The City of Jasmine

Writer Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) described his native city of Damascus as “the womb that taught me poetry, taught me creativity, and granted me the alphabet of Jasmine.” Although the most fragrant of roses bears the name rosa damascena, Damascus rose, the Syrian capital is known as Madinat Al Yasmine, the City of ­Jasmine. Each fall it holds a festival in homage of this national flower, with people giving each other stems of jasmine and decorating their home with fragrant blossoms. It was even held in recent years, despite the conflict that left thousands dead and millions displaced, with flowers given to those who lost loved ones.

“A Damascene moon travels through my blood
Nightingales . . . and grain . . . and domes
From Damascus, jasmine begins its whiteness
And fragrances perfume themselves with her scent
From Damascus, water begins . . . for wherever
You lean your head, a stream flows
And poetry is a sparrow spreading its wings
Over Sham . . . and a poet is a voyager,”

writes Qabbani in one of his most renowned poems, A Damascene Moon. He was born in Damascus in 1923 in the old neighborhood of Mi’thnah Al-Shahm, which you encounter time and again in his poems. Qabbani’s poems are romantic and political, erotic and lyrical, breaking conventions and offering a glimpse into his lively, rich imagination. Since 1966 and until his death in 1998, Qabbani has been living abroad, but in his exile he has produced some of his finest poems. The longing for the City of Jasmine gives his words a strong charge, and as I read them, I think of all the places that I miss, all of the colors, scents and voices that make up my memories. As someone who created a fantasy jasmine forest, to replace the real one far away, I feel a poignant kinship with the Syrian poet.

I immerse myself in the Buzurriya Souq
Set a sail in a cloud of spices
Clouds of cloves
And cinnamon . . .
And camomile . . .
I perform ablutions in rose water once.
And in the water of passion many times . . .
And I forget-while in the Souq al-Attarine-
All the concoctions of Nina Ricci . . .
And Coco Chanel . . .
What are you doing to me Damascus?
How have you changed my culture? My aesthetic taste?
For I have been made to forget the ringing of cups of licorice
The piano concerto of Rachmaninoff . . .
How do the gardens of Sham transform me?
For I have become the first conductor in the world
That leads an orchestra from a willow tree!!

I have come to you . . .
From the history of the Damascene rose
That condenses the history of perfume . . .
From the memory of al-Mutanabbi
That condenses the history of poetry . . .
I have come to you . . .
From the blossoms of bitter orange . . .
And the dahlia . . .
And the narcissus . . .
And the “nice boy” . . .
That first taught me drawing . . .
I have come to you . . .
From the laughter of Shami women
That first taught me music . . .
And the beginning of adolescence
From the spouts of our alley
That first taught me crying
And from my mother’s prayer rug
That first taught me
The path to God . . .

You can read the full version of Damascus, What are You Doing to Me? in the translation by Shareah Taleghani and immerse yourself in the vignettes where the minarets call “Come to the jasmine” and where the colorful towels of hammams dance in the wind. Some would say that it’s an image of the city that doesn’t resemble today’s Damascus. But do the news stories presenting it as a bleak and dehumanized place get it right? If the city still remembers its jasmine, then its spirit survives.

Qabbani published more than 40 collections of poetry, and two of my favorites, Republic of Love (2003, public library) and Arabian Love Poems (1999, public library), are available in English.

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45 Comments

  • Sandra: My heart breaks a little for Syria every time I read the news paper. Those poor children, for many their education has stopped 6 years ago. Thank you for the beautiful poetry. love & peace dear Victoria May 19, 2017 at 8:21am Reply

    • Victoria: The situation in Syria is beyond tragic. May 19, 2017 at 2:02pm Reply

  • Annabel: Thank you for sharing this poem, Victoria. I especially love the lines:

    I have come to you . . .
    From the history of the Damascene rose
    That condenses the history of perfume . . . May 19, 2017 at 9:49am Reply

    • Victoria: Beautiful, aren’t they? May 19, 2017 at 2:02pm Reply

  • Gabriela: Thank you for the post. This morning read that Vanessa Redgrave has done a film on refugees, very curious to see it. Its called See Sorrow. May 19, 2017 at 9:53am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, I will have to take a look. May 19, 2017 at 2:02pm Reply

  • Kath: Victoria, do you know Syrian poet Adonis? I love this poem by him. It also mentions roses.

