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Reflections on Kabbani: Erotics and Politics Embrace in Poetic World of Reckless Women and Sultan's Daughters
By Mohja Kahf
The work of the recently departed and much-loved poet Nizar Kabbani is usually treated as if he wrote in two categories: erotic poetry and political poetry. Even in his eight-volume collected works, political poetry is in separate volumes. In fact, his politics laces his love poetry, and his erotic sensibility is never far from the scene of his political poetry.
That love cannot thrive in an environment of coercion is a basic Kabbani axiom. The coercion he rails against is not just social but explicitly political. "How can I love you, my lady?" the speaker asks in "Writings on the Wall of Exile." when national security agents
and send the people of passion into exile?
Freedom, equality, and dignity are prerequisites for erotic joy, as Kabbani sees it. That's why the lover in "Readings from the Crypts of Holy Simpletons" can't get it up after the June 1967 Arab defeat: After June, I lost my lust
and fell between my sweetheart's arms
like a ragged flag
Political oppression from outside the bedroom as well as the traditional social strictures that render women as hunks of meatBor mensaf, as Kabbani likes to put itBmake true love and true sexual delight impossible in Kabbani's book.
Conversely, the pursuit of erotic joy on the personal level is an act of political resistance to tyranny: Lovers cannot truly love without having their consciousness raised to the imperative of human dignity, without becoming intensely protective of the beauty of human life. To love is to become capable of empathy with an Other to extremes, for "Love does not stop at the red light," as the title of one of his volumes declares. Once the glass around the Self is shattered in this experience, there is no going back to repressive boundaries and hierarchies. "I love you so that I can defend my existence," the poet insists in "Poetic Communique #1." He continues: And I love you in the protests of angry people
and in the joy of free people in the breaking of chains
And I love you in the face of those who are coming
to kill the Caliph Harun al-Rashid
Will you be my partner
in the killing of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid?
Love makes resistance an existential necessity.
We can see the integration of the erotic and the political vision in the figures who people Kabbani's poetic universe. Three female figures may be invoked to show this integration: the Sultan's Woman, the Reckless Woman, and the Lady Friend in Exile.
The Sultan's Woman is really two different women: the Sultan's Wife and the Sultan's Daughter. The first is the woman who collaborates with oppression; the second is a potential rebel.
The Sultan's Wife is the woman complicit with the repressive political-sexual order. She sleeps with the brutal Sultan, derives privilege from her position with him, and dies to the truth of freedom and to her own beauty and warmth within. This frigid "woman below zero" accepts both the sexual subjugation of women and the political subjugation of all citizens, those creatures in "Top Secret Report from the Country of Smotherland" whose ambition has been killed
so that their greatest remaining hope
is to get to pedicure
the wife of the sultan
or his daughter or his dog
The Sultan's Daughter is an ambiguous figure. The river of beauty has not dried in her. She recognizes the truth in the poet's message of sexual and political liberation and begins to see through the men of the tribe. Still, she derives security and privilege from her connection with the Sultan and the tribe. The "cashmere hands" and delicate beauty that come with privilege are part of her attraction for the poet-speaker. In Billy Joel terms, the Sultan's Daughter has that "Uptown Girl" mystique.
In "All Glory Belongs to Long Braids" the speaker tells his sweetheart a story "from olden times" about "a caliph with a beautiful daughter." The princess loves a poet; the caliph cuts her braids to punish her. In some poems, such as "From the Files of the Investigative Bureaus," the princess defies the men of her tribe and goes over to the rebel lover because she recognizes beauty and truth in his poetry. In poems such as "Song of Sorrow," the poem sung by the Iraqi singer Kazim al-Saher as "The School of Love," the speaker learns sadly that "the sultan's daughter never arrives." Will the Sultan's Daughter elope with the rebel-poet or give in to her anxieties and leave him waiting with the horses under the balcony?
The Reckless Woman is what I call the Kabbani woman who has seen through the lie of the Sultan and become "a gazelle fleeing the authority of the tribe" in his "Do You Really Know Women?" The first memorable Reckless Woman in the Kabbani ouevre is the speaker in the 1968 book length poem "Diary of an Indifferent Woman. The speaker is the daughter of a smug and stodgy middle class family, who discovers the sexual double standard of her conservative society and concludes that she will revolt in body and in writing. Her rebellion is both sexual and political, or as U.S. feminism put it in the seventies, she learns that "the personal is political." She bucks the system, in language that connects sexual repression to political oppression: I resist all the people of the cave,
the people of superstition and mumbo-jumbo,
their slavishness that enslaves them,
their breeding like cows
Before me are a thousand and one executioners
Behind me are a thousand and one butchers
Dear Lord, is there no shame but my nakedness?
Dear Lord, does this East have no work
but fussing over my hemline?
Rather than be ashamed of her budding womanhood, she names her menstrual blood the ink to which she shall be quill. This is heady stuff for polite society in 1998, much less 1968.
