From the Sultan’s Wife to the Lady Friend

Politics and Erotics in Nizar Kabbani’s Poetry: From the Sultan’s Wife to the Lady Friend

Mohja Kahf

The work of Nizar Kabbani (1923-98), arguably the most widely read contemporary poet in the Arab world, is usually treated as if he wrote in two categories: erotic poetry and political poetry. In fact, politics generally provides the context for love in his erotic poetry, and his erotic sensibility infuses the scene of his political poetry. The sensual and the political facets of reality are fused in much of his work, particularly in the recurring characters who people his poems, figures which illustrate how unnatural it is to separate Kabbani’s politics and erotics, and how much more is opened by understanding their tight embrace.

That love cannot thrive in an environment of coercion is a basic Kabbani axiom. Political oppression from outside the bedroom as well as the traditional social strictures that render women hunks of meat – or mensafs,1 as Kabbani likes to put it – make real love and sexual delight impossible in Kabbani’s book. The coercion he rails against is not just social but explicitly political. “How can I love you, my lady?” the speaker asks in “Writings on the Wall of Exile” (in Freedom, I Have Married You, 1988), “when national security agents / arrest dreams / and send the people of passion into exile?” (Kabbani, 6:193).2 Freedom, equality, and dignity are prerequisites for erotic joy as Kabbani sees it. That is why the lover in “Readings from the Crypts of Holy Simpletons” cannot perform in bed after “June”: “After June, I lost my lust / and fell between my sweetheart’s arms / like a ragged flag” (3:309). In June 1967, the combined forces of Arab states were routed by the Israeli military in six days. This crushing defeat allowed Israel to take territories from three Arab countries and shocked Arabic-speaking peoples out of their postindependence optimism (Barakat, 256).

One critical approach to Kabbani has been that, during the postindependence era (Syria gained independence in 1945), when more politically engaged poets were addressing themes that build national character, the young Kabbani was occupied with the frivolous themes of sex and love, and only later did he see the light and start writing poetry concerned with serious issues. Shakir Nabulsi’s work is an example of this critical approach, which makes use of the fact that Kabbani was as jolted by “June” as any other Arab writer and said things such as “Ah my country! You have transformed me / from a poet of love and yearning / to a poet writing with a knife” (Jayyusi, 1996, xv). Certainly Kabbani’s work developed and took on new dimensions as his life, and Arab lives around him, unfolded and changed. The objectionable idea behind this approach is that Kabbani’s love poetry and his politically engaged poetry are at odds. It is more accurate to say that it was “at the end of the sixties that his political involvement assumed its fullest form” (Jayyusi, xv).

A second critical approach has been to compartmentalize Kabbani’s work into political poems and erotic poems, and to analyze each one separately, as if the other did not exist. One finds in this group studies of Kabbani’s politics3 and studies of Kabbani on love, sexuality, and women.4 Although his eight-volume collected works are arranged so that “political works” occupy separate volumes, to readers with the sweep of Kabbani’s lifetime production now available for our scrutiny, this division appears largely as one of convenience. More recent studies have begun to acknowledge the interconnected nature of these fields for Kabbani.5

Kabbani himself vigorously insisted that his erotic poetry and his political poetry were not at odds: “If only they knew / that what I write about love / is written for my country.” In spite of this, the poet sometimes succumbed to the tradition of separating his poems into “political poetry” and “love poetry;” he did this in the organization of his eight-volume collected works and in some of his live readings. Still, the vigilant Kabbani reader comes to know that lovers cannot truly love without having their consciousness raised to the imperative of human dignity, without becoming intensely protective of the beauty of human life in a way that requires political knowledge. To love is to become capable of empathy with an Other to crazy extremes, for “Love does not stop at the red light” (the title of one of his books). Once the glass around the Self is shattered in this experience, there is no going back to repressive hierarchies. To love is to join the revolt, says “Poetic Communique #1” (Poems Outside the Law, 1972).

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? (2:16)

Love makes resistance an existential necessity. But what sort of resistance? Despite his poetic obeisances to Gamal Abdal Nasser (leftist leader of Egypt from 1954 to 1970 and foremost pan-Arab nationalist) and other charged, sometimes contradictory, political engagements, Kabbani’s poetry is not tied to a particular ideology, frustrating as that may be for critics who want to claim him for particular points on the Left or the Right in the Arab or worldwide political spectrum. In the end, after his taking of specific political stances is put into the trajectory of his life as a whole, it becomes clear that Kabbani has staked everything to say that the human struggle is ultimately esthetic: “I fight ugliness with my poetry / so that there may come to be / worlds aflame with light and beauty” (“The Damascene Poem,” Your Statelets Are Made of Paper and I Have Matches in My Hand, 6:44). Esthetics, then, is the field that unites politics and erotics, but never in the abstract, never divorced from the sensuous realities of human life. Beauty’s erotic form is love; its political form is freedom. In Kabbani’s universe, we create beauty by painting with words: by the passionate, transformative practice of art, music, poetry.

