Nizar Qabbani, Arab Poet and Author

By Alanna Nelson

Nizar Qabbani, was born in Damascus on March 21, 1923 and began writing poetry in 1944, just one year before he began his Syrian diplomatic career that he later abandoned for his greater love, poetry.

His literary works consisted of two dozen volumes of poetry and regular articles in the Arabic-language newspaper Al Hayat. Qabbani was revered by generations of Arabs for his sensual and romantic verse where it seemed that women were his main theme and inspiration. His poetry uses everyday language. Gamal el-Ghitanti, the Egyptian novelist and editor of the weekly News of Literature, praised Qabbani as having been “by any measure, a great Arab poet who made a big effort to make his poetry understandable to all people and not only to the elite.”

The Egyptian novelist Mona Helmi said, “His greatness came from his ability to put into beautiful words not only the ordinary actions between men and women, but also between the ruler and ruled and the oppressor and the oppressed.”

Nazir Qabbani
Qabbani published his first poem, The Brunette had Told Me, in 1944, a year before he graduated with a law degree from the University of Damascus. The Syrian capital remained a powerful presence in his poems, most notably in The Jasmine Scent of Damascus. In his later years, Qabbani's poems included a strong strain of antiauthoritarianism. One couplet in particular--“O Sultan, my master, if my clothes are ripped and torn it is because your dogs with claws are allowed to tear me” -- is often quoted by Arabs as a kind of shorthand for their frustration of life under dictatorship. Still, Qabbani never explicitly criticized his native country or its long-reigning leader, President Hafez al-Assad, and that allowed him to be hailed across Syria as a national hero. The criticism of the Arab leadership in poems written after the June defeat in 1967 (when the Arabs lost the war against Israel) was evident through Nizar Qabbani's poem Marginal Notes in the Book of the Setback. The June setback circumscribes Qabbani's shift from love themes to political ones dealing mainly with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Since the beginning of his career and up to the 1967 war, only a few poems with sociopolitical themes were written by the poet.Qabbani believed the defeat of the Palestinians was a shameful event and blames the Arab rulers through his poetry by saying that they have denied the Arab people any chance of expressing their opinions freely and acting as a spontaneous body in a free society. It is considered one of the most important that Qabbani ever wrote. This poem caused a great deal of controversy in Arab literary circles.

The Sultan a poem by Qabbani, is an example of political verse that denotes Arab rulers and blames them for losing the wars because the people are unable to express their opinions:

If I were promised safety,
if I could meet the Sultan
I would say to him: O my lord the Sultan!
my cloak has been torn by your ravenous dogs,
your spies are following me all the time.
Their eyes
their noses
their feet are chasing me
like destiny, like fate
They interrogate my wife
and write down all the names of my friends.
O Sultan!
Because I dare to approach your deaf walls,
because I tried to reveal my sadness and
tribulation,
I was beaten with my shoes.
O my lord the Sultan!
you have lost the war twice
because half our people
has no tongue.

Thus, Qabbani makes clear the bitter fact that the Arabs were defeated by their own defects rather than by the strength of their enemy: The Jews did not come across our borders, but they crept in like ants through our defects.

Although the reaction of the two defeats (loss of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and the June defeat in 1967) caused the poet's works to initially reflect shock and a sense of loss it eventually seemed to regain composure and express faith, confidence and hope in the future. Nizar Qabbani, for instance, in Marginal Notes in the Book of the Setback, expressed his firm confidence that the new generation would be able to achieve what the present generation had failed to do. After advising them not to "embrace their defeated fathers' thoughts or trace their deeds”, the poet says:

O (our) children
rain of the spring, buds of hopes!
you are fertile seeds in our barren life;
you are the generation that will vanquish
the defeat. (Palestine and Modern Arab Poetry.)

Political freedom has been championed by every poet who mattered in the Arab world. In fact, it is virtually impossible for any poet to win esteem among the audience of poetry without first championing the cause of freedom and political liberty. The Arab world is full of poets and other creative writers who are refugees from their own governments because of their audacity in facing up to injustice and repression. This kind of struggle against internal coercion waged constantly by generation after generation of Arab creative writers, particularly the poets, has long been their privilege and choice, making itself felt before political thinkers begin to wage war through intellectual reasoning. Qabbani's superior achievement, however, is that he not only attacked political coercion, but aimed his well-honed pen at the most sacrosanct taboos in the Arab traditional culture: the sexual. He called for the liberation of both body and soul from the repressive injunctions imposed upon them throughout the centuries, awakening women to a new awareness of their bodies and their sexuality, wrenching them away from the taboos of society, and making them aware of its discriminatory treatment of the sexes, of its inherent cruelty. Aroused consciousness is not reversible, except through delusion. Fanatical counter attacks, made in the name of religion, honor, or any of the great absolutes, can warp meaning already gained and re-encode its signals, but they cannot obliterate knowledge already acquired. Something will abide: if not full conviction, at least a question, a lingering doubt. The Qabbani baptism is like a tattoo on the spirit. It cannot be removed.

