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TV Documentary Series on Nezar Kabbani: Exercise in Commercialization by Sanitization
By Mohammad Ali Atassi
A few months ago, a private Syrian television company began shooting a 30-segment television series about the life of the great poet Nezar Kabbani. The television company plans to air the program during the month of Ramadan. The series has been creating much tension between the production company, Sharikat al-Sharq Lil Intage Alfani, and the heirs of the poet, who refuse to relinquish Kabbani's copyright to the production company. The family has turned to the courts to stop the filming, which continues nonetheless in more than one country in the Arab world and abroad.
The family protests both because they weren't consulted, meaning their rights as inheritors were not respected, and because the writer of the series, Yola Bahnisi, and the screenwriter, Kamar al-Zaman Aloush, are inexperienced and lack true knowledge of Kabbani's life and poetry, according to the family. In addition, the actors who portray Kabbani at different stages of his life know very little about the poet; they have neither researched his writings nor attempted to learn his personality. Some of them cannot even speak in the Damascene accent, the accent spoken by the poet.
The production company claims that the essence of the problem between the two parties is purely financial; the children of the late poet rejected the offer presented by the company demanding instead an outrageous amount. The family has vehemently denied such claims.
Despite the fame, devotion and popularity he received during his life and since his death, Nezar Kabbani has remained a controversial poet. The idea of airing a television series during the month of Ramadan about his life, regardless of the family's position, raises questions and doubts as to whether the television series will be able to convey Kabbani's rebellious nature and his challenge of social and political beliefs, both of which are present in his poems. Also, it is unclear whether the series will be able to narrate Kabbani's story in a way that highlights the significant aspects, including Kabbani's special relationship with his mother's city, Damascus, and the legendary and heroic funeral with which he was honored, without falling prey to vulgar television culture and the widespread consumerist forms that exist in today's dominant Syrian television drama.
Though the series has not yet aired and it is premature to pass judgment, we can predict that there will be a discrepancy between the televised persona of Nezar Kabbani and the actual person, that this televised version will be as distorted as is Syrian television's drama on the Damascene life and the Syrian home. At a time when real life in Damascus is being destroyed - a destruction reaching even to what little remains of the home - we witness an attempt to recreate the home and life itself through television series, which are, at best, folkloric: full of superficiality and spectacles.
In April 1999, on the first anniversary of the death of the poet, a book project entitled "Kitab fi Jarida" ("A Book in a Newspaper") appeared. This book was a series of selections from Kabbani's poems collected by his daughter, Hadba, in coordination with the general supervisor of the project, poet Shawqi Abd al-Amir. "A Book in a Newspaper" was a monthly supplement appearing in most Arab countries and distributed by local Arabic newspapers under the sponsorship of UNESCO.
Notably absent from the selections were some of Kabbani's most celebrated poems, which had become distinguished features of his poetic journey and which had imprinted their courage on and awakened the memories of several generations of Arabs. This created much debate during its publication. Absent from these selections are poems like "Nahdaki" ("Your Breasts"), "Khubz Hashish Kamr" ("Bread, Hashish and Moon"), "Hubla" ("Pregnant"), "Al-Qasida al-Sharira" ("The Devilish Poem"), "Balqis" (the name of his wife) and "Al-Sira al-Zatiyya Li Sayyaf Arabi" ("The Autobiography of an Arab Executioner").
The UNESCO project, because of its dealings with several Arab censoring authorities and its interaction with a broad audience of readership, had pressured some of those in charge of "A Book" to exclude Kabbani's most important poems merely because the poems might still offend the political, religious and sexual modesty of certain conservative Arab groups. If this was the case with UNESCO's project on Kabbani, readers can only imagine how it will be if Kabbani's life is made into a television series. The production companies not only want to tell Kabbani's story to millions of viewers during the month of Ramadan, but also are determined to make a profit; therefore, they must tread carefully to avoid having the series banned by Arab satellite stations, which are funded by Gulf money. Keeping this in mind, we can now turn to the press release made by the director of the series, Basil al-Hatib: "We intend to make the series available to a large segment of viewers without causing any embarrassment or offense, but we do so on the condition that we do not have to leave out Kabbani's courage, which will be illustrated in the series."
Of course, because of the schizophrenia of dominant Arab television culture, it's possible for millions of viewers to see Haifa Wehbe's breast, Maria's legs and Rubi's backside, and to hear Nancy groan, but it's impossible to find poems like Kabbani's "Oh Samra, pour your brown breasts in the world of my mouth" on the small screen, as they would constitute a violation of morals and the laws of language and written culture, which were mummified years ago as false divinities, as though they were sacred and divine.