This integration of erotic and political vision creates the figures who people Kabbani’s poetic universe. The figure of the caliph or sultan represents the oppressive political and social Establishment. Four types of women characters emerge over the years from his poetic work to vividly enact Kabbani’s fusion of erotics and politics: the Sultan’s Wife, the Sultan’s Daughter, the Reckless Woman, and the Lady Friend in Exile.

The Sultan’s Wife is the woman complicit with the repressive political- sexual order. She sleeps with the brutal Sultan, derives privilege from her position with him, and dies to the truth of freedom and to her own beauty and warmth within. This frigid “Woman Below Zero” accepts both the sexual subjugation of women and the political subjugation of all citizens, those creatures “whose ambition has been killed / so that their greatest remaining hope / is to get to pedicure / the wife of the prince / or his daughter or his dog” (“Top Secret Report from the Country of Smotherland,” 1986, in Condemned Poems, 6:40). Kabbani sometimes offers the more compassionate view that this woman may have been sold down the river. In “O Wife of the Caliph” the speaker is rebuffed by the palace guards when he tries to gain audience with her, but what they don’t know is that long ago, before the caliph took her, before the palace existed, the lady was his wife. She is imprisoned in a system which does not understand that she “is the sun of life.” Still, the Sultan’s Wife is responsible for turning herself into a “Kashanian carpet” for “The Man” to walk all over: “How can I liberate a woman / who slips her own slavery into her eye like mascara, / who considers her chains / golden bracelets / tinkling on her wrists?” (“The Carpet,” 5:116; these and the next three quotes are from The Secret Papers of a Qarmatian Lover, 1988). She is responsible for having no pride or self-respect: “How can I liberate a woman / who lines up before the door of Shahrayar / waiting her turn?” (“Before Shahrayar’s Door,” 5:117).

Shahrayar is the king in The Thousand and One Nights who marries a virgin every day and kills her the morning after. The Sultan’s Wife is not Shahrazad, the clever bride who enters the king’s apartments with a stratagem for change, but one of the sheep-women who walk abjectly into their daily marital slaughter. As limited as the options of the Sultan’s Wife may be, Kabbani holds her responsible for her cowardice before the challenge of freedom: “The Arab woman / wants someone to chew the morsel of freedom for her / and to swallow it / That’s why she is anemic, suffers / from a deficiency in iron and courage” (“Limpness,” 5:123).

Kabbani does not spare the men in this picture, as in the tiny poem titled “Holocaust”: “The Arab man’s household / resembles a Nazi holocaust: / It has an entrance / but no exit” (5:105). This recalls Betty Friedan’s startling remark in The Feminine Mystique (1963) that middle-class American homes were suburban concentration camps for women.

The Sultan’s Daughter is more ambiguous than the Sultan’s Wife. The river of beauty has not dried in the Sultan’s Daughter. She recognizes the truth in the poet’s message of sexual and political liberation and begins to see through the men of the tribe. Still, she derives security and privilege from her connection with the Sultan and the tribe. The “cashmere hands” and delicate beauty that come with privilege are part of her attraction for the poet-speaker. One might say, in the phrase of American pop singer Billy Joel, that the Sultan’s Daughter has an “Uptown Girl” mystique.

The Sultan’s Daughter, like Shahrazad, the heroine storyteller of The Thousand and One Nights, is a woman struggling for a strategy to survive in an oppressive order while hoping for a new day to come. The poet-speaker is sometimes outside the bedroom trying to get her to leave King Shahrayar: “I am the one who slaughtered Shahrayar,” he says, “I am the one who burned The Thousand and One Nights” (“The Story of a Coup,” Poems Outside the Law, 5:41). Sometimes the poet admits to being Shahrayar himself, and describes trying to escape his inherited patterns of masculinity. In his autobiography, for example, Kabbani at first rejects the charge of being Shahrayar and then offers a tongue- in-cheek defense of Shahrayar. He finds the king a victim of the burden of traditional male role models who only killed women because the lack of equality and freedom made the bedroom a nauseating and boring place (My Story with Poetry, 7:352-53). Kabbani spends a lot of energy on loving the Sultan’s Daughter, “trying to pull her out of the dreams of Shahrazad,” as the Syrian critic Qamar Kaylani puts it (Khaled, 10).

In some poems, such as “From the Files of the Investigative Bureaus,” the Sultan’s Daughter uses her position to successfully challenge the tribe.

