A distant world
Qabbani's world – once filled with women, language, cities, and idiosyncrasies – seems impossibly distant today. Our perception of seduction has fallen to the wayside.
The woman to whom Qabbani devoted his poetry had created a circle of desire, as described by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Essentially, when someone desires a woman, he longs for an entire existence that is realised through the myriad meanings connected to her, radiating from her, and permeating through her presence.
But today, seduction has transformed into a function of the picture-perfect image projected by "influencers" – the new media stars shaping aesthetic, cultural, and lifestyle trends.
An alarming side-effect of this is the desire to create a woman who is separate from her own self and beauty. Seduction has become a by-product of the products that she uses, rather than an innate quality she possesses.
This new perspective reduces men and women to consumers. The circular exchange of seduction, glances, and a desire to immerse oneself in a world of tempting encounters, marked by an attentive gaze, has been lost.
Plagued by tragedy
After moving to Lebanon, personal and public tragedies plagued the poet. He was surrounded by profound loss, fragments of which can still be seen in the current state of his homeland.
In 1973, he lost his 23-year-old son, Tawfiq. In 1981, tragedy struck again as his wife, Bilqis, died in the bombing of the Iraqi embassy in Beirut.
The urban world that was once a source of inspiration for the poet had steadily eroded. It was replaced by a landscape of rurality, crises, and wars. Militarisation had spread through discourse, culture and behaviour.
Through his elegies, mourning both personal losses and the decline of cities, the poet might as well have been witness to our present-day conditions.
His fate took a turn when he was exiled from his homeland and banned from most Arab countries, seeking refuge in London, where he lived until he died in 1998.
From his collection "I Love You, I Love You, and the Rest Will Follow," Qabbani presented a poignant elegy dedicated to his late son, titled "To the Damascus Prince, Tawfiq Qabbani".
In it, we witness him proclaim in anguish:
I'll carry you, my son, on my back
Like a minaret broken into two
And your hair is a field of wheat in the rain
And your head in my palms like a Damascene rose...and the remains of a moon.
The poet's world shattered as he felt Damascene's voice, place, and time crumble between his fingers. The weight of his son's lifeless body burdened his soul, which he carried on his back as if it were his own world that he had lost forever.
His once transparent vulnerability transformed into raw, seething grief when his wife, Bilqis, was assassinated. He poured his emotions into a lengthy poem bearing her name, considered a prominent satirical elegy in modern Arabic poetry.
The poem opens with:
Thank you all,
Thank you all.
My beloved was slain, and you can now
drink a cup on the martyr's grave,
and my poem was assassinated;
is there any nation on this earth
- other than us - that assassinates a poem?"
In another passage, he observes the death of speech:
O fragrance in my memory,
O grave that travels in the clouds,
They killed you in Beirut, like any gazelle,
after they killed the words.
He reaches the climax of his enlightened anger, through which he can now reveal everything, saying:
I will declare in the investigation
that I know the names and the things and the prisoners
and the martyrs and the poor and the downtrodden,
and I will say that I know the swordsman who killed my wife.
The significance of this poem as part of Qabbani's legacy lies in the fact that it reflects more than just a personal tragedy. It chronicles a time when words and their meanings seemed lost.
The worlds that once inspired Qabbani's writings about women splintered alongside the body of his beloved, right in the heart of a city that had always given life to his work.
Pain erupted like one final conversation, as Bilqis was more than his wife and lover; she embodied the world and voice of women he revered, intertwined with the essence of urban life.
In that moment, death's grasp seemed absolute. It took Bilqis and everything she represented, along with Beirut, a place he mourned in his 1978 collection "To Beirut the Female with My Love."
This collection included the powerful poem "Lady of the World, O Beirut," sung by Majida al-Roumi and composed by Jamal Salameh. It also featured the poem "To Beirut the Female," sung by Nancy Ajram after the 2020 port explosion – a testament to his enduring words.
These earlier poems gave hints of the tragedy that later emerged in Bilqis' poem. They served as an early conclusion to Qabbani's poetic exploration, a heartfelt lament for women and the Arab city. He faithfully witnessed their meanings dissolve and their essence burn away.
Qabbani's poetry belongs to a world where relationships are rooted in a deep knowledge of one another. Seduction was an invitation to read between the lines – to build upon layers and layers of mutual understanding.
In contrast, today's world of contemporary influencers features constant, fleeting browsing that builds upon nothing. The consumer is in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. Relationships are startlingly superficial.
Qabbani's world, and by extension of the world of poetry, no longer exists – at least not in its once glorious form.