Love and the Writing of Love

Last semester, on a whim, I took a class on Classical Arabic poetry. Over the course of several months, I covered ground from the deserts of pre-Islamic Arabia to the tumultuous cities of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, reading everything from the boastful qasidas of tribal warriors to the mystical ghazals of Sufi masters to the musical muwashshahats of the noblemen of al-Andalus. I went in knowing nothing, but each passing week increasingly impressed on me the sense that not only do Arabs revere poetry in a manner unmatched by most, they especially love poetry about love, in all its forms. Then I got to the modern day, and encountered Nizar Qabbani.

A Syrian diplomat who left his post to compose in self-exile in London, Qabbani’s greatest inspiration for writing was women. He is hailed the Arab world over for his ability to portray male-female relationships, to capture love, as never before, and is thus often considered the love poet for modern women. Many of his poems have even been turned into popular songs—on the day of our seminar on Qabbani, I walked in to a video of a soulful crooner murmuring Qabbani’s verses to a packed audience of women, each new stanza sending them into paroxysms of joy.

Meanwhile, I was just confused. I didn’t get Qabbani, not the way those several thousand women did. His verses were plenty lovely, but I couldn’t understand why the man celebrated as the greatest poet of love of the last century was a man who seemingly didn’t care for love, or the writing of love, at all. One poem in his collection ends with the poet-persona declaring that he has discovered he is “incapable of loving the minutest creature” (26). Another poem proclaims that “Love, as we knew it, has ended” (138). And the last poem is sprinkled with outbursts about his desire to completely change the history of love, a wish that ends on a rather grim note: “I haven’t demolished the hurdles / of ugliness the way I imagined. / In fact, I’ve been exploding / in my own fire” (66). I had spent the whole semester with discovering Arabic’s extremely rich tradition of love poetry, and now I was puzzled over how to fit Qabbani, anti-love and anti-love poetry, within this storied heritage.

It is only when I read Nietzsche that I was able to resolve this tension in Qabbani’s work between his role as a poet of love and his disavowal of that love. In “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” Nietzsche articulates a theory of the relation of a word to the “truth,” the object it is meant to encompass, that boils down to: there is no connection; language is independent of the object it purports to name, and a change in the latter does not constitute a change in the former. In applying this formulation to my knowledge of Arabic love poetry, however, it seems not that there is no link, but rather that it is flipped around—it is not the object that governs language, but language that governs the object.  It is not love, the reality and experience of it, that shapes the expression, the poetry of love; rather, it is the poetic tradition that shapes the reality and experience. And in many cases, this language, so long and refined in its literary history, highly codified and specific in its forms, is rather restrictive, shackling love by forcing it into set schemata for how it can emerge. A rich poetic tradition here is not a boon, but a fault. This is counterintuitive, I know, but it explains much of Qabbani’s glaring ambivalence towards love, the emotion and object, and love, the poetry and language. His poems are a record of his struggle as a lover and a poet to give voice to his own love, his uniquely personal love affair and beloved, within the context of a canon full to the brim already with love affairs and beloveds. Qabbani wishes to free love from the chains of past traditions, and to do so he must destroy it whole so that he can create it anew.

Let us look, for example, at “Give Me Love, Turn Me Green,” the poem in which Qabbani reveals the most heightened awareness of his position as a love poet in a long line of love poets. The poem is composed like a love letter, opening with an entreaty to the beloved to “Listen carefully. / Listen carefully,” and continuing with an ode to their love:

This love ordeal I’m going through

happens only once in a lifetime.

An ordeal that is poetic, aquatic,

mystical and sensual,

glorious in its sadness (60)

The following stanzas proceed along the same vein, Qabbani striving to elucidate, in as vivid and minute detail as possible, the intensity of his feelings for his beloved. Holding her makes him feel weightless, “as if my veins had dissolved / and my bones vaporized” (Qabbani, 60). Every small moment spent with her, every little thing she does—“The taste of the first kiss before breakfast. / Your white feet diving into the thick carpet, / the brush massaging your hair, / and the eye shadow in the corner of your eyes”—is cause for joy, “reason enough / for the entire universe / to transform itself into music and poetry” (Qabbani, 70). His love even approaches the transcendent—every time they meet, he says, “the colour of time in our watches / turns green, / the yearning in our eyes / turns green, / and the moon that rises from your cleavage / turns green,” green like the color of Paradise as described in the Quran (68). As described by Qabbani, his is special, so great that it touches the divine.