The poets of the tribe admonish me,

they whose poems the princess rejects,

they whom the princess has ordered hung,

one by one, at her balcony,

because they don’t get womanhood

and they don’t get poetry,

because they stammer when she asks them

the difference between the fall of iambic pentameter

and the rhythmic fall of her hair

(Love Will Always Be My Master, 4:376)

She is won over to the rebel lover because in the beauty of his poetry she recognizes her own beauty and remembers her true self. On the other hand, in “Song of Sorrow” (adapted to music by Iraqi pop singer Kazim al-Saher as “The School of Love”) the speaker learns sadly that “the sultan’s daughter never arrives” (Savage Poems, 1:705). Will the Sultan’s Daughter elope with the rebel-poet, or will she give in to her anxieties and leave him waiting with the horses under the balcony?

The Reckless Woman is the Kabbani woman who has seen through the lie of the Sultan and become “a gazelle fleeing the authority of the tribe” (“Do You Really Know Women?” Fifty Years in Praise of Women, 104). While the Sultan’s Daughter is a woman caught between the teeth of a dilemma, how to survive in the old order when the new order is only a vague hope, the Reckless Woman is the first to step to the edge of the cliff and jump jubilantly into the valley of lush promise.

The first memorable Reckless Woman in the Kabbani oeuvre is the speaker in the 1968 book-length poem “Diary of a Woman Who Doesn’t Give a Hoot” (Yawmiyat imra’a la mubalia).6 Kabbani frequently writes in a woman’s voice with an acerbic honesty that earned him legions of female readers who felt that he spoke the thoughts they were not allowed to articulate for themselves. The speaker in this case is the daughter of a stodgy middle-class family, who narrates her discovery of the sexual double standard of her conservative society and concludes that she will revolt in body and in writing. She bucks the system in language that connects sexual repression to political oppression.

I resist all the people of the cave,

the people of superstition and mumbo-jumbo,

their slavishness that enslaves them,

their breeding like cows

Before me are a thousand and one executioners

Behind me are a thousand and one butchers

Dear Lord, is there no shame but my nakedness?

Dear Lord, does this East have no work

but fussing over my hemline? (1:638)

Rather than be ashamed of her budding womanhood, she names her menstrual blood the ink to which she shall be quill: “Here is ink without hand / Here is blood without murder / Shall I be embarrassed by it? / Does the sea wave’s mighty cresting embarrass? / I am its source abundant / I am its hand / I am its spindle” (1:598). Here is writing from the lips of the body feminine before ecriture feminine gained currency, and by a male author. This is heady stuff for polite society in 1998, much less 1968.

While the Sultan’s Daughter remains a beautiful but often elusive figure of feminine mystique, the Reckless Woman is a character with whom the poet himself identifies, the rebel in female form – in extremely female form. Her breasts defy gravity: “The difference between Newton’s apple / and your breasts / is that his apple falls down / but your breasts / fall up” (“Apple,” The Secret Papers of a Qarmatian Lover, 5:93). Those crazy, careening breasts are capable of leading revolutions against the caliphate. The Sultan’s Daughter may have exquisite taste in clothes, but the Reckless Woman knows how to be naked. The poet revels in descriptions of her nakedness in bed and bath, as in “Musical Variations on a Nude Woman”: “Once there were two splendid roosters / in your chest / They slept but little / and they cockadoodle-dooed a lot” (Poems Outside the Law, 2:87). The nakedness of this uninhibited girl-next-door created by Kabbani startled the sleepy Arab cities and provinces in the early decades of his poetry.

The Reckless Woman’s nakedness is not just physical: her heart is a naked hunter and her mind rejects masks. She has found the wellsprings of passion and joy within and knows there is no turning back into the desert. This knowledge is what gives her recklessness, which is the power a woman needs in order to throw off the anxieties of the Sultan’s Daughter and fling herself into the truth of love with childlike faith and birdlike spontaneity. The poet-speaker does not fail to take credit for the political and social change that follows.

I am the one who inspired your breasts

to plot the first coup

in the Third World, my lady,

and the mightiest coup

I am the one who spurred them

with poetry

to resist the caliph’s orders

(“The Story of a Coup,” Poems Outside the Law, 5:39)

The Reckless Woman is marked by pride, not in the sense of arrogance, but the natural dignity of a person who will no longer bow to the ugly sultans without or succumb to the ugliness within. Kabbani cheers her high-spiritedness, seeing her, like himself, as a wild and free Arabian horse. She may speak in a profoundly female voice, yet she also speaks in the voice of youth, across gender: “I want, I want – / I want to live, / with every cell in my body, / every delight of this world: / the velvety spread of its night, / the stinging cold of its winter / I want, I want to live” (Diary of a Woman Who Doesn’t Give a Hoot, 1:607). The Reckless Woman expresses the life-force of men and women everywhere. She is the victory of beauty and freedom.

