The Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) was one of the most popular Arabic-language poets of the twentieth century, well-known for his focus on eroticism and love. As Bassam Frangieh notes in his introduction to Arabian Love Poems, a collection of Qabbani’s work he co-translated with Clementina Brown, “To say that Kabbani was the most popular and famous of contemporary Arab poets is not to claim that he was the most skilled.”
Nonetheless, Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih has called Qabbani—who was also an ardent supporter of (some) Arab nationalist causes—a spokesperson for a generation, as if “lovers did not learn the meaning of love until they read the poetry of Nizar Kabbani.”
Numerous Qabbani poems have been set to music and sung by Fairuz, Latifa, Abdel Halim Hafez, Umm Kulsoum and others. Many are available in English translations (of varying texture and interest) online.
You with your fathomless eyes! Your love
Like birth and death, your love
Trans. A.Z. Foreman
حبك يا عميقة العينين
حبك مثل الموت والولادة
صعب بأن يعاد مرتين
From “Little Things,” translated by Bassam Frangieh and Clementina Brown:
When the telephone rings in our house
I run to it
With the joy of a small child,
I embrace the emotionless machine
Its cold wires
And I wait
For your warm, full voice to come to me
Like the music of falling stars
And the sound of tumbling jewels.
Because you have thought of me
And have called me
From the invisible world.
And, for those who would like a more utilitarian love poem:
Take Off Your Clothes
Take off your clothes.
For centuries, no miracle
Has touched the earth. Take off your clothes
For I am mute, but your body knows
Every tongue. Take off your clothes.
Trans. by A.Z. Foreman.
تعري فمنذ زمان طويل
على الأرض لم تسقط المعجزات
تعري .. تعري
وجسمك يعرف كل اللغات
I want to write different words for you, trans. Bassam Frangieh and Clementina Brown
I want to write different words for you
To invent a language for you alone
To fit the size of your body
And the size of my love.
I want to travel away from the dictionary
And to leave my lips.
I am tired of my mouth
I want a different one
That can change
Into a cherry tree or a matchbox,
A mouth from which words can emerge
Like nymphs from the sea,
Like white chicks jumping from the magician’s hat.
Take all the books
That I read in my childhood,
Take all my school notebooks,
Take the chalk,
And the blackboards,
But teach me a new word
To hang like an earring
On my lover’s ear.
Many more Qabbani poems are available on “Poem Hunter,” although the translator is not credited (and originals not provided), which always makes one uneasy.