Poets Who Accompanied Me Through My Life
By Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
…There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest…
So spoke the great Canadian poet Robert Service (1874-1958) whose words moved something inside me the first time I read them as a teenager. They seemed to be an omen for my future. In those years, I felt that I did not fit into society and took it upon myself in the years that followed to seek that which was over the horizon, be it the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia or climbing the Great Wall of China and the Mayan pyramids in Mexico, sailing on a dhow in the Persian/Arabian Gulf or riding horseback across the Andes Mountains, and even reaching the peak of a frozen waterfall in Ontario in my 70s. I supposed it was a little of that gypsy blood that Service spoke of.
It was, indeed, in my teen years, that I loved poetry. The few snippets of Arabic poetry mom and dad would recite sounded great but I did not clearly understand the essence of its meaning. Instead, I identified more with Robert Service and his verses of Canada’s cold north, for me, at least, an indicative similarity to my Saskatchewan winter weather. At school, when my classmates would complain endlessly about having to study Shakespeare, I, on the other hand, enjoyed his writings and could recite parts of his plays, which I often did, to myself.
Such is the case with Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar” in which Mark Antony eulogizes Caesar. In a dramatic oration and in a persuasive monologue and with the use of irony and sarcasm, Caesar’s assassination is shown to be a terrible wrong eventually rallying up the mob against the conspirators. That his former friend would only be remembered for what was bad, “The evil that men do lives after them” and Caesar’s good deeds, like those of others “is oft interred with their bones” for me, delivered a message that Shakespeare intended.
Until today I can still recite almost word for word this speech filled with drama and irony. Perhaps it was the way he put his words together in blank verse to send a message that Shakespeare was able to transcend to his audiences that drew me to this English poet. Powerful words in verse to get a message across drew me not only to Shakespeare but to others, in which I felt were part of me and my inner soul
Nevertheless, there were other poems that I felt were part of me. As an example, in the words of one poet whose name I cannot, unfortunately, recall yet whose words seemed to echo my life dreams throughout the years:
…It is the seas I have not sailed
That beat against my breast.
It is the heights I have not scaled
That will not let me rest.
It is the paths I have not gone
That tempt my restless feet.
It is the flowers I’ve never known,
That is forever sweet
It is the lips I have not kissed
That lure my soul astray.
It is the voice my soul has missed
That calls me night and day
Although I achieved much of my dreams such as traveling and other adventures, there were still others that I did not fulfill that in the poet’s words still tempted my restless feet. Such is the case with crossing the Sahara Desert or exploring the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean
Another poet who I admired through the years was the English poet William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) who wrote:
…Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul…
His poetry seemed to ensnare my soul. His defiance of life’s tribulations surmounting obstacles I would relate to whenever I reached a stumbling block in my life.
Perhaps equal to these poets’ impact is that of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) which I first read in the English translation by Edward Fitzgerald. In his words, man is but a pawn in the hands of destiny and the future beyond the control of man, one should live for the moment enjoying the pleasures of today. .
…Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise now.
I sometimes think that never blows so red
The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled;
That every Hyacinth the Garden wears
Dropt in its Lap from some once lovely Head.
Ah, fill the Cup: – what boots it to repeat
How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:
Unborn ‘To-morrow’, and dead ‘Yesterday’,
Why fret about them if ‘To-day’ be sweet!…
How Khayyam, a mathematician, and astronomer, wrote his quatrains on his view of the world and man, and how each day should be lived like there is no tomorrow, inspired me to write my own, as yet unpublished, Prairie Rubaiyat, basing my verses on my life in southern Saskatchewan.
Other poets like Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) and his “The Raven” and Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” as well as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s (1807-1882) “The Wreck of the Hesperus” all influenced my thinking. It was the power of their words put into verse that sent their message, usually of honor, pride and the stoic confrontation of adversity. Memorizing their words took me away from the chores and work on our Saskatchewan farm.
But then, as time passed, and I became proficient in Arabic, the Arab poets came into the arena. Syrian immigrant poets drew me to their verses especially the poems of Rashid Salim al-Khouri (1887-1984) known as al-Sharic al-Qarawi and of Iliya Abu Madi (1890-1957), the latter whose poem ‘al-Talasim’ (The Charm Unknown) I translated into English as one of my first publications. Its opening lines of ‘I came, I do not know from where, but yet I came and I saw before me a path and I walked it’ appropriately touched me, oft times when I would look at my parents and realize that they had given up everything in Syria to come to Canada not knowing, essentially, what the future held for them. Both poets set the pattern for my life and I never ceased to quote them until this day, especially those poems that reflected my inner feelings of life and its unknown.
Among the first Arab poets I met was Iliya Abu Madi, a Syrian-Lebanese poet who lived in New York. I remember visiting him in the early 1950’s seeking an Arabic folkloric book, often parts of which my dad recited, called “Taghriiba Bani Hilal”. I had heard that he had some Arabic books for sale and took advantage of a trip to New York to meet him.
