Weekend Poem: When I Love You by Nizar Qabbani

We haven’t done a love poem in quite some time since this column began. In fact, there’s only been one other before this.

And, some of the best love verses are found in the Arabic languages, don’t you think? Partly, this has to do with ancient lyrical verse traditions that make Arabic love poems almost song-like. But, there is also something about the unabashed extravagance of metaphor and imagery that is employed to this day, even after free verse and contemporary Western influences have prevailed.

Let’s start with a little background about today’s poet, Nizar Qabbani. Born in 1923 in Damascus, Qabbani was well-known as a Syrian diplomat. But, he was, and continues to be, also well-respected as a poet of over 50 collections of poetry, starting with a self-published and critically-acclaimed romantic / erotic collection at the school-boy age of sixteen.

Over time, his poems turned to social, national and political themes (several heart-breaking poems about war, resistance, Damascus, Jerusalem, Beirut), but he is most-respected in the Arab-speaking world for his love poems – in fact, likened to Kahlil Gibran and Rumi. He also wrote prose, a play and the lyrics of many famous songs rendered by Arab singers. In addition to English, his works have been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Persian and Russian.

Besides the literary and political influences, certain key life events also shaped his personal worldview. When he was 15, his 25-year-old sister killed herself to avoid a loveless marriage, causing him to speak out, for the rest of his life and rather controversially, against repressive and regressive societies. He then lost his oldest son, Tawfiq Qabbani, who suffered a heart attack at the age of 22. And, finally, he lost his second wife, Iraqi, Balqis al-Rawi, in a 1981 bomb attack on the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.

When he was dying in London at age 75, he asked to be buried in Damascus, writing:

I want my body to be transported after my death to Damascus to be buried there with my folks….. the womb that taught me poetry, taught me creativity and granted me the alphabet of Jasmine….. This is the way a bird returns home and a baby to his mother’s bosom.

Back to his love poems. Many of them portrayed women as strong and powerful, not just as objects of beauty. He often wrote from a woman’s point of view as well. It is difficult to pick one as representative of his extensive oeuvre. A collection that was released this year, ‘On Entering the Sea: The Erotic and Other Poetry of Nizar Qabbani‘, from which this particular poem is taken, is well worth the money. Translated by, among others, the likes of Naomi Shihab Nye, W S Merwin and Lena Jayyusi, it is probably the most definitive collection yet of his love poems.

If one had to sum up in 1-2 sentences, this poem is both about how a deep love captivates a lover’s mind and senses fully and how the strength and power of such love gives it a lasting endurance despite repressive, destructive societies.

It is also, like many other Qabbani poems, about the man-woman relationship and how language / words / grammar fail us when we’re in love. This last seems to be a recurring paradox in Qabbani’s love poetry – entire poems or verses about being unable to express or find the right words for love and its effects, while giving us line after line of vivid descriptive imagery and exquisite emotion.

The first verse here is all about engaging the senses fully – just as a lover’s senses are captivated entirely when thinking of or being near to the object of love. So, we start with the mention of the heady sense of discovery that lovers get, when even the daily and perpetual seems new. And, how the sensation of time is felt more acutely: the metaphor “hours breathe like puppies” implying that every moment is full of a new-born, active vitality.

Then, the growing life metaphor is extended with more fantastical and sensual images. So, there is wheat growing from book pages – signifying the restive nature of a lover who has lost the patience to read and is day-dreaming. Birds flying from the lover’s eyes “with tidings of honey” –  evoking both that long-lost tradition of birds carrying secret love letters between people as well as the beautiful image of how the woman’s eyes are filled with inexplicable and silent meaning or messages. With “caravans ride from your breasts carrying Indian herbs”, he invokes the senses of tantalizing smell and taste.

And, we’re not done. There are mangoes falling – the falling of fruit symbolic of a ripening season for lovers to come together as well. And, “forests catch fire” – signifying the chain reaction that is set off when there is enough lightning, friction or sparks. And, finally, the “Nubian drums beat” – where, by invoking the wild desert tribes of Nubia and the sound of drums, we are reminded of a lover’s erratically quickening and almost-deafening heartbeat.

In the second verse, the poem turns slightly from the purely sensual to the more relational and social aspects of the relationship. The narrator describes how, his love makes him see his lover as a powerful, rather than shameful, individual. The shame reference likely comes from how, in repressive societies, women who are bold enough to have even secret lovers are considered “shameless” (and worse). In using words like lightning, thunder, sword and storm to describe the woman’s breasts, he imbues them with the powers and forces of nature and man. [Note: This part could be read negatively – that the male lover is suggesting that the woman is powerful BECAUSE of his love. But, this is where knowing Qabbani’s own background and how he viewed and treated women throughout his life comes in handy.]

Then, the narrator goes on to say how his love is so strong that it causes entire cities to rise up against repression and ancient tribal traditions. And, how his love even fortifies him so that he can heroically march against the world. It is interesting that he chooses to describe this world, which he stands against, with Islamic (and Biblical) allusions to Sodom and Gomorrah (“kings of salt”) and the Great Deluge (“world flood”) – the two most destructive acts of Godly retribution on a wayward human race.

And, this makes the last two lines, where he repeats “I shall continue to love you” twice, even as God punishes the world most harshly, that much stronger – that his love can endure even such a world that is destroyed twice over.

When I Love You

When I love you
A new language springs up,
New cities, new countries discovered.
The hours breathe like puppies,
Wheat grows between the pages of books,
Birds fly from your eyes with tiding of honey,
Caravans ride from your breasts carrying Indian herbs,
The mangoes fall all around, the forests catch fire
And Nubian drums beat.

When I love you your breasts shake off their shame,
Turn into lightning and thunder, a sword, a sandy storm.
When I love you the Arab cities leap up and demonstrate
Against the ages of repression
And the ages
Of revenge against the laws of the tribe.
And I, when I love you,
March against ugliness,
Against the kings of salt,
Against the institutionalization of the desert.
And I shall continue to love you until the world flood arrives;
I shall continue to love you untill the world flood arrives.

Nizar Qabbani, from ‘On Entering the Sea: The Erotic and Other Poetry of Nizar Qabbani‘, translated by Lena Jayyusi and Jack Collum

Some Links:

Poem collection at Poemhunter

Obituary in The Independent

— Poems on ArabLit

Omar Offendum, Arab hip-hop artist, rapping the poem, ‘Damascus’ (in English)

Ghada Alatrash reciting ‘Ablution with Rosewater and Jasmine’ (in both Arabic and English)

Audio of Qabbani reading ‘Balqis’ (in Arabic; about his 2nd wife, Balqis, who was killed in a 1981 bomb attack in Beirut, at the Iraqi Embassy, during the Lebanese Civil War)