Some critics over the years have seen Kabbani’s description of her beauty as a degrading objectification of women’s bodies. One critic, for example, complains that Kabbani “exiles from his poetic world any woman past forty and any woman who does not enjoy such absolute, ideal beauty” (Badr, 117). Kabbani is not manufacturing Barbie dolls. He is empowering ordinary women to see the beauty, perfection, and vitality that lie within their bodies, when so much else in the world alienates women from their bodies. He is demanding of men that they perceive the female body in a new way, not as an object of conquest or consumption, but as the manifestation of joyful beauty with the power to transform the Self – any self, male or female. The Reckless Woman is the first lover in the world and the first free citizen in Kabbani’s republic.

However, perhaps the charge of “objectifying women” ought not be dismissed so quickly when the poet is as expressive of masculine libido as Kabbani. When a man writes a poem to a woman’s skirt, teasing and begging it to fly up with the gust, as in “The Return of the Festooned Skirt” (1956) – “Tighten now and billow with the breeze / . . . / It’s you against the wind and me: Do lift!” (Poems, 1:314) – a feminist critic must become very serious at once, as the awful possibility dawns on her: does our poet just want to look up her skirt? The poet defends himself time and again against this charge, as in “Poetic Communique #1” (1972), which opens:

Don’t you dare picture that I think of you

the way the tribe thinks of its banquet dishes

Or that I want you to turn into a statue

so I can put you on a pedestal and serenade you

Or that I want to dissolve your borders into mine

I am fleeing the brutality of our paternal line,

escaping the era of woman-stifling

and breast-muffling

So put your hands like stars into my hands

For I love you that I may defend my existence

Don’t you dare to imagine that I am on the prowl

for an adventure, a raid, a new conquest,

or to think that I want to rule in bed

not caring whether you are in the mood

Neither are you the slave type,

nor am I interested in buying slaves

I love you as . . . a brook . . . a dove,

a prophecy from heaven above,

a poem that promises and fails,

a romantic letter squealing in my mail

I love you in the ambitious towering of the sea

And I love you when thunder sweet-talks thunder

And I love you in the protests of angry people. (2:15)

The poet-speaker assures the girlfriend-reader that he rejects not only the traditional way of using women as slaves but also its modern substitutions, the “new conquests” sought by men on the prowl for women whose superficial sexual “liberation” leads conveniently back to the same bed.

Still, what about all that cataloguing of women’s anatomy in Kabbani’s verse, all those wild breasts and nipples bouncing about as if severed from the body? Esthetically delightful as it may be, at this late date everyone knows that sort of thing leads straight back to “objectifying women.” He may mean well when he says, “We will not join the club / of civilized people / until we stop thinking of a woman / as a slab of meat / and start thinking of her / as a gorgeous bouquet” (“We Will Not,” Qarmatian Lover, 5:89). This may have passed muster as a breath of fresh air in the forties, when Kabbani was still speaking to an Arab world where women were immured in the home and mummified when they ventured outside, but not in 1988, when it was published in The Secret Papers of a Qarmatian Lover. A bouquet may be beautiful, but it is still passive. Or is it? What if the bouquet emits a power that enters through the pores of the poet and changes him? Muhyiddin Subhi argues that Kabbani’s poetry has tremendous capacities for empathy; whatever the poet describes becomes dynamic and animate, never static, never an object of the gaze in the traditional manner of poetic description (1982, 81-84).

If one isolates certain poems and lines, then yes, Kabbani is guilty of playing around with women’s body parts for the sheer bad-boy fun of it. These moments, however, cannot be separated from the overwhelming thing that infuses Kabbani’s poetry from the first line he ever published to his last: Love dissolves the boundaries of the Self into a sea of empathy, with results that are transformative on every level, from the sexual to the political. From this, all manner of empathy for women follows, bringing with it concrete demands for changing androcentric gender systems.

Disgrace in Arab society

is a signpost

hung on a woman’s body only

The man’s body, you see,

has been guaranteed


for centuries

(“Guarantee,” Qarmatian Lover, 5:106)

Throughout the vastbody of his poetry and prose he rails against practices and attitudes that have been used to exploit women in his society: from polygamy, rape, and “honor” killings to the meat-market approach to marriage, the uxorious expectation of wifely obedience, and the ideal of womanly domesticity and docility. Detailing Kabbani’s vision of gender relations would require a separate article, but in short, to stall Kabbani’s work before this charge of “objectifying” is to read him at a tediously cosmetic level. No matter how many instances one can isolate of Kabbani cataloguing female body parts or speaking impatiently, even derisively, to women who have not yet awakened to their humanity, the fact remains that Kabbani’s work taken as a whole evinces genuine passion for the creation of new gender relations and new sexual experiences based on equality, freedom, dignity, and beauty. Here, then, stands a flawed ally of feminism whose work as a whole demonstrates solid awareness of oppressive gender relations and commitment to their transformation. Out of his pages bounds the Reckless Woman, a joyful model of release and empowerment for both men and women.