Strangely enough, however, Qabbani is unable to stop himself from repeating this refrain that their love is one of a kind over and over again. “So give me another chance to write history, / for history, my lady, does not recur,” he says to her, and repeats a few stanzas later, this time staccato, more emphatic: “All of this, my lady, are pages of history / that will never recur. / That will / never / recur” (70). But his very forcefulness casts doubt on this assertion, hinting at it does to an underlying tension in his words, a hidden anxiety he is trying to assuage. If he were as sure in his love as he pretends to be, we are led to ask, why would he feel the need to keep assuring us, and his lover, it is so?

Our suspicions are correct: an examination of the language Qabbani uses to depict his love affair reveals that it is suffused with the oft-used conventions of Classical Arabic literature. Early on, he asks of his beloved, “Wash your hair in the river of my madness. / But then, isn’t the madness of love inexplicable?” a line that to any Arab reader would immediately evoke that most famous pair of literary lovers: Layla and her Majnun, who loved her so fiercely that he was known by all as “Layla’s Madman” (60). He traces her arrival into his life back to “the spas of Granada / and the sorrows of the mandolin,” an allusion to the myth of the Golden Age of Andalusia, a halcyon period in the minds of many said to have witnessed the flowering of Arabic literature, and in particular the poetry of love (64). His compares their love to the intoxication of wine—“All the ports have closed, / and the marina’s wine runs red” when she is near—a metaphor that traces its roots in the canon back centuries, all the way to wine songs of the exalted mu’allaqas of the ancient tribes (64). Far from not having a “guidebook for love,” their love is clearly very much grounded in the canon of Classical Arabic poetry, a fact that even Qabbani implicitly admits in the end, when he says: “Whenever a new love tale / is added to the annals of love / in my town” (64, 66). His is this new love tale, added to the already great annals of Arabic love poetry.

But it is not only Qabbani’s ability to express love that is circumscribed by Arabic poetic tradition; love’s very course and reality is as well. Qabbani relates the text of love to the action of love when, early on in “Give Me Love, Turn Me Green,” he calls on his lover to

Read me intensely.

I am always searching for an avid reader,

one who wears poems about her wrists

like bracelets

and sees the whole world

in the portrait of a poet (62).

Qabbani’s very self is contained in literary terms, and it is his qualities as a poet that he credits for forging his connection with his beloved in the first place: “How wonderful for a woman to lose her head, / to become intoxicated before the face of poetry” (Qabbani, 62). The entirety of their love, their lives together, proceeds along the same lines, revolving around the reading and writing of poetry:

What really amazes me

is the feeling every morning

that whatever I touch or lay eyes on

turns into poetry.

My things and yours—no matter how trivial—

turn into poetry (68).

 The vast poetic tradition that is both Qabbani’s heritage and profession informs every aspect of his relationship with his beloved, such that it almost seems alive, a thing that looms over his life: “What’s happening to our histories, my lady? / Whenever I squander kisses on your hair, it grows before my eyes” (Qabbani, 72). Not that the plural “histories” makes this reference not to their personal story, their by-definition singular history, but rather to the broader “history of my time” and “history of females” (Qabbani, 64). Love the object, the emotion, the felt and sensate experience, converges with love the language, contrary to Nietzsche’s claim that there is no connection between the two. Poetry emerges here as the only framework in which love can be conducted, manifested.

