Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Footnotes to the Book of the Setback

The dream of a totally liberated Falastina
Nizar Qabbani 

The setback in question (al-naksa in the Arabic) was the aspiration of the Arab world to remove that wart known as Israel from its otherwise cosmetically perfect face. It took place between June 6th and June 11th 1967, and is called the Six Day War in the West, the Huzairan or June war in the Arab world, or more generally al-nakba, the Catastrophe.

Until that time Nizar Qabbani had been an interestingly dull, very minor and very traditional poet, the author of erotic serenades to multiple women, and of elegant minor odes in the conventional themes of poetry. The disaster of 1967 changed everything, and the lyricist turned into a pamphleteer of Iltizām - commitment - overnight, blaming and criticising every Arab Sheikh and government and imam, from Kabul to Casablanca. The "Footnotes" were published in the August 1967 edition of Al-Adab, the most important poetry magazine in Beirut, which was then still the cultural centre of the modern Arab world.

So powerful was the impact of the poem, in a world which continues to prize public poetry much as we in the West prize ballroom dancing by celebrities or the results of television baking competitions, that the leaders of every Arab state immediately banned it, which of course is an act of stupidity that governments with access to history books should surely have learned by now. To ban a poem is to give it heightened status, so that everyone now must have a copy, learned by heart if necessary, when actual texts are too dangerous to pass around. To ban a poem is to invite the creation of a poetical movement, because now others are awakened to the rallying-cry, others wish to show support, and even Iltizām; others feel emboldened to add their voices to the protest against the corrupt and incompetent leaders, especially of the Palestinians, the worst-served people in the modern world as far as leadership is concerned.

So the Al-Adab Al-Huzairany was born, "The June Literature", a remarkably lilac-coloured blossoming of angry political writing, in the manner of Brecht and Neruda and Dylan. Ironically, several of the best of that group of poets, which includes the Druze Samih al-Qasim, the expelled Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, and the "locked out" Palestinian Rashid Hussein, do not live in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, nor in the Palestinian Diaspora which is now as global as the Jewish one which caused it, but in Israel itself, where their anger is conjoined with that of many equally embittered Israeli poets, and both sides simply want to create one shared homeland between both people.

For many years, before the Internet came along, finding a copy of the "Footnotes" was not easy, so that I knew about the existence of the poem, had even heard it recited in Arabic, which I do not speak, but had not managed to find anyone who could render it in English. Then, for many years, I simply forgot about it, until I chanced upon "Modern Poetry of the Arab World", translated and edited by Abdullah al-Udhari (Penguin Books, 1986) at Harrow's Gayton Library; but unfortunately, when I opened the book, pages 87-114 had been hacked out with a pair of scissors, and the "Footnotes" were among them. This sent me back to the Internet, where I was able to find al-Udhari’s translation, which is the version reprinted below. I would like to include a copy of the original in Arabic, but sadly I have been unable to locate one, either in print or on the Internet; I promise to update this blog as soon as someone who can find it sends me the text, or even just a link to a text.

Qabbani, for the information, was born in Damascus in 1923, and died in London in 1998. Like Neruda, when not being a poet, he earned his living as a diplomat.


Footnotes to the Book of the Setback


The old word is dead.
The old books are dead.
Our speech with holes like worn-out shoes is dead.
Dead is the mind that led to defeat.


Our poetry has gone sour.
Women’s hair, nights, curtains and sofas
Have gone sour. Everything has gone sour.


My grieved country, In a flash
You changed me from a poet who wrote love poems
To a poet who writes with a knife.


What we feel is beyond words:
We should be ashamed of our poems.


Stirred by Oriental bombast,
By boastful swaggering that never killed a fly,
By the fiddle and the drum,
We went to war
And lost.


Our shouting is louder than our actions,
Our swords are taller than us,
This is our tragedy.


In short
We wear the cape of civilisation
But our souls live in the stone age.


You don’t win a war
With a reed and a flute.


Our impatience
Cost us fifty thousand new tents.


Don’t curse heaven
If it abandons you,
Don’t curse circumstances.
God gives victory to whom He wishes.
God is not a blacksmith to beat swords.


It’s painful to listen to the news in the morning.
It’s painful to listen to the barking of dogs.


Our enemies did not cross the border
They crept through our weakness like ants.


Five thousand years
Growing beards
In our caves.
Our currency is unknown,
Our eyes are a haven for flies.
Smash the doors,
Wash your brains,
Wash your clothes.
Read a book,
Write a book,
Grow words, pomegranates and grapes,
Sail to the country of fog and snow.
Nobody knows you exist in caves.
People take you for a breed of mongrels.


We are thick-skinned people
With empty souls.
We spend our days practising witchcraft,
Playing chess and sleeping.
And we the ‘Nation by which God blessed mankind’?


Our desert oil could have become
Daggers of flame and fire.
We’re a disgrace to our noble ancestors:
We let our oil flow through the toes of whores.


We run wildly through streets
Dragging people with ropes,
Smashing windows and locks.
We praise like frogs,
Swear like frogs,
Turn midgets into heroes,
And heroes into scum:
We never stop and think.
In mosques
We crouch idly,
Write poems,
And beg God for victory
Over our enemy.


If I knew I’d come to no harm,
And could see the Sultan,
I’d tell him:
Your wild dogs have torn my clothes
Your spies hound me
Their eyes hound me
Their noses hound me
Their feet hound me
They hound me like Fate
Interrogate my wife
And take down the names of my friends,
When I came close to your walls
And talked about my pains,
Your soldiers beat me with their boots,
Forced me to eat my shoes.
You lost two wars.
Half of our people are without tongues,
What’s the use of people without tongues?
Half of our people
Are trapped like ants and rats
Between walls’.
If I knew I’d come to no harm
I’d tell him:
‘You lost two wars
You lost touch with children’


If we hadn’t buried our unity
If we hadn’t ripped its young body with bayonets
If it had stayed in our eyes
The dogs wouldn’t have savaged our flesh.


We want an angry generation
To plough the sky
To blow up history
To blow up our thoughts.
We want a new generation
That does not forgive mistakes
That does not bend.
We want a generation of giants.


Arab children,
Corn ears of the future,
You will break our chains.
Kill the opium in our heads,
Kill the illusions.
Arab children,
Don’t read about our windowless generation,
We are a hopeless case.
We are as worthless as watermelon rind.
Don’t read about us,
Don’t ape us,
Don’t accept us,
Don’t accept our ideas,
We are a nation of crooks and jugglers.
Arab children,
Spring rain,
Corn ears of the future,
You are a generation
That will overcome defeat.

I could very easily write a critical appraisal of this poem, its techniques, its lexicon, its tone, the ironies of the address to the Sultan by a poet who is also an appointed diplomat. But I don't think that literary criticism is what this poem is crying out for.

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2017 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press