The Lady Friend in Exile. In poems from the late eighties, Kabbani increasingly addresses a female friend (sadiqati) in addition to his familiar address to “my lady” (sayyidati). I am not pointing to the mere use of the term “friend,” which can be found earlier in the Kabbani oeuvre, but to a particular presence new to this period and developed over several volumes of poetry: “Friend of a lifetime, she / in whose eyes I read / sad stories / Friend of a lifetime, / who shares with me / the loaf of exile” (“Rereading the Prologue of Ibn Khaldun,” Your Statelets Are Made of Paper, 6:372). She seeps like new energy into Kabbani’s poetry after a period in the eighties, following the tragic death of his wife and sweetheart Balqis al-Rawi and his move to Europe from his longtime home in Beirut, a period in which much of his poetry was marked by malaise and loss. In a departure from his overdetermined role as lover, the poet-speaker tells this new type of love-interest, “If I knew how to keep apart / love and friendship / I’d choose you as a friend” (“To Love You I Will Learn Ten Languages,” I Am Only One Man and You Are a Whole Tribe of Women, 79).

Who is the Lady Friend in Exile whose spirit presides over many of Kabbani’s poems of the eighties and nineties? She is more than a corporeal woman addressee; she is one woman and all women. Yet never does she dissolve into an abstraction; for example, one cannot say simply that she is poetry, or the memory of a woman, or a city. The Lady Friend comes from his homeland and speaks his language. If that were all, she would still be in a state of immaturity like the women of the homeland, at whom the poet can now look with tenderness and compassion, but who are still immured in sexual and political strictures that prevent their self-realization. Instead, the Friend is a sophisticated cosmopolitan and experienced exile, like the poet. “Beautiful you are, like exile,” he tells her as they sit in a cafe in London mulling over the mingled sorrows of diaspora and pleasures of freedom (“Beautiful You Are, Like Exile,” Fifty Years in Praise of Women, 97).

While the Reckless Woman is conceived as youthful (her breasts never lose the battle with gravity), the Friend in Exile seems to be a woman who understands the subtle violet shades of sorrow more profoundly than a young woman could. She “slumps” with him “on the curb of grief” and discerns with him that “even grief is evergreen” (“Grant Me Your Love That I May Bloom and Green,” Nizarian Variations in Love Minor, 39). The Lady Friend has already integrated recklessness and sexual confidence in her personality and has moved on to a more developed stage of love. While the Reckless Woman is a figure of passionate abandon through whom the poet addresses the dynamics of sexual and political liberation in the homeland, the Friend presides over a different set of issues related to the politics and emotions of exile in a postcolonial metropolis. She is the poet’s last refuge since he began his lonely “sailing over the roof of the world,” (“Flying Over the Roof of the World,” Love Will Always Be My Master, 4:352). His chest is her “last sandy shore” (“To a Lovely Passenger Who Will Not Be Departing,” Fifty Years in Praise of Women, 64). Together they contemplate an Arab world ever more confirmed in its tribalistic fragmentation, ever more sunken into its apathy and abjection before the military-industrial powers of the new world order. Together they experiment with new combinations of all that is beautiful and cultivated from the world’s cultures, mixing Mozart with Mutannabi, seeking a moment’s respite now in a small country church in England, now under a jasmine-covered balcony in their memory of Damascus.

With the Sultan’s Daughter and the Reckless Woman, the poet played the role of champion and cheerleader. He was always urging them forth in the path of passion, helping them overcome their doubts and guilt complexes with his tremendous resource of eloquence, and tapping his foot impatiently as they moved too hesitantly through their twenties and thirties. “Reject the era of the sultans,” the poet-speaker tells the girlfriend over and over in poems of the seventies (“Beirut, Love, and the Rain,” Poems Outside the Law, 2:21). He poses wryly as the “professor of love,” giving lessons in sexual moxie to nubile pupils. By contrast, the Lady Friend who hovers in many of the poems from the late eighties onward is the poet’s equal in breadth of cultivation: “For the first time ever, / I have been swept away / by a cultural revolution / masterminded by a woman” (“Coup Led by a Woman,” I Am Only One Man, 217).

“The professor of love” announces with great flourish and genuine insight that he “resigns” (“The Professor of Love Resigns”). The poet admits that after all his Promethean efforts to create brave new women, it is he who was created by women in their laboratory (“The Manufacturer of Women”). It is true that the reader has heard such dramatic self-deprecation before, but this is more than the usual flash or two of humility. The reader of the last three volumes published during Kabbani’s lifetime7 finds the poet confronted with the challenge of loving a new breed of woman. She is in command of great intellectual powers and emotional strength. She is at the mature peak of her sexual energies. She needs no education in bed. “Teach me” here is in the feminine form: “Teach me / how the mind picks up the scent of a woman, / how sex becomes a glorious hymn, / a painting with sensitive brushes, / a lunar bridge” (“In Passionate Love I Become More Refined,” I Am Only One Man, 63). Now it is he who must hustle to keep up with her capacity for passion.

