Qabbani locates the source of retrograde forces
Seductive beauty has long been measured against the moon in Arabic literature. Among the first features we learn of the temptress who lures the porter to the house the three ladies of Baghdad are her “eyebrows like the crescent of the new moon of Ramazan” (John Payne translation). In fact, many other references “moon” are found throughout the One Thousand and One Nights as the standard for physical beauty. The sexually seductive charms of the moon are associated, in the earliest Arabic erotic literature, with lesbianism. (See Sahar Amer, Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press: c2008), p. 75.)
The moon’s revolutions around the earth (the manazil of the pre-Islamic system for measuring seasons) formed the basis of the Arabic Mansions of the Moon, the foundation astrological system which was an organizing principle of Arabic mathematics and astronomy. Yeats would find in it the inspiration for his odd grab bag, A Vision: An Explanation of Life Founded upon the Writings of Giraldus and upon Certain Doctrines Attributed to Kusta Ben Luk (London: by T. Werner Laurie Ltd.: 1925).
Even contemporary Arabic poetry offers up encomiums to the moon. Ryan A. Alchakaki, for example, addresses the moon “that never changes face,” in “Eternity Moon,” a moon which contains within it “[t]he soul / And the entire beauty of the coming years …”
Yet, Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998), arguably the most important Arabic poet of his generation, blamed this eternal mooning for the loss of “pride” of his countrymen (Qabbani was Syrian by birth and allegiance, although he published from Beirut and eventually lived in London for his final 15 years. His moon-blaming poem was only one of his controversial political poems where he sought to explain the exhaustion of Arab culture.
Bread, Hashish and Moon
by Nizar Qabbani (1954)
(translated by Zvi Gabay)
When the moon is born in the East,
The white roofs doze under stacks of flowers;
People leave their shops and walk in groups,
To meet the moon,
Carrying along bread and record players to mountain tops,
And narcotic utensils
And they sell and buy fancy things, and images…
And they die when the moon lives.
What does a bright disc do to my country?
The country of the prophets, the country of simple people,
Tobacco chewers and dope peddlers.
What is the moon doing to us, that we lose our pride,
And live to beg to heaven?
What does heaven have, for the lazy, the weak…
Who turn dead when the moon lives,
And shake the saints’ graves?
Perhaps they would provide them with rice and children.
They spread out beautiful embroidered carpets,
Enjoying an opium we call fate, and divine decree?
In my country… in the country of simple people,
What feebleness and laxity seize us when light pours?
Then carpets, and thousands of baskets, and tea-cups,
And children fill the hills…
In my country, where the innocent weep,
And people live on, light they do not see.
In my country, where people live without eyes,
Where the innocent weep, pray, and fornicate,
And live on fatalism, since eternity they lived on fatalism.
Calling the crescent: “O, crescent! O, spring which rains
diamonds, hashish and slumber!
O, suspended marble god!
You unbelievable thing!
May you live for the East, for us, a cluster of diamonds!
For the millions whose senses are numbed.”
On nights in the East, when the moon is full
The East sheds all dignity, and strife…
The millions who run without shoes,
And believe in four wives, and the day of resurrection,
The millions who do not find bread, save in fancy…
Living the night in houses of coughs, never knowing medicine!
Bodies dying under the moonlight,
In my country…while the stupid weep, dying of tears.
Whenever the moon’s face rises over them, they weep more.
Whenever a soft lute excites them… and “Layali”
That death we call in the East: “Layalis” and songs.
In my country…
In the country of the simple people!
While we regurgitate long tawashith
This disease ravishes the East: The long tawashith…
Our East regurgitates its history, idle dreams and past myths.
Our East, ever seeking heroism of any kind: Abu-Zayd al-Hilali even.
The moon is literally retrograde in the first line, but it is the devotion by the people to it, to its dumbfounding power, that Qabbani seems to condemn. It is this laying the blame for backwards, outdated thinking, that make Qabbani, and particularly this poem, a favorite in Westernized eyes. This translation, for example, was published as an editorial in the Jerusalem Post in 2012 and rendered by and Israel diplomat who lists Arab faults as including “ignorance, sickness, polygamy and backwardness.” Of course, the state of the Middle East now is not the same as 1954 when this poem was written. A half century of Western geopolitics and Israeli military actions and resettlements have made the simple problems of long-gone days seem rather quaint. But perhaps even then the problems were not caused by the moon, but rather by the same things that prevail today with different actors. After all, to see the moon in Amman on September 6, one had to view it through the ruins of a previous imperial civilization.