There in his office of the Samir newspaper, this short-statured yet literary giant seemed surprised that anybody would ask for this specific book, saying “You know the modern Arabs aren’t interested in the folklore of their ancestors.” I agreed with him and told him that despite my lack of perfection of the Arabic language, at that time, this book was a treasure chest of my ancestors and a memory of what dad used to recite.
Around 1965, I had the honor of meeting Rashid Salim al-Khoury in his hometown of al-Barbara in Lebanon. A proud Arab nationalist poet, he had spent a good part of his life in Brazil and then returned to his homeland in 1958.
When I visited him with a friend of mine from Toronto I was surprised that he lived a very simple life, a near Spartan-type with little luxury surrounding him. Al-Khoury invited us to join him for dinner since he was already grilling some small fish. We opted, instead, to go on a trip with him to Batroun to relish the majestic views of Lebanon while enjoying his literary conversation along the route. Al-Sha’ir al-Qarawi had a great influence on imprinting pride in my heritage when he wrote in his poem ‘The Feast of al-Fitr’ (Breaking of the Fast) inspiring me to translate:
…Fasting until the sword with red blood this long fast it break,
And my mouth silence, till the cry of justice the earth it rake.
My fast shall I break while the freedom defenders hungry shake,
And a feast while our struggling heroes in funerals we forsake?
Your country, before all the world nations, raise and lofty make,
And because of your country break the fast, or the fast partake.
For this fast, the heart of oppressors does not touch or shake,
And breaking it stirs not the sleeping souls to become awake.
This great feast I praise, all the praise a poet can undertake,
Proud of the Prophet’s verses that show us how to give and take.
But I am waiting for a feast of a nation, one that is not a fake,
Free from the foreign bondage with its misery and its many ache.
And a flag of Christ and Muhammad interwoven as a firm handshake,
And Amīnah in its shadow with her sister Miriam, as one namesake.
Give me a feast to make the Arabs one nation, none can overtake,
And my corpse under the religion of Brahmans, carry and forsake.
For the sects have torn our unity into small bits and tiny flake,
And shattered us between fangs and feet of oppressors wide-awake.
Greetings! To Atheism that us unites, if one nation it will make,
And after, welcome to hell down under, and its large fiery lake…
There was a third Arab poet who I admired. At a Syrian picnic in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, I was introduced to a tall, almost Germanic looking gentleman who could well have been an officer in Kaiser William’s army. When he spoke, he wore a monocle like the German officers of old. Imagine my surprise when I learned that this was the great Syrian poet, ‘Umar Abu-Risha (1910-1990). Impressive in his looks and thoughts, he left an impression on me that I have not forgotten.
‘Umar Abu-Risha, a renowned Syrian poet from Manbij near Aleppo had served as Syrian ambassador to the U.S. from 1961-1964. His pride in the legacy of the Arab people and their history voiced in his poetry bellowed out in a period of western imperialism and colonization. Israel’s occupation of the ‘sanctuary of the Holy Sepulchre and the shadow of the Haram’ deeply affected him and likewise, every Arab. He connected the past with the present, invoking the call of reviving the greatness of the Arabs. His verses rendered nationalism and political expression in powerful poetic verses, exemplifying him as a master poet.
When the Arab armies were defeated and Israel was created, ‘Umar Abu-Risha reprimanded the Arabs reminding them that they once had a glorious past:
…My nation, do you have among other nations a pulpit for the sword or pen.
I look at you with much sadness ashamed from your past which has vanished
My nation, how many idols you glorified which did not have the purity of an idol?…
In his poem ‘Fi –al-Taa’ira’, his love for Arab history is not lost when he finds himself sitting beside’ a young woman whose pride in her Andalusian history makes her beauty even more attractive:
…I said, ‘Oh beauty! Who are you?
And from what lofty family tree do the branches grow?
She gazed haughtily, I reckoned her to be
Above the lineage of nobles and even higher
She answered, “I am from Andalusia
The Paradise of the world, perfumey and shaded gardens
And my forefathers, time glanced
over their memories, folding over their wings majestically
I asked God to bless their desert-lands, their chivalry and virtuous deeds abound more than the sands and winds
They carried the East for years and more,
They overreached the arena of the West in battle
For glory rested on their vestiges and stayed
Despite their disappearance.
These huntsmen are my people, so give me your genealogy
Try to find anyone more generous than my people…
Another poet who left his mark on my thoughts was Ahmad Safi al-Najafi (1897-1977) who I met on a trip to Damascus in the 1970s where he lived at that time. I had read his poetry and was anxious to meet him. I was told that every Friday afternoon he had a circle of literary colleagues and guests who met to discuss the Arab literary world. I was thinking of what he would be like when he walked in dressed in tattered Arab clothing. When he spoke, there was silence. He had an overwhelming aura of looks and speech.
