Nizar Qabbani: Refinement by Reading your Body (From Arabic)

I'll open this post with a bit of a spiel.

Nizar Qabbani is one of my favorite people. Though some portrayed him as a decadent libertine western sellout, he was not. More than anything, he was an Arab nationalist who saw in the Arab society around him a thing of pity and pettiness, and felt as did many others a deep embarrassment at western cultural and political dominance. Where he differed from many other nationalist types was in that, as a member of the Syrian diplomatic corps and the product of a completely bilingual primary and secondary education, he had a much broader experience of foreign cultures than most, and thus had a different and more incisive explanation for the humiliating East/West imbalance.
Many other nationalists did what the intellectually bankrupt soapbox-squatters of many societies often do, either blaming an ostensible religious decay and calling for a "purification" à la Billy Graham, or else simply jumping on the bandwagon of one of a dozen "-isms."
Qabbani, on the other hand, leveled his rage at other things. He cried out against the empty pomp and "self-important, listless posturing" of a society where "our swords are taller than we are". More importantly, he saw this malady as having been brought on by the subjugation of women, the "martial law imposed on the Arab woman's body" by a society "not man enough treat women as equals." He went so far as to say that "sexual repression is the Arab World's biggest problem," asking how a society that marginalized half of its population could ever hope to compete with the West.
Even if Qabbani's poems hadn't been as good as they were, they would still have been a major event in Arabic sociology. For he addressed all manner of taboo gender topics, from the frustration of a woman whose husband won't satisfy her sexual needs, to the anguish of a mistress literally tossed out to the street by a man all for becoming pregnant with his child and then refusing to get an abortion. Moreover, Qabbani did so in a way that was not simply an importation of western cultural norms.
For Qabbani's feminism was a product of Near Eastern Arab social realities at a certain time and among a certain class, rather than western European and American ones. I would cite his call for equality above all else in the bedroom, his sense that the fear of oversexualization -and not just oversexualization itself- can lead to objectification, his understanding of the degree to which patriarchy is harmful to men as well as women. I might be totally off in this (for I am not a product of Near Eastern Arab society,) but it seems to me that these notions were informed, in part by his view of Near Eastern Arab culture from an inescapably male perspective, but also by his experience of that culture in particular; as opposed to, say, western culture whose feminism has developed different priorities.
(BTW: To say that Qabbani is one of my favorite people is not to say I like everything about him, or that he wasn't in some ways an utter dick. For example, the ideas he seems to have had about homosexuality were absurd, and I dearly wish his had been a more nuanced anti-Zionism so that my eyes might have been spared the offensive stupidity, not to mention bad verse, of lines like "Hitler didn't have enough time to annihilate them/ And relieve the whole world of them/ And so they have come to annihilate us". )
Most of my translations hitherto have been of Qabbani's purely amorous poetry. I plan to fix that starting with this poem, which -in addition to having some damn fine passages- gives a good general idea of his feelings about sexuality and society etc.


Refinement by Reading your Body
By Nizar Qabbani
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Arabic

The day the conversation ended
Between your breasts awash in water
And the tribes that battled over water,
That day ended our Golden Age
And began the Age of Decay.
The rainclouds went on strike and said no rain
For the next five hundred years
The spring birds went on strike and stopped all flying
And the ears of grain abstained from procreation
And the fertile crescent moon took on the shape
Of a bottle full of crude oil.

The day they exiled me from the tribe
For leaving a poem and a rose
At the doorflap of your tent,
That day ended our Golden Age
And began the Age of Decay
An age that knew its grammar and syntax
But not a thing of womanhood,
The generations of degeneration
And the erasure of all women's names
From the memory of the nation.

Oh darling
What kind of nation is this,
Policing love like a dirty cop,
Considering the rose
A conspiracy against the regime,
Considering the poem
A manifesto of the underground?
What kind of nation is this
In the form of a yellow locust
Crawling out on its gut from the ocean to the Gulf
From the Gulf to the ocean,
Talking like a holy man all day
And woozy over a woman's navel all night?

What kind of nation is this?
Deleting love's material from curricula.
Deleting poetry,
And women's eyes.
What kind of nation is this?
Going to war with every raincloud,
Opening a classified file for every breast
And filing a police report for every rose.

Oh darling
What are we to do in this nation?
This nation that dare not see its body in the mirror
For fear of craving it?
That dare not hear a woman's voice on the phone
For fear of being too impure to pray?
What are we to do in this nation
That knows all there is to know
Of the October revolution,
Of the Zanj slaves who rose against their Caliph master
Of the Karmathians who stood against the Caliph's armies
And still keeps talking down to women like some Sheikh?
What are we to do in this nation
Between the works of Imam Ash-Shafi'i... and the works of Lenin
Between Qur'anic exegeses.... and Playboy magazines
Between Mu'tazilism... and the music of The Beatles?