    I summon angels and ambulances—
    I turn into water and flow in the pool of my sorrows
    or
    I become a horizon and climb the heights of desire.
    I know that we die only once and are many times reborn
    And I know that death is only useful if we live it through.
    I know that the hereafter is this rose
    this woman
    and that a human face is the other side of the sky. May 19, 2017 at 10:00am Reply

    • Victoria: So moving! Thank you very much for posting it. May 19, 2017 at 2:03pm Reply

    • Gabriela: Made my day, thank you. May 19, 2017 at 3:18pm Reply

  • Michael: Thank you very much for the lovely words Victoria. It’s nice to remember that, even though Syria is a war ravaged country nowadays, it used to beautiful once upon a time. I had hoped that Syria would not suffer the same fate as Afghanistan and Iraq, but sadly it was not to be. 🙁 It might sound like scant consolation, but at least we have this fantasy forest of jasmine to explore our interest in fragrance, and that’s a no small blessing indeed. May 19, 2017 at 10:10am Reply

    • Victoria: Syria has one of the most vibrant and diverse cultures in the region, and I’ll continue to hope that it will flourish one day again. After all, Qabbani lived outside of Syria for years, which still didn’t prevent him from making such great contributions. May 19, 2017 at 2:05pm Reply

  • Jeanne: I love “and a poet is a voyager”. It’s so true, and even in these crazy and often tragic times, it’s nice to escape for a little while on a beautiful journey. May 19, 2017 at 10:19am Reply

    • Victoria: Very true. It reminds you that poetry is even more important in the times of pain and tragedy. May 19, 2017 at 2:05pm Reply

  • Jillie: Beautiful. May 19, 2017 at 11:08am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad that you like it. Please take a look at his other poems, if you have a chance. They’re unique. May 19, 2017 at 2:06pm Reply

  • Marichu de la Fuente: It is interesting to note that the sweet smelling jasmine has also been adopted by the Philippines as its national flower in 1934.
    Filipinos throughout history have adored the sweet fragrance of Jasminum sambac, colloquially known as sampaguita. A member of the jasmine family, it has been celebrated in song and other forms of art. It is also made into leis/garland and used as fragrant decorations in automobiles, for guests or dignitaries, ceremonies, and as an offering in religious gatherings. May 19, 2017 at 12:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: Fascinating! Thank you for this tidbit, Marichu. I can just imagine how delicious sampaguita smells when woven into garlands. May 19, 2017 at 2:07pm Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Victoria, what beautiful poetry albeit among tragedy and sadness for what is happening in Syria. Thank you for sharing. May 19, 2017 at 12:37pm Reply

  • Alicia: Ancient, ancient Syria (the Greeks shortened Assyria to name her), that crossroads of empires, from the Babylonian to the Ottoman, you have seen so many scientists searching your stars, so many poets singing among the Christian incense of Antioch, the palms and the roses of the great Umayyads, before their one descendant survived to bring Damascus to Al Andalus. For millennia a land of flowers and blood. I didn’t know this poet. His poetry is beautiful. Nor did I know that jasmine was the national flower, but jasmine and rose make a superlative marriage, as every perfumer knows. The Psalmist cried upon the rivers of Babylon; now the same waters are still bathing this tragic land. It is indeed a time for tears while the jasmine thrives, strong and delicate like the damascene rose, and centuries from now, other poets will sing their immortal beauty while the jasmine grows. May 19, 2017 at 7:40pm Reply

    • Victoria: I would recommend Qabbani then. May 20, 2017 at 7:24am Reply

  • Danaki: I read your post after taking a break from tending to my roses and jasmine plants, how apt!

    Thank you Victoria for posting this lovely poem and writing about Qabbani. His life and works reflect the tragedy that has taken hold of the Levant. The verses you have chosen are so moving, particularly in the current situation.

