Translator's note: Nizar Qabbani was the most popular and beloved Arab poet of the second half of the twentieth century. He was born in Damascus in 1923. He started out as a romantic poet, with daring poems of love and the heart’s adventures, but eventually he gravitated toward political subjects, and wrote unforgettable poems about the cultural and political maladies of the Arab world—he was a fierce opponent of dictatorship. He served as a diplomat for his Syrian homeland but gave that up in 1966 and settled in Beirut. The horrors of Beirut in the mid-1980s led him to exile in London, where he died in 1998. Naturally the Syrian despotism was eager to claim him, and the late dictator Hafez Assad sent a plane to take Qabbani's body back for burial in Damascus.
I have become sultan over you
Smash your idols after a long darkness
I am not always visible to you
so sit patiently on the sidewalk
until you see me.
Leave your children without bread
Leave your women without men
and follow me.
Praise be to Allah for his blessings
He sent me to write your history
and history cannot be written
Every time I thought of abdicating power
my conscience devoured me.
Who, after me, will rule the good people?
Who, after me, will cure the lame,
the cripple, the leper, the blind?
And who will summon the dead back to life?
Who will bring the people the rain?
Who will administer to them ninety lashes
who will crucify them on the trees
who will force them to live like cattle?
And die like cattle?
Every time I thought of leaving them
my tears overflowed
I trusted my fate to God
and I decided to ride this people
from now until Judgment Day.
—from “The Autobiography of an Arab Man of the Sword”
Every twenty years a narcissist comes our way
to claim that he is the
savior and the redeemer
and the pure and the devout and
and the One and the Immortal.
Every twenty years a narcissist
mortgages the land and the believers and the heritage
and the wealth and the rivers
and the men and the women
and the waves and the sea
at a gambling table.
Every twenty years, a neurotic
man comes to us
with sticks of dynamite in
Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and co-chairman of the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.