The Damascene Identity
Nezar Kabbani is a distinguished poet and one sees in his poetry and personality multiple influences and sources of inspiration. His poetry is often associated, in Arab contemporary culture, with women and love, yet he is also known for angry political poems, which were written in the wake of the 1967 defeat. But there is another side to Kabbani: the permanent Syrian presence. By this, I mean that this Damascene poet was influenced by the many faces of Damascus - as an identity, as a set of conservative norms and as a different lifestyle that continually seeks liberation - and that this city had a particular, important place in his life and a great influence on his poetry. It might prove impossible, under the current social and political conditions, to use television to confront the relationships that connected the poet to Damascus without challenging much of the social and political prohibitions dominant in Syria today.
Nezar Kabbani lived most of his life away from Syria, and he rarely returned, but this city that affected his childhood and youth remained a part of him, influencing his poems until the last days of his life. During his poetic journey, Kabbani never wasted an opportunity to talk about his personal Damascene identity and to relate to it through his poetry; however, he was always concerned with placing that identity within the context of the troubled individual personality and not within the framework of the accepted beliefs of the group.
The city of Damascus is present in the poems of Kabbani and his prose texts, not merely through the elements of the Damascene home, domes and minarets, bazaars, food, sand, plants and spoken accents, but also through the rebelliousness that was inseminated by this conservative city in Kabbani and his poems. This rebelliousness is noticeable as early as the publication of "Kalat Li Asamra" ("The Brunette Said to Me"), which the young poet published with his own money in 1944 and which invoked Damascus' wrath for quite some time. Kabbani wrote his book "Kisati ma al-Shair" ("My Story Was Poetry") about this experience: "When 'The Brunette Said to Me' was published in 1944, it caused deep pain in the city, which refused to recognize its own body or dreams. The poem was a thorn in the side of the city that had been drugged, lying unconscious for the past 500 years on the table of anesthesia, eating in its sleep, loving in its sleep and having sex in its sleep."
As for the poem "Bread, Hashish and Moon," which the poet published in 1954 in Al Adab, a Beirut-based magazine, it also caused a tempest in Damascus, reaching the Syrian parliament. It may even have been what cost him his job in the diplomatic corps. About this he writes in the same book: "Damascus also hit me with stones, tomatoes and rotten eggs when I published my poem 'Bread, Hashish and Moon.' The turbans who called for hanging Abi Khalil Al Kabbani had demanded my hanging as well. And the beards who are stuffed with the dust of history had demanded his head as well as mine."
But Damascus remained addicted to the poems of Kabbani, at times secretly and at other times publicly. The poem "Balqis," which Kabbani wrote in protest of his wife's death in an explosion in the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut, circulated within Damascus as the most beautiful secret pamphlet written by the poet. Kabbani insisted on reading "The Autobiography of an Arab Executioner" during his last evening of poetry presented in Damascus in 1988. The people of Damascus celebrated this poem as they had never celebrated a written text before, with the whole audience exploding in a mixture of warm applause and anger, a response that prompted those in power to cut short the poet 's visit.
The Funeral - The Demonstration
According to Kabbani, there is an association between the Damascene identity, rebellion, violating prohibitions and challenging or ignoring the role of the state and the community. This association returned the poet to the heart of society at an important and well-known moment in the history of the city: his funeral, which took place in Damascus on May 4, 1998. The funeral became a Damascene wedding and a demonstration of protest at the same time. We cannot imagine how the television series can expect to reproduce this event.
Nezar Kabbani died in London on April 30, 1998 and his body, accompanied by his small family, reached Damascus the evening of May 3. Then, the official preparations for his funeral began, and it was agreed that prayers would be held in a mosque located in the suburb of Abou Rumaneh. Kabbani's body was then to be transported from that suburb by car, passing through the street that carried the great poet's name, all the way to the cemetery Bab al-Saghir, past the walls of the old city.
The youthful crowds, which in the beginning totaled less than a thousand, succeeded in taking the body from its official entourage of cars, as they carried him in a spontaneous demonstration from the street of Abu Al Rumana to Jisr Al Rais, all the way to the Syrian University. There, thousands more university students merged with them in the streets from Al Nasr all the way to Bawabat Salahia, where even more residents of the old city took up the call. Feelings of resistance were awakened in the mass crowd, with its dominance of youth, as they showered the coffin with rice and jasmine. The crowds in turn began to shout, amongst other phrases, "Throw off the flowers of the officials and shower Nezar with jasmine." Nezar was wrapped with the flowers. The ever-swelling crowds began to sing "Decorate Al Marja" and "Al Marja belongs to us" in reference to Al Marja Square (Martyrs' Square), which lies at the heart of Damascus and is one of the city's most important symbols.
The owner of the television production company claims to have the ability and the right to say, "Take the hand of the poet, make him rise up from the grave and bring him back to life." But with Kabbani's funeral, the youth of Damascus have already immortalized the poet as a minaret, they have hung him on doors as a lamp, have written him on willow as poetry, have engraved him in his land as jasmine and have paid farewell to him as if he were love and roses.
Translated from the Arabic by Elie Chalala
This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no. 52 (Summer 2005)
Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid