Nizar Qabbani and the English Language

The poem, "A Day with Come", by Nizar Qabbani. (Flickr: tsweden)
Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani is one of the most beloved literary figures in the Arab World.

Born in Damascus in the 1920s, Qabbani published his first collection of poems in 1944 while a student at Damascus University. He went on to publish many more collections during and after his service in the Syrian Foreign Ministry. Qabbani died in 1998.

Qabbani is known for the simplicity and beauty of his language, which elegantly touches on themes as diverse as love and Arab Nationalism. Additionally, he is referred to as 'the Women's Poet' for his romanticism and championing of Arab women.

Today's post is a translation of a portion of Qabbani's memoirs where he discusses the differences between Arabic and English, and the latter's impact on his poetry.

This segment gives us a master's appraisal of the linguistic and artistic value of these two languages as well as an interesting view of some of the issues that have been raised about Arabic in the contemporary world, by Arabs and non-Arabs alike.

I hope you enjoy!


As for the English language, I learned it in its homeland during my tenure as the Syrian ambassador to London from 1955 to 1956. English has a completely different character [from French], and its features are of an entirely different kind. English is the language of reality more than entertainment. What it may lack in harmonic rhythm, which Italian has, it makes up for it with precision and clarity, as well as its ability to respond to the demands of a given moment, commensurate with Arabic rhetoric's expressiveness. 
English is like a comfortable chair, which is not as concerned with its external aesthetic as it is with the strength of its wood and the quality of its upholstery. In brief, English is the language of economy and legislation; it conveys what it intends to without elaboration, nor with any undesired additions or embellishments. 
I benefited a lot from this economical language that knows neither foolishness nor excess. I tried applying English's legislative principles to my poetry. Namely, to refrain from all of the useless, linguistic nonsense that tarnishes the Arabic poem's body, making it bloated with thousands of superfluous words and phrases. 
The influences that English had on my collection Poems and other collections published after it, like My Beloved and Drawing with Words, were important and relate to the language's logic and the manner of interacting with it. (…) 
The language in Margin Notes on the Book of Defeat was that of 'hot' journalism, and it shocked people the first time they read the poem. They considered it a departure from the rhetoric of Al-Jaahiz, al-Hariri and Abd al-Hamid Al-Katib. Rather, they considered it an aberration from the poetic language I had been writing with for the past thirty years, in my first works works, like Childhood of a Breast, You Are Mine and Samba
But I was truly enamored and excited by this linguistic form that I had attained. And my enthusiasm and enchantment were not diminished by those who said I had thrown away the silken clothes that swathed my poems in the 1940s. 
Even my friends were sad and sorry because I gave up wearing a Damascene brocade and took to dressing in 'cottony' language: less affected and presumptuous, and much hotter. 
As for myself, I was neither sorry nor disappointed by the end of the period of embroidery and ceramics in my poetry. This stage, excessive in its elegance and aesthetics, had exhausted its purposes, and lost its importance with the beginning of the Socialist Era and the collapse of the feudal and class systems. 
I felt completely opposite, overwhelmed by bliss. After thirty years of poetic work I was able to see how my old dreams had taken shape, and how poetry's foundation was expanding to the point where the poem, for the first time in the history of Arabic poetry, was taking the form of the daily bread and newspaper. 
My language's transformation from Childhood of a Breast to Margin Notes on the Book of Defeat was absolute, determined by the physiological, chemical and cellular make up of the poetry itself. 
For language is in a state of constant motion. And we do not completely notice its daily movement, just as we fail to sense the motion of Planet Earth. And whoever wants to be certain of our language's movement should listen to Arab children's conversations in order to see how their vocabulary and manner of speech differ from our own.
From The Prosaic Works of Nizar Qabbani, pp. 292-232


  1. Brilliant, thank you for this most intelligent and insightful contribution. Please, keep posting. Sky


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