What caused the “Arab Spring” to erupt in such a way? Certainly one factor was the critical writings by Arab intellectuals over the years, that prepared the ground for the mass outbursts. Nizar Qabbani, an iconoclastic Arab poet born in Syria who died in London in 1998, was one of the harshest critics of the backwardness in the Arab world. He wrote about the lack of human rights, the abundant corruption, and the low status of women in Arab society.

His most famous poem, Bread, Hashish and Moon, written in 1954, lifted the veil on the social ills of Arab society – ignorance, sickness, polygamy and backwardness. This poem aroused widespread criticism; it was debated in the Syrian parliament, with some delegates demanding legal prosecution of the author.

Nevertheless, Qabbani continued to write, criticizing the ways Arabs have allowed their old thinking to dominate them. He blamed the Arab rulers for the backwardness of the people and for controlling the people’s destinies and suppressing their freedom.

Below is a translation of the poem:

Bread, Hashish and Moon

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.


(Translated from Arabic by Zvi Gabay).

The writer is a former ambassador and deputy-general of the Foreign Ministry.


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