Syrians Celebrate a Revolutionary Poet

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Follow Cleveland artist Leila Khoury as she creates her tribute to poet Nizar Qabbani --- from foundry to installation in the Syrian Cultural Garden.

by David C. Barnett

For nearly a century, Cleveland’s immigrant groups have honored their national heroes in a series of cultural gardens on the city’s eastside.  The British Garden came first featuring a bust of William Shakespeare.  The more recent India Garden has a statue of Mahatma Gandhi on display. The newest garden is dedicated to the local Syrian community, which recently unveiled a bust of beloved poet Nizar Qabbani, created by Syrian-American artist Leila Khoury.  

Last month, Khoury could be found in Studio Foundry, on Cleveland’s east side, watching owner Mark Olitsky put the final touches on her newly-cast bronze creation.  She smiled as he sandblasted the surface --- her passion project, almost done.

"Qabbani revolutionized contemporary writing in Syria," she said.  "Everyone could enjoy his writing --- it wasn’t just for the elite class." 

From the late 1940s, through his death in 1998, Qabbani built a reputation for an earthy, sensual style that shocked conservatives, and challenged stuffy, academic ideas about poetry.  Leila Khoury was introduced to his work by her father Wael.

"Poetry and Arabic culture are inseparable," he says, "but it was dominated for centuries by the traditional type, with very strict adherence to rhyme and meter.  Qabbani broke with this and simplified it --- modern, simple imagery that related to all young people." 

Qabbani’s verse also challenged conservative ideas about Middle East politics and feminism, which ultimately led him to become an exile from his beloved country.  The poem from the early 1980s, called Damascus, What Are You Doing To Me, explores the poet’s passionate connection with the country that gave him birth.  Here's an excerpt:

I return after sixty years

To search for my umbilical cord,

For the Damascene barber who circumcised me,

For the midwife who tossed me in the basin under the bed

And received a gold lira from my father,

She left our house

On that day in March of 1923

Her hands stained with the blood of the poem.

Leila Khoury’s sculpture of Nizar Qabbani was recently unveiled at a ceremony filled with Syrian music, food and poetry.  Among the attendees was Omar Qabbani, son of the late poet.  

"I think he would have loved it," he says.  "I’m speechless."

While everyone enjoyed the festivities, there was no escaping the troubling news from back home --- thousands of refugees fleeing Syria in the wake of bloody clashes between government and rebel forces.  At the same time, Islamic State militants were destroying art and historic sites they considered blasphemous.

Nizar Qabbani moved his family from the Middle East during a previous spate of repression and violence --- right around the time he wrote his Damascus poem.  His son says the current destruction of antiquities is extremely disturbing.

"There’s no civilization without art --- it goes hand-in-hand," he says.  "Not just art; we’re talking about history, monuments that were preserved for all this time.  So, basically, we’re going backwards." 

A very different piece of art is now in Leila Khoury’s Cleveland studio.  Two gray slabs of concrete hang from a steel frame.  Etched on each surface are rough images of ancient temple columns --- gray, scarred and smoking. Khoury calls this new work: “Palmyra 2015”

"A lot of my sculptures lately have been resembling buildings crumbling, and spaces that have been looted and abandoned."  

It’s an attempt to capture a cultural heritage under attack --- a stark contrast to the scenes of history and enlightenment she recalls from visits to Syria as a child.

"Historical sites and museums, and places of worship, and art and architecture --- you can’t take them for granted, because they may never be there again, and the only thing that’s going to remain of them is a memory."

Like Nizar Qabbani, Leila Khoury hopes to return to Syria, someday.  And she hopes that the art hanging in her studio isn’t the last word on her ancestral homeland.  



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