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Friday 2 December 2011

Nizar Qabbani: My Lover Asks Me

File:Sayyidah Zainab mosque details.jpg

Sayyidah Zainab mosque, southern Damascus (detail): photo by elifayse, 3 October 2005

My lover asks me:
"What is the difference between me and the sky?"
The difference, my love,
Is that when you laugh,
I forget about the sky.

Damascus on a snowy day
: photo by Elph, 30 January 2008

Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998): My Lover Asks Me, translated by Bassam Frangieh And Clementina R. Brown


Nin Andrews said...


TC said...


Many thanks. This poet was a great discovery for me. I owe that to my friend Ayman Morrar.

There are quite a few YouTube videos of Qabbani performing his poems, and others performing them.

My Cub Scout Arabic isn't worth much, but the performance videos do transmit feeling at that "international language" level which maybe makes poetry what it is.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I commend you on superb translation work. Though I don't know Arabic (and my familiarity with Arabic writings is limited),I feel its spirit in your verse.

I've lately been reflecting on the nature of 'translation', weighing the merits of both the 'literalist' translation and the kind based on only a "passing knowledge" of the original source.

The difference between what poet Jamie McKendrick refers to as knowledge of'language'and knowledge of languages.

What are your views?

TC said...


My Arabic vocabulary is limited to what I can garner from eavesdropping at the Fertile Grounds Cafe. I'm totally out on a limb, in short.

I had made a typically flip remark to my friend Ayman concerning the Arabic poet Adonis. He politely opined: not so good. I asked Ayman to name another poet. We both greatly admire Darwish, Ayman from an intimate acquaintance, me from my usual interested rubbernecker's POV.

So that set the bar of comparison pretty high, the level of Darwish. That's when the name Qabbani came up. Ayman was trying to add up his day's receipts. He is a patient man. He wrote down on a slip of receipt paper: Nizar Qabbani.

The two poems posted below this one are my own versions. They will probably reveal their glaring deficiencies to anybody who really knows the original language. Embarrassing! But then English versions I found elsewhere didn't work for me. So I... dowsed it, might be the word.

This poem "My Lover Asks Me" has actually been translated, here, by the very distinguished translators Bassam Frangieh and Clementina R. Brown.

Sometimes I think the only way to enter a poem in a language that is not your own is to close your eyes and pray.

If I recall correctly, you've done some translating of Italian?

I've been following the rushlight of Ungaretti's work into the darkness for nearly half a century, and every time I return to it, different glints and aspects appear.

In the index under "Ungaretti" you'll see some of the results.

One of the Ungaretti poems I've taken a stab at before (a late and relatively little known one), and then gone back and seen the imperfections of the effort, is this one I tried again just last week:

A Red Dress (12 September 1966).

My sense of this matter of which you enquire is that "American" poetry is just a tiny crumb off the whole great pie, and that it's always up to us, wee dwarf Americans, to step outside and away from the small restricting box of whatever we once thought a "poem" was, and retain an appetite for that bigger thing, the poetic.

You Canadian chaps have the advantage of neutrality.

(In this sense I think the social formations that have been erected upon that little American crumb are perhaps the most limiting of pseudo-"supports".)

aditya said...


Another beauty! As a child I went to a Madarsa in Rajasthan and learnt Arabic for 45 days. Not that I remember anything now. But it was a learning experience. Very diligent teachers. We used to study till sunset and then prayed and left.

Very intriguing comments regarding the translation-work. I had half-heartedly tried translating Kabir some months back but to no avail.

TC said...

Thanks, Aditya. One learns from one's friends, or tries. From the outside looking in, with one's nose pressed to the candy shop window, who knows whether what one sees is really sweets, or just that painted plastic simulation they sell in Japan. But at least the candy shop window is really there.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...


wonderful this
discovering, what more
could one ask for


Anonymous said...

Blues, Islamic blues, not prairie blue but Middle Eastern sky--and there they are--internalized. --M

TC said...

This is all I could have asked for.

"When Grey Turns to Blue" -- old song title stuck to inside of even older head.

Within the deepest internalized blues, suffering and joy, darkness and brilliance, diamonds and... what? lead? or perhaps the recognition of the gravity and impermanence of all possible worlds.

And on the roof of the shrine, two unconcerned white doves, about to take flight for eternity.

ACravan said...

Amazing poem, pictures and discussion. I never thought about it snowing in Damascus. Curtis