Known as a poet of Iraq and his use of simple words, his love of the common people drew me to his poetry. But it was the fight against British colonialism and occupation in his poetry that reinforced my own thoughts. His defense of the underdog in his poetry such as “Even the Foxes” identifies the natural instinctive nature of the common man to rise in defense of his own people and nation.
…O you who are ignorant of your motherland’s
merit or value,
Enter the lion’s lair and you will know your
That even the foxes protect their caves, no one
And in agitation, a bird defends its rookery and
O betrayer of a country you originated and were
You betrayed your family and people, not your
land of birth.
If you betrayed loyalty, you did not taste its
He won’t betray, he who tastes loyalty’s pleasure
Other poets who kept me company in my days of leisure, I never had the privilege of meeting. Such is the case with Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) noted for his poetry of love and romance. In the times that I was happy I would read his love poetry and it moved my emotions. He was a diplomat who spent a period of time in Andalusia which inspired him to write romantic and historic poetry about that once-Arab land. Qabbani, after touring Alhambra Palace in Granada with his beautiful Andalusian guide, wrote:
…At the entrance of Alhambra was our meeting,
How sweet is a rendezvous not thought of before.
Two soft black eyes in perfect frames enticing,
Generating after-effects from the past ages afore.
Are you a Spaniard? I asked her enquiring,
She said: Granada is the city where I was bore.
Granada! Seven centuries awoke from slumbering,
In her eyes, after the clothing of sleep they wore.
And Umayyad, with flags, lifted high, flying,
Their horses streaming by, unnumbered they pour….
Behind her like a child I walked, she was guiding,
And behind me, history, piles of ashes row after row.
The decoration of Alhambra I almost hear pulsing,
And the ornaments on the roof, I hear their call grow.
She said: Alhambra! Pride of my ancestors glowing,
Read on its walls my glories that shine and show.
Her glory! I anointed an open wound festering,
And in my heart anointed another that refused to go.
If only my lovely granddaughter had a way of knowing,
The ones she meant were my ancestors of long, long ago.
When I bid her adieu when I knew I was going,
I embraced in her Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād, that Arab hero…
There is also Ahmad Shawqi (1868-1932). Born in Cairo, he became Poet Laureate of the Khedive ‘Abbas II. From a court bard to versatile balladist, his poetry vibrates with emotion and is filled with lofty ideals, all which lead him to be labeled “Prince of Poets”. In one of his moving odes he speaks of Egypt’s Pharaohs saying:
…They were shining stars when the earth was night,
And when men walked the globe in darkness.
Rome walked under their guiding light,
And from their glow Athens borrowed greatness…
His powerful poetry encompassed all the Arab lands. In his poem, The Disaster of Damascus he wrote:
…For the colonialists, even if they become soft
Have hearts as stones which have no mercy…
No Arabic poetry, of course, is complete without mentioning Abu al-‘Ala’ Ahmad ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Ma‘arri (973-1057 A.D). Born and buried in Ma’arat al-Na‘man in northern Syria, he was orphaned and blinded from childhood, and later became an ascetic freethinker and materialist. With his extraordinary mastery of the Arabic tongue, he wrote poems that were cynical, sad and powerful in their expressions. His translated work, Luzum ma La Yalzam, made him better known in medieval Europe than any other Arab poet.
Al-Ma‘arri had an unconventional outlook toward religion. He was a believer in God, but in matters of the resurrection of the dead or the immortal soul, he had an unorthodox belief. He writes:
…Walk gently for I believe,
This earth is from humans gone,
Ancestors long departed,
It is not nice on them to walk upon…
Regarding procreation as a sin, he never married. It is said he wanted this verse inscribed on his grave:
…This wrong which my father has done me,
I did not commit against anyone else…
To cap off these poets, of course, anyone who knows Arabic poetry will not forget the 10th century Arab al-Mutanabbi (915-965), poet extraordinaire. Among the Arabs, Mutanabbi’s poetry is perfection itself and he is considered by them as their greatest poet. His verses that have influenced Arabic balladry for centuries are filled with the splendor of his rhetoric, imagination, and advice. In one of his fine odes he begins:
…According to the degree of zealous mortals comes determination,
And according to qualities of noble men comes generous action.
In the eyes of the small, small deeds are great,
And in the eyes of the great, great deeds are small…
Also known for his almost demonic pride, he produced masterpieces of boastful verses. In one of these he said:
…The arid land knows me well, the night, the mounted men,
The battlefield, the sword, the writing pad, and pen…
Today, the majority of Arab poets write in free-verse – a style of poetry borrowed from the West with no roots in the Arabic past. However, the Arabs have not wholly rejected their historic emotion-filled poetry. Even in their modern verses, they have held on to the essence of the odes, first formed in their desert homeland.
In this minuscule journey of my favorite English and Arabic poetry, I have included only a few sample verses which should give the reader a sample idea of what created my poetic world.