Middle Eastern Protest Poetry

March 21: The Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, one of the most well-known and influential 20th-century Arab writers, was born on this day in 1923. Though Qabbani's love poems have become popular songs, he is equally well-known as a voice of protest. He said that two tragic events helped to shape the protest poetry: the first was the suicide of his older sister over a forced marriage, the second was the bombing death of his second wife in 1982 during the Lebanese civil war. The sister's suicide inspired pro-feminist poems demanding social reform—though the demands in "A Letter From a Stupid Woman" are couched in mock-supplication:

Don't become annoyed, my dear Master,

If I revealed to you my feelings,

For the Eastern man

Is not concerned with poetry or feelings

The Eastern man—and forgive my insolence—does not understand women

but over the sheets.

A glance through the anthology Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, a 2010 Words Without Borders publication, shows that Qabbani is far from alone as a voice of political change. And recent events in the region suggest that many must have been listening. The following is excerpted from "Bread, Hashish and Moonlight," one of Qabbani's most famous political poems, in which he tries to prod into action a nation addicted to "chewing on its history, / Its lethargic dreams, / Its empty legends":

Hoping to be granted some rice, some children,

They spread out their fine and elegant rugs,

And console themselves with an opium we call fate

And destiny.

In my land,

where the simple weep,

And live in the light they cannot perceive;

In my land,

Where people live without eyes,

And pray,

And fornicate,

And live in resignation,

As they always have,

Calling on the crescent moon:

"O Crescent Moon!

O suspended God of Marble!

O unbelievable object!

Always you have been for the east, for us,

A cluster of diamonds,

For the millions whose senses are numbed."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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