I love you so much

I know that I’ve reached the brick wall

at the end of language

I sense that talk wears thin with you

I sense that the arts wear thin with you

and that eloquence pants,

and poetry and prose and speech

race around your waist, not catching up

(“To Love You I Will Learn Ten Languages,” I Am Only One Man, 83)

In the poems of these last three volumes, this note is struck again and again. The poet is challenged to his very core to renew himself, to stay young through love and remain relevant through poetic creativity. Finally the poet-speaker understands the creative power of woman.

Lady of waters, you

who takes me to the springs

and brings me asteroids as gifts,

and vineyards and pine nuts,

I thank you

a thousand times

for your generosity

I had been living in a wasteland

for so long

and now, by the grace of love,

I bloom and green/

(Kahf, 111)

Over the years, this note of gratitude resonates and grows, until in this poem near the end of his life, the once cocksure swaggerer reveals himself as a supplicant, his face lit up by the woman he used to claim he created. (And it was rumored by newspaper accounts that “shukran” – thank you – was the last word to pass from his lips, this poet of women and love.) The Lady Friend in Exile who unfolds as the womanly presence defining Kabbani’s last moments of poetry is an intense and mature integration of politics and erotics. She and the lover clasp each other in the world’s last poem as the winds of exile batter them and the debris of shattered homelands falls from the sky. In the humidity and flesh of their embrace, the last green vine of jasmine uncurls moist leaves that defy of the ash of death. Fade to Le Fin.

Erotic Politics, Political Erotics. While it is possible to find poems focused on erotics alone (particularly in the early works) and poems of dry political landscapes devoid of womanly presence, if Kabbani’s lifetime production is taken as a whole, the separation of these spheres is not justified. The Sultan’s Wife, the Sultan’s Daughter, the Reckless Woman, and the Lady Friend in Exile, figures that emerge from Kabbani’s poetry, are constructed by erotics and politics together. Many of his eighties and nineties poems merge the two realms using other effects. For example, there are a number of poems (such as “Love Below Zero” and “Murder Attempts on a Woman Who Can’t Be Killed”) in which it is unclear whether the poet is addressing a woman or the people of the Arab lands conceived in the feminine, or some third thing, perhaps a principle such as freedom. For example, in “I Raise Your Fame in the Face of Ugliness, a Notebook of Poems” the speaker describes his fierce struggle for beauty in terms that refer to a second person:

I raise your fame in the face of the world,

a sword of jasmine

and victory is mine

I raise your fame in the face of the unbelievers,

a holy book

In the face of the illiterate,

a poem

In the face of bedouin barbarism,

a kingdom of marble (4:347)

Whom is he addressing? One begins with the assumption that the second- person address is to a woman. Then the language becomes increasingly political, leading the reader to wonder if the poet is talking about liberatory struggle in the abstract.

and in the face of the hungry,

a loaf of bread

and in the face of the enslaved,

a banner of liberty

I raise your fame in the face of ugliness,

a white dove,

a fountain aflow,

a book of poems

I raise your fame in the face of the Arab police,

a song

in the face of Arab oil,

a carafe of perfume

In the face of Arab death,

an announcement of birth

Perhaps he is talking about the role of poetry. But then he closes in terms that suggest again the love of a man for a woman: “I declare before the eaters of women’s flesh / that you are my sweetheart / Suddenly they throw their fangs into the sea, / tear out their claws, / wash the blood from their clothes, / and enter a new age” (4:351).

“Eaters of women’s flesh” is one of Kabbani’s terms for those conservatives who want women to be slabs of meat and relates specifically to his discourse on male-female sexual relations. So is this a love poem? Is it a political poem? Is it a poem about poetry? It is all these things, but more than their sum. Love awakens the human being to beauty, beauty calls for freedom, and the struggle widens from the personal realm of Eros to the public realm of politics, without any forgetting of the sensuous and emotional reality of the love that began it all. For in the end, as he says in “Very Secret Leaflet” (1972), “Only passionate love remains / Only passionate love remains” (Poems Outside the Law, 2:13).

The more a reader progresses into Kabbani’s later work, the more difficult it becomes to decide whether a poem is about love or politics. Even his pre-1967 poetry, however, yields a good number of poems that illustrate the commingling of political and erotic sensibilities. Are Kabbani’s Andalusian poems (dating from the midfifties) political or erotic? Take, for example, these lines:

With eyes wider than a desert

and features radiant with my native sun

and the sky-burst of dawn horizons,

Dona Maria tears me apart

I remember our house in Damascus

and its clear fountain lisping,

the lemon trees tall

and the old door on which I carved

my own love stories in untutored calligraphy

And now in your eyes, Dona Maria,

I see my homeland again

(“Spanish Papers: Dona Maria,” 3:551, tr. Jayyusi, 76)

The Spanish poems get placed in the “political” part of Kabbani’s collected works, simply because all the “city” and “geography” poems get put there, but they are brimming with Eros. As for politics in Kabbani’s love poetry, it has been remarked upon by his most intimate critic: “My wife tells me,” he says in a 1975 interview published in Woman in My Poetry and My Life, “that the love poetry I write is political poetry” (7:586).