O darling dumbfounder, you
Who amaze me like a child's toy,
I feel civilized
For loving you.
I call my poems historical
Because they have been your contemporaries.
All time before your eyes had yet to be,
All time after them went to pieces.
Do not ask me why I'm with you.
I just want an escape from being backwater,
To re-enter the time of water,
I want to defect from the Republic of Thirst,
To leave my backward desert life,
To sit beneath the trees
And bathe in springwater
And learn the names of the flowers.

I want you to teach me to read and write
For writing on your body is the ABC
Of entry into civilization.
Your body is not counterculture.
No, it is culture incarnate.
Whoever does not read the notebooks of your body
Will spend his life illiterate.


The Original:

أقرأ جسدك وأتثقف
نزار قباني

يوم توقف الحوار بين نهديك المغتسلين بالماء
وبين القبائل المتقاتلة على الماء
بدأت عصور الانحطاط
أعلنت الغيوم الإضراب عن المطر
لمدة خمسمئة سنه
وأعلنت العصافير الإضراب عن الطيران
وامتنعت السنابل عن إنجاب الأولاد
وصار شكل القمر كشكل زجاجة النفط

يوم طردوني من القبيلة
لأني تركت قصيدة على باب خيمتك
وتركت لك معها ورده
بدأت عصور الانحطاط
إن عصور الانحطاط ليست الجهل بمبادئ النحو الصرف
ولكنها الجهل بمبادئ الأنوثة
وشطب أسماء جميع النساء من ذاكرة الوطن

آه يا حبيبتي
ما هو هذا الوطن الذي يتعامل مع الحب
كرجل بوليس ؟
فيعتبر الوردة مؤامرة على النظام
ويعتبر القصيدة منشورا سريا ضده
ما هو هذا الوطن
المرسوم على شكل جرادة صفراء
تزحف على بطنها من المحيط إلى الخليج
من الخليج إلى المحيط
والذي يتكلم في النهار كقديس
ويدوخ في الليل على سرَّة امرأة

ما هو هذا الوطن ؟
الذي ألغى الحب من مناهجه المدرسية
وألغى فن الشعر
وعيون النساء
ما هو هذا الوطن ؟
الذي يمارس العدوان على كل غمامة ماطرة
ويفتح لكل نهد ملفاً سرياً
وينظّم مع كل وردة مَحْضَر تحقيق !!.

يا حبيبتي
ماذا نفعل في هذا الوطن ؟
الذي يخاف أن يرى جسده في المرآة
حتى لا يشتهيه
ويخاف أن يسمع صوت امرأة في التلفون
حتى لا يُنقـَضَ وضوءُهُ
ماذا نفعل في هذا الوطن ؟
الذي يعرف كل شيء عن ثورة أكتوبر
وثورة الزنج
وثورة القرامطة
ويتصرَّف مع النساء كأنه شيخُ طريقةٍ
ماذا نفعل في هذا الوطن ؟
بين مؤلَّفات الإمام الشافعي .. ومؤلفات لينين
بين كتب التفسير .. ومجلة ( البلاي بوي )
بين فرقة ( المعتزلة ) .. وفرقة ( البيتلز ) .

أيتها المُدهِشةُ كألعاب الأطفال
انني أعتبر نفسي متحضِّراً
لأني أحبك
وأعتبر قصائدي تاريخية
لأنها عاصرتك
كل زمن قبل عينيك هو احتمال
كل زمن بعدهما هو شظايا
فلا تسأليني لماذا أنا معك
إنني أريد أن اخرج من تخلفي
وأدخل في زمن الماء
أريد أن أهرب من جمهورية العطش.
أريد أن أخرج من بداوتي
وأجلس تحت الشجر
وأغتسل بماء الينابيع
وأتعلم أسماء الأزهار
أريد أن تعلميني القراءة والكتابة
فالكتابة على جسدك أول المعرفة
والدخول إليه دخول إلى الحضارة
إن جسدك ليس ضد الثقافة
ولكنه الثقافة
ومن لا يقرأ دفاتر جسدك
يبقى طول حياته ....أمياً .

3 comments:

  1. IT IS JUST PERFECT !!!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. one of life greateast pleasures! you my made my day.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Where did he say this "sexual repression is the Arab World's biggest problem" ?

    ReplyDelete

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