Although this article suggests many opinions, it was unsigned. More information about Qabanni’s life and his works is available at: http://www.nizar.net/english.htm

Arab novelist Naguib Mahfouz passed away at a hospital in Cairo, he was 94 years old in late August, 2006.

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Naquib Mahfouz: Nobel Prize for Literature
Insightful for all mankind

By Alanna Nelson

When Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, many Americans were scratching their heads, myself included. But after reading his novel “The Thief and the Dogs,” I began to understand why he is the most celebrated Arab novelist of his time (in both English and in Arabic!). The Swedish Academy of Letters said Mahfouz, “through works rich in nuance - now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous - has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind.”

Naquib Mahfouz
Prior to his retirement Mahfouz worked for the Egyptian government. Born in 1911, Mahfouz grew up in middle-class Cairo Egypt was an English colony at that time, and Mahfouz refers to himself as a child of two civilizations (the Pharoahs and the Arabs) who could drink from the western world. In fact, Mahfouz was the first Arab author to write a novel, which is a western form of literature developed over the last 200 years. Traditionally, Arab writers have been lauded for their research, poetry, philosophy and narratives.

Mahfouz was 28 when his first novel was published. The first three novels were historical romances based in Ancient Egypt. The last of this series, “The Struggle of Thebes” is available in English.

His next novels documented a cross-section of urban Cairo life between World War I and II. The novels are very realistic, and capture day to day life. The realist phase novels were published between 1945 and 1957. In English you can find “Midag Alley”, “The Beginning”, and “The End”, and Volume 1 of the Cairo Trilogy (“Palace Walk”). The Cairo Trilogy is considered an Egyptian national treasure.

The writings between 1959 and 1982 reveal the character’s inner thoughts and how they interact with society. The stories are all based in reality, but there is universal appeal in the search for higher meanings of life. In his writing since 1982, Mahfouz returned to the storytelling and narrative roots of traditional Arabic literature and reinterpreted it in his own way.

At age 91, Mahfouz has written more than 40 novels and numerous other articles, short stories and series. Social justice and events of our times impact Mahfouz’s work. He has openly criticized governments in his writings. Social justice is a main theme and his commitment has never wavered.

According to Mahfouz, “Good is achieving victory every day. It may even be that Evil is weaker than we imagine. In front of us is an indelible proof: were it not for the fact that victory is always on the side of Good, hordes of wandering humans would not have been able in the face of beasts and insects, natural disasters, fear and egotism, to grow and multiply. They would not have been able to form nations, to excel in creativeness and invention, to conquer outer space, and to declare Human Rights. The truth of the matter is that Evil is a loud and boisterous debaucherer, and that Man remembers what hurts more than what pleases.”

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Kahlil Gibran - Arab Writer, Poet, Artist

By Joseph S. Ajlouny

Kahlil Gibran was born in the village of Becharri, at the foot of the Cedars of Lebanon, in 1883. Life was not easy on the terraced slopes of his birth place. With a drunken and irresponsible father, a beautiful, soft and tender mother—compassionate yet determined, a half-brother from his mother’s previous marriage and two younger sisters, life was not much above the poverty level. Neither the beautiful scenery, the serenity of the countryside, nor proximity to the peaceful, inspiring and immortal Cedars—nature’s most beautiful Cathedral—were enough to calm the restlessness and meet the vital needs of the family.

In 1894 at age 11, Gibran and his family sailed to the United States.

Gibran’s talent for drawing appeared early in life. As a child in Becharri, he was punished by his father for drawing human figures in charcoal on the white walls of the house—a forecast of his artistic genius. Later, his drawings attracted the attention of his teachers in the public schools in Boston. As a student, he excelled in his academic work both in the public schools and at the college de la Sagesse. He read voraciously, far beyond his classroom assignments, with a deep passion for literature, philosophy and the humanities.

Gibran’s full name was Gibran Khalil Gibran—the middle name being that of his father. Every Arabic name has a meaning. Gibran is derived from, or related to, “jabara: to restore, to repair, to bring unequal parts to unity.” This happens in mathematics, in medicine, and in our daily life, as in to comfort, to console, to restore harmony and to assuage the bruised or injured body, heart, or soul. In his life and work, Gibran brought about the fulfillment of his name.

Small in stature, frail in health, but strong in mind and spirit, Gibran faced the problems of life with exemplary courage and determination. He was the heir to the heritage of the land of his birth where a great civilization was born— the home of the people who gave us the alphabet, cloth, the purple dye, the art of sculpture—people whose daring seamanship carried their civilization thoughout the then-known world. He was heir to a Christian tradition, greatly enriched by the vast contributions of the Arab civilization and Muslim religion.

