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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 25.2 (2005) 480-486

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Arab Women in Nizar Kabbani's Poetry

Nizar Kabbani has spent a lifetime fighting for women's liberation and empowerment.1 His constant attempts at inciting women to undermine the repressive patriarchal order gained him enemies and friends in the Arab world. Through the 1960s and 1970s many traditional and conservative voices in the Arab universities and media, with nodding acquaintance of literary criticism, dismissed Kabbani as infidel and heretic and incited the masses to boycott his poetry.2 The old generation among university professors did not take to Kabbani's liberties in tampering with the traditional form of Arabic poetry and versification and abhorred his permissive and immoral attitude toward conventional values of their Muslim Arab societies.

However, negative publicity proved to be good for Kabbani as he gained quick fame among the young generations of the 1960s and after who were disillusioned by the various conventional social and political systems in the Arab world. These young generations found in him a subversive voice that rails at what is held sacred and often taboo by their conventional societies, and they began to recite his poetry and sing it.

Kabbani took it upon himself to subvert the prevailing order of sexual politics in the Arab World.3 As a result, his early writing has been marked by the tempo and cadence of a revolutionist who hopes, against all odds, to transform the conventional pattern of sex and politics in the Arab World. In one of his earlier poems, he briskly incites women to revolt against an Orient that sees in them feasts in bed and admonishes them not to fear death as the "sky is the cemetery of eagles."4 By equating his revolutionary woman with the eagle, Kabbani attempts to elevate the active woman and set her apart from the passive and acquiescing one. His metaphor aims at giving women an overdose of carriage to face their tormentors and jailers. However, after the violent death of his wife in a bomb explosion in the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut and after the many setbacks that befell the Arab world as a result of corruption, aggression, and absence of democracy, Kabbani lost faith in change in the Arab World and went into voluntary self-exile. Ironically, Kabbani finds his female match, the one he hoped and desired to [End Page 480] see materialized on the Arab ground, in exile. This happy-sad encounter brings the poet to the end of his mission. It is so rewarding and pleasing for him to see an Arab woman who matches him in sophistication and adaptability, yet so sad to discover that this breed exists only so far in exile away from the oppressive homeland.

A close reading of Kabbani's poetry reveals that the poet has vividly created four types of women characters who express his vision of the oppressive nature of the Arab world. Those women in the words of Mohja Kahf are "the Sultan's Wife, the Sultan's Daughter, the Reckless Woman, and the Lady Friend in Exile."5

The Sultan's Wife

To begin with, the Sultan's Wife is presented as a collaborator with the brutally oppressive patriarchy. She sleeps and copulates with the vicious Sultan, receives his favors, and enjoys the privileges her position with him accords her. Furthermore, she poignantly turns a blind eye to the truth of her inner feelings, beauty, warmth, and freedom. Anne Redgate sees the Sultan's Wife as a "frigid woman below degree zero who accepts both the sexual subjugation of women and the political suppression of all citizens."6 Indeed, this type of woman is a source of frustration and shame for the poet as he sees in her a defeated model that stands for the women

Whose aspirations have been smothered
So that their supreme aspiration
Is to get to pedicure
And coiffeur.7

Mourad Roy observes that Kabbani occasionally sympathizes with this woman and sees her as...