Taking the State to Court: Qabbani’s Poetics of the Political

By Waed Athamneh
Submitted to Session P4991 (Poetics of the Political, 2017 Annual Meeting
Arab Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) is one of the most prolific and controversial Arab poets of all time. In his extensive poetic oeuvre, and along with his peer poets, he shaped Arab culture and politics. What is unique about Qabbani is his ability to reinvent his language and bring Arabic politics and culture to the forefront of poetic discussions without compromising on aesthetics. This paper offers a close reading of Qabbani’s poem “The Complete Court Report of a Political Abduction Incident,” which speaks afresh to the status quo in the Arab world, and more specifically to the refugee crisis in Syria despite being written some 40 years ago. Qabbani questions the predominant narratives of Arab history, religion, and literature. He envisions the future of the Arab world either in a revolution where Arab leaders are attacked in their palaces and ousted by the people, or in a major refugee crisis where the people are ousted by their leaders.

The paper argues that through his use of imagery and rhetorical language, Qabbani defends the people against the regime in this court trial, offering a complete account of an abduction incident that has been taking place in the Arab world without being reported or fairly tried. In ironically offering a poetic apology to oppressor-forces that crush Arab individuals and undermine their humanity, Qabbani reveals a history of systemic oppression in the Arab world and incites his people to revolt if they want to stop their abduction from continuing indefinitely. Towards the end of the poem, Qabbani speaks for his scattered fellow Arabs, particularly refugees who are denied entry by airports across the world: “Forgive us if we piled on the ship like a herd of sheep/ forgive us if we were displaced in all the oceans in the world for years and years/ for the valleys and the ports have rejected us/ and the airports that welcome birds day and night rejected us/ the sun of oppression everywhere has burnt us.”

The paper engages in questions such as: how did the religious and political oppression in the Arab world lead to the Syrian refugee crisis? What is unique about Qabbani’s poem as a poetic response to injustice? How do Arab states use manipulated narratives of religion, history and literature to misinform, indoctrinate and oppress Arab citizens? What does it take, from this poetic standpoint, for change to take place in the Arab world?