In his own life, Gibran experienced the pain, hardships and anguish of failures as well as the gratifications of success. His early writings reflected his rebellious spirit, as expressed in Nymphs of the Valley and Spirits Rebellious. Later, while no less tolerant of tyranny and oppression, he openly espoused and preached the message of the supreme healing power of love and the unity of man, beautifully expressed in The Prophet and later in Jesus the Son of Man.

His Masterpiece

In 1912, Gibran came to New York City and made his home in a two room apartment known as The Hermitage. Here he wrote The Prophet, Jesus the Son of Man, and many other published works, and produced the paintings and drawings that have become so famous.

Gibran was a prodigious worker, and his productivity both by pen and brush was monumental. Gibran wrote in English, from which his works were translated into many other languages, including Arabic. It was only in his early youth that he wrote his less well known works in Arabic, some of which were later translated into English. He is well known for his paintings, but far better for his writings, the most famous of which is The Prophet, first published in 1923. This has been reprinted 107 times with over seven million copies sold. Long on the best seller list, it is still selling between four and five thousand copies a week.

Gibran died in New York City at the young age of 48. Hard work and steadily failing health had limited his activity.

He gave so much to so many. He gave back more than he received. We are so much richer and happier because he lived. In his life, he added immeasurably to the debt which the West owes the East.

Gibran never married—yet we are all his children.

Given the number of weddings where Gibran is quoted, it is time Americans know more about him.

This article was written by Joesph Ajlouny. It is based upon Dr. William Shehadi's full length book about Gibran, now out of print. We are grateful for this information. I have excerpted from the larger article that is available in full from the Habiba Chaouch Foundation office. Ajlouny has CDs of The Prophet: A musical Interpretation narrated by Richard Harris is available for $20 by writing him at 29205 Greening Blvd. Farmington Hills, MI 48334-2945. If you have a chance to check the Internet, try this for more Gibran information:

http://impact.civil.columbia.edu/~fawaz/g-gallery.html

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Ameen Rihani PortriatArab American Writer Leaves Legacy:
Library of Congress Celebrates Rihani Contributions

By Alanna Nelson

In March, 1999 the Library of Congress gratefully accepted copies of Ameen Rihani's writings. The Ameen Rihani museum in Freike, Lebanon donated the manuscripts, essays and correspondence. Ameen Rihani (1876-1940) was the first Arab American to write a novel in English. He traveled throughout the United States, Europe and the Middle East encouraging Arab and Western understanding.

Born in Freike, Lebanon in 1876, Rihani immigrated to the United States with his uncle and older brother when he was twelve. After learning English in school, he savored the western classics in his spare time while working in the family business.

He returned to Lebanon in 1905, with experience in journalism, a traveling stage show and law school also to his credit. Rihani offered English lessons in exchange for Arabic, and it wasn't long before Arabic classics were devoured just as rapidly as the Western ones had been. He lectured at the American University of Beirut and began his first translations from Arabic to English. He also wrote poetry and essays in Arabic which built his reputation as a visionary Arab thinker.

Rihani also campaigned against the Ottoman Empire's rule in Lebanon.

Rihani returned to the United States in 1911, and The Book of Khalid was published shortly after. The novel, which was illustrated by Khalil Gibran, established themes for modern Arab literature: the roles of wisdom and prophecy, reconciliation of matter and spirit, and unification of eastern and western worlds to a larger world vision. The novel established Rihani's reputation as a leading American writer as well. He was active in Arab American literary circles as well as the Pleides Society, and the Poetry Society of America.

In 1916, Rihani married Bertha Case. Shortly after, the couple traveled to the Vatican and met with Pope Benedict XV to explore strategies to end World War I. In 1919, Rihani represented Arab nations at the Hague Peace Conference.

Believing the open cultural horizons would be the key to peace in the twentieth century, Rihani traveled throughout the Arab countries in 1922 and met with each ruler. He was the first person to do this, Arab or European. Building Arab unity on a world political level was one of Rihani's key issues. He also encouraged the Arabs to reach out to the Western world, as this would be crucial for both societies. The writer also discussed strategies to remove colonial rule in Lebanon and Syria, as well as the implications of the growing Zionist movement. Rihani wrote about these experiences in Around the Arabian Coast and Arab Peak and Desert.

He continued to travel throughout Europe, the United States and the Arab world, and wrote historical and political analyses as well as poetry. Ameen Rihani died in Freike in 1940.

If you would like to learn more about Rihani's writings, visit the Ameen Rihani web site at www.ameenrihani.org. And of course, thanks to the gift of the Ameen Rihani museum, registered researchers now have access to much of his work at the Library of Congress.

Alanna Nelson is a Chaouch Foundation board member who currently lives in Vimarcate, Italy. The line drawing is published with the permission of The Ameen Rihani Organization, 103 Cherrywood Drive, Gaithersburg, MD 20878. (http://www.ameenrihani.org)

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