with jasmine water,

Like a spring flowing from the ground.
Qabbani also began to speak in the voice of the Arabic woman, which would become a hallmark of his work. In storming the fortress of Arabic poetic traditions, Qabbani also aimed his lance at the traditions of arranged marriage, domestic violence, and honor killings—traditions that still claim the lives of Syrian women and girls today (especially among Syrian refugees, for whom the current conflict has led to an increase in gender-based violence according to the United Nations Population Fund). His lines from “Notes on the Book of Defeat” were (and still are) used as a political rallying cry against life under political dictatorship—and are just as easily repeated in the era of #MeToo:
O Sultan, my master, if my clothes

are ripped and torn

it is because your dogs with claws

are allowed to tear me.
It’s impossible to separate the personal from the political in Qabbani’s works. He writes in his introduction to Diary of an Indifferent Woman, “It is not a novel deed that a woman burns in this East of ours… half the dust of our deserts is kneaded with the ashes of long locks of hair… and stabbed throats.” His anonymous female narrator goes on to mourn the “female martyrs/Who were buried/Nameless/In the cemetery/Of ‘tradition’…”

“Is it not the irony of fate that I should cry out with a woman’s voice while women are unable to speak with their own natural voice?” Qabbani remarked in a 1968 lecture at the American University of Beirut, in a rare public and plainspoken critique of the Arabic patriarchy. “This is the book of every woman whom this stupid, ignorant East sentenced and executed before she could open her mouth.”

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I’m instinctively drawn to Qabbani: Both he and my grandmother assumed the identities of other women. In her case, it was a means of survival. In his, it was a means of understanding that sense of another’s survival being at stake.

There are other Qabbani poems that are more acutely political, but even his love poetry was, as his second wife, Balqis al-Rawi said, political poetry. In writing about 1967’s Six-Day War, in which Arabic forces were besieged by Israeli forces, he describes losing his lust. In “Poetic Communique #1,” from 1972’s Poems Outside the Law, he says to his lover:
And I love you in the protests of angry people

and in the joy of free people in the breaking of chains.

And I love you in the face of those who are coming

to kill the Caliph Harun al-Rashid.

Will you be my accomplice

in the killing of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid?
Syrian poet and scholar Mohja Kahf, who transcribed “Poetic Communique #1,” best describes the work’s underlying argument: “Love makes resistance an existential necessity.”

Resistance, too, makes love an existential necessity. In December 1981, Balqis al-Rawi had gone to her job in the cultural office at the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut, where the couple had been living. That day, pro-Iranian guerrillas bombed the embassy building and she was killed in the attack. Qabbani’s eulogies for his wife weren’t confined to a single poem, but the most damning was “Balqis,” which features his descriptions of kissing her hair and eyes amid the rubble before declaring:
I swear by your eyes

That draw millions of planets into them

That I shall speak infamies

About the Arabs

I shall say: Our chastity is harlotry

Our piety is filth

And I shall say: Our struggle is a lie

And there is no difference

Between our politics

And prostitution.
Both the rage and the romance in these works is Qabbani’s legacy to Arabic poetry, and a reminder of our inheritance in both Syria and the United States today. Having discovered Qabbani’s poems as a teenager, I’ve found myself growing with him since then. We were full of raging teenage hormones together, and as an adult now I feel his political rage—turned now against ever travel ban and misguided declaration of victory over ISIS. After spending part of October of last year in a refugee camp in Greece meeting with fellow Syrians, I retreated into Qabbani’s simple sentences, longing for the sense of love and refuge they provide. “The Qabbani baptism,” as Salma Khadra Jayyusi wrote in her introduction to On Entering the Sea, “is like a tattoo on the spirit. It cannot be removed.”

Qabbani died in 1998, missing out on the ascendance of Bashar al-Assad and the Arab Spring. My grandmother is still alive, though in the last 15 years her mind has slipped further and further into dementia (she’s avoided what Qabbani has called the most dangerous heart disease: strong memory). The last time I spoke to her, she didn’t remember Syria at all. Her sister Ossin died last fall. While she has other siblings, some of whom have been to see our family still in Saidnaya, they were all born in the United States. Eventually, that direct line to where I come from will fade, like a poor transatlantic signal.

My grandmother can no longer remember. But Qabbani remembers for both of us.

Understanding My Father’s Suicide through ‘The Journals of Spalding Gray’

1.
I couldn’t bring myself to drive to Boston’s Revere Beach, where my father drowned himself in 1992, so I took the G train to the Greenpoint Waterfront, where Spalding Gray’s body was discovered in 2004. I’d been there before, of course—countless afternoons sloping into evenings on the rocks of WNYC Transmitter Park.

