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
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.