In a career spanning five decades Qabbani expressed the aspiration and frustration of millions of Arabs, especially women.
Nizar Qabbani was born in Damascus in 1923 to a known, but not rich family. His great-uncle was Abu Khalil el-Qabbani, a 19th-century pioneer of Arab theatre.
His niece is the feminist writer Ranna Qabbani. He joined the Syrian diplomatic service as a law graduate in 1945. He served in Cairo, Ankara, London, Madrid, Peking and Beirut, which he made his home after leaving the diplomatic service in 1966.
In 1973 he married the love of his life, Balqis al-Rawi, when she moved to the Iraqi embassy in Beirut to be near him. Balqis was killed in an explosion in the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in 1981.
His later poetry attacked the tyranny and corruption of Arab regimes; yet he supported the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He worshipped the populist leader Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who eradicated pluralist liberal democracy from Egypt. He was impressed by Nasser's anti-British stance during the ill-fated Suez campaign. He was later taken with Nasser's romantic vague idea of one Arab nation - which never worked since citizens of Arabic-speaking nations often don't understand one another.
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.
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.
"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." (Mohja Kahf)
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).
The Poem of Maya, 1993
Nizar Kabbani, 1997