And what of Kabbani’s famed elegy for his wife Balqis al-Rawi, killed in the bombing of the Iraqi embassy in Beirut? Is there a more loving or a more political poem? This highly charged poem, when first published in a weekly magazine, brought tears to every Arab household as well as protests for its raw indictment of Arab society. In the prose volume And the Words Know Anger Kabbani describes the Balqis poem as “the revenge of the Arab peoples against their unrighteous caliphs” (137). It happens not to be placed in the “political poetry” volumes of the collected works. Yet one of the most striking contributions of Kabbani to Arab culture is this portrait, in verbal form, of a man cradling the body of his murdered sweetheart, wife, and mother of his children, while heaping abuse on the political order: “They’ve killed you, Balqis / What kind of an Arab world is this, / this one that chokes canaries?” (Balqis, 5:13). Between heartbreaking last kisses on her hair and eyes, he shakes his fist at the brutal system which he holds responsible for killing her.

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

(Balqis, 4:15, 4:59)

It is pointless to try to draw a line between political and love poetry with this scene before us, as is underscored by the way in which the poem was published. When the elegy came out in book form, Kabbani prefaced the text with profusions of radiant photographs of Balqis, thus forever “raising her fame in the face of ugliness.” Some of the photos are formal portraits; some show the honeymooning couple sightseeing around the world; others show family scenes, the young woman with her husband and children snuggled against one another, comfortable and bleary-eyed of a morning. Still others are shots of her in sex-kitten and glamour-girl poses, her river of hair splayed over naked shoulders. For the husband of the deceased to publish such a collection is itself a defiance of the ways in which society stratifies women’s roles, divorcing the girl-next-door from the siren. The poem is titled simply “Balqis.” In this way, the name of a woman becomes the rallying call of defiance against political authority, in a culture whose traditions avoid mentioning the name of a man’s wife and whose contemporary conditions prohibit protest against rulers. The face and body and spirit of a woman are, as in every Kabbani book from his first volume (1944) onward but here most remarkably, harbors of dignity, beauty, and sensuous honesty where resistance to ugliness begins.

It is time to question whether “the erotic” and “the political” are the most useful divisions to employ for understanding Kabbani’s immense contribution. Kabbani’s poetry opens a new field in which these two elements slip into each other in perpetual orgasmic play. Only passionate esthetics remain; only passionate esthetics remain.

11 Mensafs: Great dishes of rice and roast meat with yogurt-soaked bread at the base; traditional Bedouin banquet fare.

2 Whenever citations take the form of Volume:Page, they are from the Complete Works; citations from other Kabbani volumes simply have a page number. I include with each citation the name of the individual volume in which the poem was originally published. This may depart from the author-date style but is more useful for the reader wishing to locate the poem. All translations are mine unless noted otherwise.

3 Such as Yunus Faqih’s Malamih al-iltizam al-qawmi fi shir Nizar Qabbani (Glimpses of Nationalist Commitment in Nizar Kabbani’s Poetry) and Abd al-Rahman M. Wasifi’s Nizar Qabbani shairan siyasiyan (Nizar Kabbani the Political Poet).

4 Such as Muhammad Salim Ghayth’s Al-Hubb wa-al-jins fi hayat wa-shir Nizar Qabbani.

5 Such as Ahmed Ziyadeh’s Nizar shair al-hubb wa-al-marah wa-al-siyasah (Nizar, Poet of Love and Woman and Politics).

6 Part of “Yawmiyat imra’a la mubalia” is translated in On Entering the Sea: The Erotic and Other Poetry of Nizar Qabbani, ed. Salma K. Jayyusi, with the title “Diary of an Indifferent Woman.” John Asfour’s anthology of Arabic poetry in translation When the Words Burn also has a translation of this poem, there called “Diary of a Blase Woman.”

7 I am Only One Man and You Are a Whole Tribe of Women (1994); Fifty Years in Praise of Women and Nizarian Variations in Love Minor (1996).

Works consulted

Asfour, John Mikhail, tr. “Nizar Qabbani (1923-).” In When the Words Burn. Ontario. Cormorant. 1988. Pp. 100-11.

Badr, Abdalmuhsin Taha. Hawl al-Adib wal Waqi’. Cairo. Dar al-Ma’arif. 1981.

Barakat, Halim. The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State. Berkeley. University of California Press. 1993.

Boullata, Issa J. “Qabbani, Nizar.” In Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, vol. 2. Julie Scott Meisami, ed. New York. Routledge. 1988. Pp. 625-26.