But I had never gone there realizing it was where Gray’s body washed up on a cold day in March, two months after he was reported missing. Nearly 14 years later to the day, I stood on a pier overlooking the rocks off the East River, holding my copy of The Journals of Spalding Gray. I turned to the last page, a quote from one of his entries written in 1970:
I began to realize I was acting as though the world was going to end and this was helping lead to its destruction. The only positive act would be to leave a record. To leave a chronicle of feelings, acts, reflections, something outside of me, something that might be useful in the unexpected future.
Here was a spot where I’d supervised photoshoots with clients, where I’d participated in woo-woo Californian rituals of impermanence and sipped pony-necked beers out of brown paper bags. To be here now seemed at once wholly incompatible and utterly harmonious. It was like coming home.

Like Gray, I grew up in Rhode Island, about 30 minutes north of his hometown of Barrington. Like Gray, I lost a parent to suicide—his mother in their family garage with the door closed and the engine on, my father in a way that was … well, like Gray. In September of 1992, my father walked into the waters off the Boston shore, stating in his note that his intention was for the tides to take him.

The tides must have worked, because he was never found. After waiting out a seven-year period to have him declared in absentia, his mother sent me a manilla envelope with a copy of a suicide note and his will. My own mother rarely, if ever, brought it up.

2.
Gray learned about his mother in a similar way when she died in 1967. At a train station in Providence, his father said simply that she was “gone.” When Gray later referred to this as “the avoidance language that was going on in Rhode Island,” I knew intuitively, experientially, what he meant.

Around the same time that I learned of my father’s death in that familiar old Rhode Island language of avoidance, I was also beginning weekly, sometimes biweekly trips into Providence. In ninth grade, a performance of Othello at Trinity Repertory Company shook something deep in my ribcage—especially in the moment of Othello’s suicide at the end. It was like chasing the dragon, but the dragon itself was unnamable. In the wake of that performance, combined with a childhood love of opera, I took after-school classes at Trinity as well as the experimental theater down the street, Perishable Theater. I saw plays by New York experimentalists like Mac Wellman over and over until I’d memorized the scripts.

And I began to read books—monologues, really—by a fellow Rhode Islander whose brother, Channing, covered the arts for the Providence Journal. They were one-man shows with titles like Swimming to Cambodia, Gray’s Anatomy, and Monster in a Box, performed (as I later saw on film) at a wooden table, adorned with a single glass of water, with a notebook used occasionally for reference. It was nothing like the verbal aerobics of Shakespeare or the pageantry of opera, yet I was completely taken with this not-quite-actor, not-quite-writer who seemed to cut to some primal aspect of the human experience.

3.
In 2003, I began my freshman year at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus as a playwriting major. Those first few months in New York, I often hoped I would run into Gray on the subway, that we could share the distinct experience of being two of the few Rhode Islanders who move outside of a 20-mile radius of their childhood homes and seek their fortunes in the unknown. I went further outside of the Rhode Island safety zone and spent that first winter of my college experience in Russia, studying at the Moscow Art Theatre School which both augmented and challenged what I’d gleaned of Gray’s school of downtown theater.

The day I returned from Moscow was the day Gray disappeared. What we presume to know now is that he boarded the Staten Island Ferry and leapt into the ultimate unknown. We never locked eyes on the B train, but his loss felt familial. The next few months felt like a bizarre stasis in the face of life continuing. My second semester of college, my first job in the city, working on plays on-campus and off. I learned that they found him when a guy I was seeing emailed me about it before inviting himself over. I imagine Gray would have appreciated his death being used as fodder for a booty call.

But going back into those books that I’d collected, the tales of peak experience and alternative medicine and childhood pets, was impossible. I often wonder if there was some subconscious connection between Gray’s death, my own delayed grieving process for my father (which wouldn’t begin in earnest until 2011), and my ultimate decision at the end of 2004 to withdraw from Fordham and abandon theatre studies.

4.
It took me half a decade before I felt ready to read Nell Casey’s compendium of Gray’s journal entries, which span the 1960s up until the first weeks of 2004. Grief, in some ways, is a lot like Gray’s signature monologues: There’s some semblance of an arc of where you begin and end, but for the most part it’s improvised, nonlinear. You circle around one topic (anger, depression) before hopscotching over to another (bargaining or acceptance), and then making a sharp U-ey over to one of the earlier stages (denial) for a coda.

And reading Gray’s journals was a method for unraveling this reverse-Fibonacci sequence. A wayfinder of his artistic development, the books he read, and his ongoing obsession with synchronicity, the journals also kept the loss of his mother in the same room. If it wasn’t front and center, it was at least in the periphery, hanging like a premonition. An undated entry read, “the new fear was that mom had not only killed herself, but had also laid the groundwork to kill me.” I felt the familiar rattling of ribs, got a whiff of the vapors of recognition.