But this dominance of language over love is a curse for Qabbani, imprisoning him and his lover within rigid archetypes that constrain their freedom to love as they will. About halfway into “Give Me Love, Turn Me Green” Qabbani exclaims: “In fifty years I haven’t met / a hind that fled her captor, / nor a woman who desired freedom” (66). The word “hind” is the stock metaphor in Classical Arabic poetry for women, and its use here conjures up an entire literary history in which women are portrayed as passive, helpless, captive. This vision of women is much than a simple figure of speech, as it has acquired the power to affect reality, influence Qabbani’s actual love life to the extent that all of the women he’s met so far are “hinds” and the men “her captor.” This theme of bondage by language resounds all over Qabbani’s oeuvre, and to an even greater degree than in “Give Me Love, Turn Me Green.” “Painting With Words,” for example, begins with Qabbani declaring that the “record of my life” is so long a story it is as if “I have lived through all the ages. / It’s as if I have existed thousands of years” (24). His descriptions of his love affairs with numerous women are couched in imagery that recalls the lengthy history of Arabic love poetry:

I try to use my traditional way of evasion—

through women.

Where are my concubines?

Where are the harems?

And where is the smell of incense

wafting through my chambers? (26)

Qabbani’s personal loves have been entirely subsumed within the preset patterns of Arabic love poetry, such that he and his any of his beloveds are unable to break away from these traditions and forge a love that is unique to them. “All kinds of love appear the same, / as indistinguishable as leaves in the forest” (Qabbani, 26). Qabbani joins the other poetic heroes, and his lover melds into the ranks of the women, becoming indistinguishable despite his protests to the contrary. “For I know exactly which among my women / and my poems I desire,” he says in his poem “The Last Declaration of King Schariar,” only to refute this idea in the very next line: “and I know that nothing is new in the realm of women” (134). Notice too how problematic, how sexist these all-consuming literary models are—love is depicted always as “conquests,” the man strong and daring, the woman pure and receptive (Qabbani, 24). In this way love becomes trite, Qabbani discovering that he is incapable of truly “loving the minutest creature” (Qabbani, 28). The language of love is all-encompassing and oppressive, absorbing every individual love and compelling it conform to rigid, dominant, and problematic archetypes passed down from literary history.

The only way to save love from the despotism of language is, ironically enough, to destroy all love as it is conceived in the present day. Even more ironically, the tool of destruction is more language, more poetry. “For what’s the value of poetry / if it doesn’t have the power of change? / And what’s a poet if he can’t command change?” Qabbani asks, indicating his great faith in the power of language to transform the meaning of other language even as it ossifies, becomes rigid and confining (64). But the roots of the poetic language are dug too deep in Arabic society and culture, and simply speaking and shouting ad infinitum to others will produce no results:

 For fifty years I’ve been jumping

from one landmine to another,

preaching to my people

so that they might change.

I haven’t demolished the hurdles

of ugliness the way I imagined.

In fact, I’ve been exploding

In my own fire (66).

No, the sole path out is to dismantle the very meaning of love as it is understood in the present day, a love that is based in the inherited language of Arabic literature. Thus Qabbani proclaims:

The era of Nizar has ended.

Love, as we knew it, has ended.

Lovers’ memory has shriveled,

and the Mythical Lover no longer remembers

the name of his sweetheart (138).

We must abandon love, and learn to “worship” ourselves instead, find our answers not in a “sweet mouth” but in our “notebooks,” our own ability to paint with words (Qabbani, 28). Only when we have rid ourselves of all love as it is manifest today, completely replaced the traditions of the past with our new metaphors and language and formulations, can we finally free ourselves to practice again the “religion of love” and this time reach its true “essence,” finally become “the work of heavens” he had characterized it as at the start (Qabbani, 138).

I had always assumed that love poetry is necessarily preceded by love, the purpose of language to capture as closely as possible the real emotions. How strange it is for me to see the way this relation is switched in Qabbani’s poetry, the language of love actually decreeing, limiting, the ways in which love can be materialized. The richer a literary tradition is, the more it bears on our lives—and in the case of Arabic poetry, with such a long and illustrious history, this means that all love is essentially chained by its poetic forms and types. To free love, as Qabbani discovers, recover its true essence, we must combat language with language, dismantle the calcified remains of the poetic past and replace it with new words of our own choosing.


Works Cited

Kabbani, Nizar. “Republic of Love: Selected Poems in English and Arabic.” Translated by Nayef al-Kalali. Edited by Lisa Kavchak, Kegan Paul, 2003.