While the Sultan's Daughter remains a beautiful but often elusive figure of feminine mystique, the Reckless Woman is a character with whom the poet himself identifies, the rebel in female form. In extremely female form: Her breasts "defy gravity;" her crazy, careening breasts are capable of leading revolutions against the caliphate. The Sultan's daughter may have exquisite taste in clothes but the Reckless Woman knows how to be naked. In "Musical Variations of a Nude Woman," the poet revels in descriptions of her nakedness in bed and bath: Once there were two splendid roosters
in your chest
They slept but little
and they cockadoodle-dooed a lot
The nakedness of this uninhibited girl-next-door created by Kabbani startled the sleepy Arab cities and provinces in the early decades of his poetry.
The Reckless Woman's nakedness is not just physical: Her heart is a naked hunter and her mind rejects masks. She has found the wellsprings of passion and joy within and knows there is no turning back into the desert. This knowledge is what gives her recklessness, which is the power a woman needs in order to throw off the anxieties of the Sultan's Daughter and fling herself into the truth of love with childlike faith and birdlike spontaneity.
The Reckless Woman is marked by pride, not in the sense of lack of compassion, but as the natural dignity of a person who will no longer bow to the ugly kings without or succumb to the ugliness within. Kabbani cheers her high-spiritedness, seeing her, like himself, as a wild and free Arabian horse. She is the victory of beauty. Anyone who sees Kabbani's description of her beauty as nothing more than "objectification" of women's bodies is reading this at a tiresome superficial level. The Reckless Woman, as the first lover in the world and the first free citizen in Kabbani's republic, is a model for men and women alike.
The Lady Friend in Exile. In poems of the 80s and 90s, Kabbani increasingly addresses a female friend ("sadiqati") in addition to his familiar address to "my lady" ("sayyidati"). "If I knew how to keep apart/ love and friendship," the poet tells her in a departure from his overdetermined role as lover, "I'd choose you as a friend," he writes in the poem "To Love You I Will Learn Ten Languages." Coming from his homeland, speaking his language, but also a sophisticated cosmopolitan, the lady of many of these later poems is his companion in exile. "Beautiful are you, like exile," he tells her as they sit in a cafe in London mulling over the mingled sorrows of diaspora and pleasures of freedom (in the poem with that line as the title, "Fifty Years in Praise of Women." For while the Reckless Woman may be youthful (certainly her breasts never lose the battle with gravity), the Lady Friend in Exile seems to be a woman who understands the subtle violet shades of sorrow more profoundly than a young woman could. She "slumps" with him "on the curb of grief" and discerns with him that "even grief is evergreen" ("Grant Me Your Love That I May Bloom and Green."
The Lady Friend has already integrated recklessness and sexual confidence in her personality and moved on to a more developed stage of love. While the Reckless Woman is a figure of passionate abandon through which the poet addresses the dynamics of sexual and political liberation in the homeland, the Lady Friend presides over a different set of issues related to the politics and emotions of exile in a postcolonial metropolis. She is the poet's last refuge as he "sails over the roof of the world." With the Sultan's Daughter and the Reckless Woman, the poet played the role of champion and cheerleader. He was always urging them forward in the path of passion, helping them overcome their doubts and guilt complexes with his tremendous resource of eloquence, and tapping his foot impatiently as they moved hesitantly through their twenties and thirties. "Reject the era of the sultans," he tells the girlfriend over and over in poems of the 70s, such as "Beirut, Love, and the Rain." But the Lady Friend from the late 80s onward is the poet's equal in breadth of cultivation, a woman at the mature peak of her sexual energies, in command of great intellectual powers and emotional strength. Now she says in "To Love You I Will Learn Ten Languages," it is he who must hustle to keep up with her capacity for passion: I sense that the arts wear thin with you
and that eloquence pants,
and poetry and prose and speech
race around your waist, not catching up
Together they contemplate an Arab world ever more confirmed in its tribalistic fragmentation, ever more sunken into its apathy and abjection before the military superpowers of the new world order. Together they experiment with new combinations of all that is beautiful and cultivated from the world's cultures, mixing Mozart with Mutannabi, seeking a moment's respite now in a small country church in England, now under a jasmine-covered balcony in their memory of Damascus.
While it is possible to find poems that are very focused on erotics and poems intent on politics, if Kabbani's lifetime production is taken as a whole, the separation of these spheres is not justified. The Sultan's Women, the Reckless Woman, and the Lady Friend in Exile are constructed by erotics and politics together. The more a reader progresses into Kabbani's later work, the more difficult it becomes to decide whether a poem is about love or politics. Many of his eighties and nineties poems merge the two. Most readers can name a number of poems (such as "Love Below Zero" and "Murder Attempts on a Woman Who Can't Be Killed") in which it is unclear whether the poet is addressing a woman or all the people of the Arab lands. Is Kabbani's famed elegy for his wife Balqis al-RawiBin which he addresses her tenderly while railing bitterly against the whole Arab order seen as responsible for her death by bomb in BeirutBa love poem or a political poem? It is time to question whether "the erotic" and "the political" are the most useful categories to use for understanding Kabbani's immense contribution. Perhaps Kabbani's poetry opens a new field in which these two elements slip into each other in perpetual orgasmic play.
The poems in this article were translated, from the Arabic, by Mohja Kahf