I realized that, more than anything else, this is the monster in a box left behind by the suicide of a parent: We worry that the stories they write are also coded into our DNA, and that we’re bound to follow in their wake. “MY MOM DIDN’T LEAVE A NOTE,” he wrote in all-caps in an undated entry from the early 1980s, when he was touring Australia, and I wonder if his journals, if his obsessive self-biography, was some sort of recompense. I wish I could tell Spalding that my father did leave a note, and it didn’t do a Rosetta Stone’s job of helping me to understand why he left. It didn’t even do a Google Translate’s job.

I tried for years to find out exactly who my father was: the books he read, the path of his development, the theories that formed his obsessions. He died pre-internet, however, and the information available is sparse. Trying to track it down would make me physically sick from the subliminal stress. His name appears in a college yearbook for the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass Amherst. The U.S. Coast Guard sent me a copy of his brief military record before he was honorably discharged from Governor’s Island. I want to know his pain, what kept him up at night, the scraps of paper he filled and the complaints he wrote in all caps. Gray called this act in life “seeking out its dark spots” in an April 1985 entry.

5.
For reasons that were beyond articulation when I added the book to my Amazon cart, I believed that Gray’s journals would give me some sense of a road map to self-destruction without having to feel that destruction cut so close to the bone. Academic research. Clinical observation. Over the course of four decades, I’d be able to see the same road markers in Gray’s life that my own father followed. What I got instead was more of this nonlinear grief, but at some point it resolved into an equally nonlinear understanding. It was an understanding through coincidence, of the sort of chance groupings that psychoanalyst Carl Jung would define as synchronicity.

In his book of the same title, Jung notes that we could see synchronicity as those coincidences that fall within the realm of probability. But we can also intuit within them a sense of persistence. Taken at face-value, none of what I’ve written about so far is so unique: People lose parents to suicide. People die, voluntarily or otherwise, by drowning. The reason that we still see memoirs with titles like My Dead Parents is that they have a market; they carry resonance. And people are drawn to the water (we are, after all, 66 percent water). It’s not an uncommon metaphor.

But if we care to look past the odds of probability, these ideas still have a way of persisting. At a certain point in The Journals of Spalding Gray, it’s as though I’ve become bloodhound-attuned to sniffing out at first any mention of his parents, death, or the water. I free associate and scribble notes about the few times Casey writes in editorial notes that Gray almost drowns, either intentionally or not. It’s not unlike how Gray himself drew connections between the elements of his life and the lives of others in order to distill greater meaning. It wasn’t so much that he projected his suffering, neuroses, hopes, or fears onto others as it was that he understood, implicitly or not, that one of the main reasons synchronicity exists is that as humans, most of what we do experience are the hand-me-downs of history.

In that same April 1985 journal entry, Gray described Swimming to Cambodia as an attempt to balance out polar extremes. “Like any work of art it is an attempt to become God out of a loss of contact. An attempt to create a tiny, balanced universe. An attempt to play at being God out of a lack of contact with the real or imagined source.” And here I am attempting to play at being God, using Gray as an imagined source. And that experiment seems to work.

Jung writes that “spontaneous synchronistic phenomena draw the observer, by hook or by crook, into what is happening and occasionally make him an accessory to the deed.” Nearly a quarter of a century after losing my own father, nearly 18 years after learning about his death, there is still a knot of complicated grief. Trying to untangle it in the years that followed that initial manila envelope often resulted in paralysis, of making the jumble even worse. Gray’s journals pulled me out of that inertia, allowed me to know when to weave one end of the twine over or under an entangling loop.

6.
On September 26, 1985, the day after I was born, Gray wrote in his journal, “Had this dream that I was arrested for holding a mirror up to people on a beach in England.” Many who have eulogized Gray, including those whose tributes appear in the 2005 book Life Interrupted, note his role as the mirror, observer, and reflection all in one. To read his work, any of his work, is to see and be seen. It’s to be made an accessory to the deed, of testing the mirror by moving some part of our body to see it reflected. Like a Möbius strip, that reflection comes back to us, albeit transposed. We don’t know the exact truth, but we know its mate.

By hook or by crook, Gray’s journals drew me into the wilderness of a mind both voraciously open and inescapably hindered. He wanted to know the truth. But like grief, to know the truth is to be an active participant. Like grief, the truth lacks a script. At best you can hope for it to show you to a wooden table with a glass of water and a notebook with some sense of an outline.