It was fifty years ago — on September 28, 1970 — that Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser died of a heart attack in Cairo. He was only 52. On this fiftieth anniversary of his passing, a translation of Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani’s letter
By AJ Naddaff
Upon first glance, one might be inclined to believe that Qabbani was less interested in politics—especially at the beginning of his life. When the 1948 Nakba passed, he did not evoke the catastrophe in his work, according to Dr. Muhamed Osman Al Khalil, an associate professor of Arabic who wrote his dissertation on Qabbani’s life and works.
At the time, Qabbani reflected the political concerns of the Syrian upper middle class of his era. He did not espouse pan-Arab sentiments, nor sympathy for a greater political cause. He only turned toward nationalist sentiments starting in the 1950s.
Qabbani’s first poems
Qabbani was sixteen when he began composing poetry, and it was while studying law that he published his first poetry collection, titled Qalat liya Al Samraa (1944), or The Brunette Said to Me, which he printed at his own expense. Munir Al-Ajlani, a politician and deputy with an affinity for poetry, wrote the introduction to this first diwan, and endorsed Qabbani’s poems until his death. The poems in Qabbani’s first collection sparked controversy in educational circles at the university for their explicit sexual references.
Take, for example, his poem “Your Breasts,”: “Your Breasts are a spring of red pleasure that ignites my blood…”
Nawal al-Sibai, the niece of the first Muslim Brotherhood leader in Syria, remembered her uncle’s later renunciation of Qabbani’s poems, which also provoked the ire of conservatives in the Damascene community at the time.
Qabbani’s poems were impassioned and romantic, as he became devoted to championing women in Syria and the region. A fiercely somber personal event might explain this inclination: In 1938, his older sister committed suicide in an act of defiance, refusing an arranged marriage with an older man whose feelings she did not reciprocate. This incident—which left Qabbani deeply scarred—marked his poetry. He adopted the cause of women more clearly in his writings, fighting the social conditions that he led to the death of his beloved sister.
In addition to his preoccupation with women, Nizar later participated in community politics outside the diplomatic framework. His first poem on politics, which he wrote in the 1950s, was not the famed “Margins on the Notebook of Al-Naksa,” but rather the poem “Bread, Hashish, and the Moon.”
After the publication of this famous poem, which also sparked a storm of rage against him, Syrian clerics demanded his expulsion from the Foreign Ministry. In a later interview on the program, “عيادة على الهواء,” Syrian broadcaster Sefian Jaber posed the question: “Didn’t you think you sounded a warning signal before the Naksa?’
While gripping a red rose in classic hokum reminiscent of a romance film, Qabbani responded:: “You have put your hand on a very important point because many people say that Nizar Qabbani was born in ‘Margins on the Notebook of Al-Naksa,,” he said with a wry smile. “I was not born [here], but was actually born in the year 1954. I was a diplomatic employee attached to the Syrian embassy in London, and I wrote the poem (Bread, Hashish, and the Moon,).” This poem landed him in court.
Critics often look for turning points in the lives of writers, but this point is usually contrived and imagined, says Dr. Huda Fakhrediine, author of Metapoesis in the Arabic Tradition. For Qabbani, the Naksa had a profound effect, yet we cannot say whether it transformed him.
Shifting Arab nationalisms
The end of the short-lived United Arab Republic came in 1961, demonstrating Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s failure to unite around the common interests of Arab nations.
In the 1950s, Nasser had generated a kind of solidarity, a feeling that a broader Arab nation was forming. As a result, he became a central figure around which most nationalist poems revolved around in the period before the Naksa. Thus, the defeat not only represented a new Occupation, but also a defeat for the idea of ”Arab nationalism.” Shortly after the defeat, Qabbani announced his commitment to political poetry in an elegy to the Arabs for their psychological, strategic and political blunders titled “Margins on the Notebook of Al-Naksa” :
O my sad homeland
You have changed me
In a single moment
From the poet writing of love and longing
To a poet writing with a knife
Dr. Abdullah Suror, in his book The Impact of Setback in Arabic Poetry 1956-1973 counters the widely held belief that the Naksa was a turning point in the history of Arab literature. Rather, the wave of Arab nationalism was a general turning point, with ‘52 and ’56 and ’73 also equally important.
Many of the poets who wrote in this period turned to political criticism—direct or indirect—or satire, wrapped up in the vicissitudes of Arab nationalism. As for Qabbani, the Naksa devastated him, and the poem “Margins on the Notebook of Al-Naksa” was a self-critical rebuke that roused the anger of political forces from both the right and the left.
The beleaguered Nasser regime, still coming to terms with its monumental defeat, viewed the poem as an attack and therefore banned it—and all of Qabbani’s poetry, including his verses set to music—from entering Egypt. This abrasive censorship led Qabbani to send a personal appeal to the president, which he recorded in his beautifully sonorous voice. Upon receiving the message, Abdel Nasser pardoned him and allowed the poem to enter Egypt.