Evans, Eric. “Arab Nationalism and the Persian Gulf War.” Harvard Middle Eastern Islamic Review, 1994:1, pp. 27-51.

Fahmy, Maher Hasan. Umar bin Abi Rabia wa Nizar Qabbani. Doha, Qatar. Dar Qatari bin al-Funja’a lil-nashr wal tawzi’. 1970.

Faqih, Yunus Ahmed. Malamih al-iltizam al-qawmi fi shir Nizar Qabbani. Beirut. Dar Barakat. 1998.

Frangieh, Bassam, and Clementina R. Brown, trs. Arabian Love Poems. Colorado Springs, Co. Three Continents. 1993.

Haram, Zahira. Edition critique de poemes choisis de Nizar Qabbani traduits de l’arabe. M.A. thesis, University of South Florida. 1991.

JJayyusi, Salma Khadra, ed. “Nizar Qabbani (b. 1923).” In Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology. New York. Columbia University Press. 1987. Pp. 368-75.

—. “Modernist Poetry in Arabic.” In Modern Arabic Literature. M. M. Badawi, ed. Cambridge, Eng. Cambridge University Press. 1992. Pp. 132- 79.

—, ed. On Entering the Sea: The Erotic and Other Poetry of Nizar Qabbani. New York. Interlink. 1996.

Kabbani, Nizar. Wal Kalimat Ta’rifu al-Ghadab (And the Words Know Anger). Vol. 1. Beirut. Manshurat Nizar Qabbani. 1983.

—. The Autobiography of an Arab Executioner. London. Riyad al-Rayyes Books. 1987.

—. Complete Works. 8 vols. Beirut. Manshurat Nizar Qabbani. 1993.

—. Fifty Years in Praise of Women. Beirut. Manshurat Nizar Qabbani. 1996.

—. Nizarian Variations in Love Minor. Beirut. Manshurat Nizar Qabbani. 1996.

—. I Am Only One Man and You Are a Whole Tribe of Women. 3d printing. Beirut. Manshurat Nizar Qabbani. 1998.

Kahf, Mohja, tr. “Grant Me Love That I May Bloom and Green,” by Nizar Kabbani. Grand Street, 68 (1999), pp. 106-11.

Khala, Maher. A Poetic Translation of (My Beloved) by Nizar Qabbani. M.S. thesis, Mankato State University. 1991.

Khaled, Ni’ma. “Nizar Qabbani fi ‘Uyun Jilihi min al-Katibat al- Suriyyat.” Al-Quds al-‘Arabi, 6 May 1998, p. 10.

Loya, Arieh. “Poetry as a Social Document: The Social Position of the Arab Woman as Reflected in the Poetry of Nizar Qabbani.” The Muslim World (Hartford, Ct.), 53 (1973), pp. 39-52.

Nabulsi, Shakir. Al-Daw wal-lubah: Istiknah naqdi li-Nizar Qabbani. Beirut. Al-Muassasah al-Arabiyah lil-Dirasat wa-al-Nashr. 1986.

Najm, Khristu. Al-Narjisiyah fi adab Nizar Qabbani. Beirut. Dar al-Raid al-Arabi. 1983.

Najm, Muhammad Yusuf. Nizar Qabbani: Sha’ir kul al ajyal. Kuwait. Dar Suad al-Sabah. 1998.

Nizamaddin, Irfan. Akhir Kalimaat Nizar: Dhikrayat ma’ sha’ir al-asr. London. Saqi. 1999.

Subhi, Muhyi al-Din. Al-Kawn al-shiri inda Nizar Qabbani. Beirut. Dar al-Taliah lil-tiba’a wa-al-Nashr. 1977.

—. Nizar Qabbani: Sha’iran wa Insanan. Beirut. Dar al-Adab. 1958.

Tami, Ahmed Saleh al-. “The Poetic Theories of the Leading Poet-Critics of Arabic New Poetry.” Dissertation Abstracts International (DAI), 49:9 (March 1989).

Wasifi, Abd al-Rahman Muhammad. Nizar Qabbani shairan siyasiyan: Dirasah mawduiyah. Cairo. Abd al-Rahman al- Wasifi. 1995.

Wild, Stefan. “Nizar Qabbani’s Autobiography: Images of Sexuality, Death and Poetry.” In Love and Sexuality in Modern Arabic Literature. Roger Allen, Hilary Kilpatrick, and Ed DeMoor, eds. London. Saqi. 1995. Pp. 200-9.

Yamani, Mai. Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives. New York. New York University Press. 1996.

Ziyadeh, Ahmed. Nizar shair al-hubb wa-al-marah wa-al-siyasah: Ma la-hu wa-ma alayh. Cairo. Dar al-Amin. 1996.

Mohja Kahf is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Her book Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque, came out in 1999 from the University of Texas Press. Her translations of Nizar Kabbani’s poems have been published in Grand Street and Banipal: A Magazine of Modern Arab Literature (London).

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