World Outside of Wilmington: Syrian Poetry


Genevieve Guenther

Amanda Milana, Contributing Writer

Editor’s Note: Amanda Milana is a student at UNCW majoring in International Studies and is a Contributing Writer for The Seahawk. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. All suggestions and inquiries may be sent via email to [email protected]

When you hear the word “Syria”, what comes to mind?

Perhaps macabre depictions of the civil war, concerns about chemical weapons, and a staggering flow of refugees fill your thoughts, and justifiably so in light of recent events.

Humans engage in oversimplifications continuously, a necessary compromise given the limited capacities of our brains. We categorize painstakingly crafted art with descriptions like “abstract” or “realistic”. We compress others’ personalities into molds based on our interactions and perceptions. We define countries with the limited knowledge we have of them (see Yanko Tsvetkov’s satirical Mapping Stereotypes Project).

However, when we take the time to unfold our generalizations, we sensitize ourselves to beauty and depth once inaccessible.

Think of the wonder that arises from emotionally connecting to a painting. From appreciating the inner life and idiosyncrasies of another person. From truly experiencing a culture.

In the poetry of Nizar Qabbani lies an invitation to appreciate the multidimensionality of Syria, to glimpse what came before the Syrian Civil War, and to harbor hope for what may follow it.

Qabbani, a 20th century Syrian poet, is one of the most beloved Arab poets. He brought attention to controversial topics while expressing an intense love for Syrian culture.

Qabbani began his career in poetics by challenging norms regarding the artistic depiction of romance. In so doing, he strove to expand gender equality. Modern singers have even adapted his poems into love songs, carrying on the legacy of his art.

“On the Road” provides a prime example of his inflammatory yet tender use of words:

“I have prepared my heart for you,
So come close, you know your place

Take it off, my love
The scarf committed a crime by covering you

Sit next to me, I will give away all my life,
only to have your heart”

Qabbani goes on to accuse his critics of foolishness and defend the moral rectitude of his openly amorous tributes in “Clarification to My Poetry-Readers”:

“I, in broad day, have loved.
Have I sinned?

I will write of my beloved’s matters
Till I melt her golden hair
In the sky’s gold
I am,
And I hope I change not,
A child
Scribbling on the stars’ walls
The way he pleases,
Till the worth of love
In my homeland
Matches that of the air”

The Arab world faced a great amount of instability and suffering arising from colonialism, war, and political conflict. These themes found expression as Qabbani aged and developed a strong connection to the trauma of defeats.

“A Lesson In Drawing” describes the scar of warfare on the face of Arab culture:

“I tell him, ‘Son,

In this time of armed wheatstalks
armed birds
armed culture
and armed religion
you can’t buy a loaf
without finding a gun inside
you can’t pluck a rose in the field
without its raising its thorns in your face
you can’t buy a book
that doesn’t explode between your fingers.’”

However, he also expresses pride in his Syrian heritage with “Damascus, What Are You Doing to Me”?

“The Damascene House
Is beyond the architectural text
The design of our homes…
Is based on an emotional foundation
For every house leans… on the hip of another
And every balcony…
Extends its hand to another facing it”

While the words themselves carry great weight, the linguistic fluidity of the poems transcends meaning. Recorded readings in Arabic convey craftsmanship obscured by written translations.

To read Qabbani’s poems is to contextualize what Syrian refugees leave behind. It is to recognize the value of a culture ravaged by all-consuming violence. It is to grasp for the perceptions of Syria held in the minds of those raised by it. The enduring memories described by Qabbani endear him to the Arab world. Alternately, they provide an opportunity for outsiders to intimately understand the emotional symbols of an unfamiliar culture and relate them to personal memories of love, grief, and home.