As is evidenced in the following letter, for Qabbani, literary neutrality marks its death. After all, Qabbani says, “There is no value for poetry that does not shake the crust of the globe … and in the map of the world and humanity.”
Qabbani’s project was not just about romantic love, it’s a revolutionary one, calling for comprehensive and radical change. The letter, which is a testament to his commitment to a liberated Arab world, has been largely neglected, and appears in English for the first time below.
Dear Mr. President Jamal Abd al-Nasser:
Today, as our nerves have become ashes, and as we are besieged by sorrows from every corner, an Arab poet writes to you upon encountering from the official authorities of the United Arab Republic a type of injustice unprecedented in the history of injustice. The details of the story are the following: I published in the aftermath of the Naksa, on June 5, a poem titled “Margins of the Notebook of Al-Naksa.” I placed a summary of my pain and my rupture, in which I revealed the areas of soreness in my Arab nation’s body, because I am convinced that what happened will not be resolved with concealment and escape, but rather by fully confronting our deficiencies and flaws. If my screams were sharp and hurtful—and I admit in advance that they were such—it is because the scream is proportionate to the size of the stabbing, and the bleeding to the size of the wound.
For who among us, Mr. President, did not scream after June 5? Who among us did not tear at flesh with his fingernails? Who among us did not hate himself and his clothes and his shadow on this earth?
Indeed, my poem was an attempt to reintroduce ourselves as we are, far from bragging, over-exaggeration and emotionalism, and thus it was an attempt to erect a new Arab thought that differs in its features and in its formation from the modes of thinking prior to June 5. I did not say more than what others said, and I did not get angry more than others did, for all I did was express in my poetry what others had already expressed in political or journalistic terms. And if you allow me, Mr. President, to be more clear and frank, I did not exceed your own ideas of self-criticism when, on the day after the Naksa, you shared the score of the battlewith honor and honesty, and rendered unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.
I did not invent anything by myself; the psychological, political, and behavioral mistakes of the Arabs lay bare like an open book.
What is the value of literature the day it cowers from facing life with both its sorrows and its joys? And what is the poet the day he is transformed into a buffoon wiping away the tracks of society while practicing hypocrisy toward it. Therefore, it pains me, Mr. President, that my poem is banned from entering Egypt and that an official ban has been imposed on my name and my poems throughout the United Arab Republic radio. The issue is not one of confiscating a poem or ostracizing a poet. Rather the issue is deeper and more far-reaching. The issue is about determining our stance towards Arab thought. How do we want it? Free or half free? Brave or cowardly? Prophetic or buffoonery?
The issue is about any poet falling under the hooves of mobs because he has uttered the truth. At last, the issue is whether the date of June 5 will be a date that generates a new birth, with new skin and new ideas and new logic.
My poem is before you, Mr. President; I implore you to read it with all that we know about you and your broad horizons, and, after reading it, you will be convinced, despite the salinity and bitterness of the words that I used to convey reality with honesty and truthfulness, drawing an accurate image of our pallid and exhausted faces.
I can not be neutral while my country burns, for neutrality in literature marks its death. I can not stand in front of the body of my sick nation and treat it with supplications, squabbles, and conflict. Whoever loves his country, Mr. President, purifies its wounds with alcohol, and with fire cauterizes—if need be—the areas that are wounded.
My. President: I complain to you about the hostile position that official authorities in Egypt have taken, affected by the words of some mercenaries and their traffickers. I am asking for nothing more than to hear my voice. One of the most elementary rules of justice is that the writer be allowed to explain what he wrote, and for the crucified to ask about the reason for his crucifixion.
I am not asking for anything more, Mr. President, than freedom of speech, for I am cursed in Egypt and no one knows why I am cursed, and I am challenged for my patriotism and my dignity because of a poem I wrote, and no one read a single word from this poem.
My poem has entered every Arab city, and sparked a debate between Arab intellectuals, positively and negatively, so why am I deprived of this right in Egypt alone? Since when did Egypt close its doors in the face of words and have no room for them?
Mr. President, I do not want to believe that someone like you would punish the bleeding because of his blood loss, or the wounded because of his wound, nor the persecution of an Arab poet who wanted to confront himself and his nation with honor and courage only to pay for both dearly.
Mr. President, I do not believe such a thing could happen in your era.
Beirut, October 30, 1967
 Page 32: Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Raphael Lefevre (2013)
 سنان أنطون، قراءة نسوية لبعض من نصوص نزار قباني، ١٩٩٦
Source: The Arab Studies Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring 1996), pp. 40-48 Published by: Arab Studies Institute, Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/27933690
His forthcoming book translation project, co-authored with Dr. Rebecca Joubin and Nick Lobo, The Threshold of Pain, is an English translation of Syrian-Palestinian screenwriter Hassan Samy Yusuf’s Arabic autobiography.