    Have you come across “The Jasmine Collar”? One of my favorite lyrics by Nizar. I haven’t come across an English translation of it online, but perhaps it is in one of your books? May 20, 2017 at 7:00am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much. I’ll check, because I don’t remember off the top of my head. One line I do recall is from his love poetry, “It happened with marvelous ease, Like writing with jasmine water…” May 20, 2017 at 7:21am Reply

  • Aurora: Sometimes one has to be far away from the places we love to remember and appreciate them, Ovid was pining for Rome and still produced astonishing poetry: thank you so much for this very special post, Victoria which makes me learn about new poets and a beguiling tradition. May 21, 2017 at 3:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: I was visiting the Black Sea coast last year, and I was remarking on the irony–the place I was enjoying so much was the one Ovid hated. Yet, as you say, he produced moving work in exile. May 22, 2017 at 1:16pm Reply

  • Carla: I’m sure Damascus is different now but in 2002 when I went there it was poor but not bleak, and very human. The people were warm. There was a huge contrast with Beirut which was bustle and business and bright lights. I think the Syrians are different from the enterprising Lebanese and it will be harder for them to rebuild. My heart also breaks for Syria. May 21, 2017 at 7:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’d love to hear more about the places you visited. I was supposed to go to Damascus, but it didn’t happen. So, I just decided, oh well, I can always visit another time. I’ve been regretting not trying harder to make that trip since. May 22, 2017 at 1:18pm Reply

      • Carla: Hi Victoria, my first job provided the opportunity for incredible travel. I worked for Associates for International Research, or AIRINC. (They have an office in Brussels, but are headquartered near Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA.) In three years I traveled to more than 50 countries. My position was “price surveyor” which meant I traveled alone and spent all my time out and about in the city collecting prices…like the “Big Mac Index”! I got to see so much! I have so many memories and have also forgotten so much I’m afraid. Visiting the main mosque in Damascus was interesting. I met and shook hands with friendly Iranian women who were excited to meet an American, and also chatted with young Saudi girls who were completely covered of course, except for their beautiful eyes. Less than a year after 9/11, it was quite an experience. I stayed at the Sheraton in Damascus. I often think of the nice man who was my driver while I was there. I wonder how his family is faring with the war. In the grocery stores the young boys who stocked shelves helped me interpret the Arab numbers on prices. Everyone in Damascus was so friendly and helpful. Sadly I didn’t visit Palmyra on my day off. I was tired at that point because it was the end of my six week trip. I had gotten carsick on the bumpy road from Beirut to Damascus and just wasn’t up to another long wild ride in a taxi to Palmyra. I pray for the Syrians, may this war end soon May 22, 2017 at 4:36pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you for this story, Carla. I can just imagine what an inexperience it must have been. I was considering going to Damascus at one point to study Arabic, since it had some of the best programs in the region, and the Syrian dialect of Arabic is easily one of the most beautiful, at least to my ear. But again, many factors made it complicated in the end. May 23, 2017 at 7:23am Reply

          • Carla: I did become very slightly familiar with the differences between North African Arabic and Middle Eastern Arabic – also Egyptian Arabic – but I’m afraid I have forgotten what I eagerly picked up on the ground. From my experience the best way to learn a language is to be there, clearly. In not even two weeks in Brazil I learned a lot of Portuguese for example. But it is so easy to lose what you learned if you don’t really need to use it. May 23, 2017 at 9:46am Reply

            • Victoria: Yes, that’s true. If you stop using the language in the beginner phase, you’ll lose it very quickly. But if you manage to get into the intermediate phase, then it will return, even if you forget it. That’s been my experience. May 23, 2017 at 10:17am Reply

              • Carla: You’re right indeed. I maintain my fluent French although I don’t speak it often at all but my rudimentary Spanish and German are more lost each passing year. May 23, 2017 at 12:38pm Reply

                • Victoria: Sometimes it helps just to have some exposure, even if passive–reading, listening to radio, watching films or short videos. These days it’s so easy to learn languages, especially with all of the free tools online. The only issue is time. May 24, 2017 at 9:58am Reply

                  • Carla: Perhaps you can write a post about languages? Learning, maintaining. Specifically I would like source recommendations to learn basic Italian (not going until March) and, for maintenance of “proficiency” , some French podcasts or radio stations or French books on audible May 24, 2017 at 2:48pm Reply

                    • Victoria: I’ll be happy to do so. May 25, 2017 at 3:14am

              • SilverMoon: Thank you for the lovely poetry – so beautiful to read and contemplate on a summery Saturday morning. Also, so nice to hear your story, Carla. Sounds like a fantastic job, albeit the exhausting travel.

                My main comment is about language. I speak a number and what I find most fascinating about learning to speak more than one language (especially when very young) is what it does to our outlook on the world. One learns that there are different words for the same thing, but also some words are so perfect that nobody else has the exact equivalent in one word (e.g saudade in Portuguese or Zeitgeist in German).

                I haven’t used my Russian, intermediate level, in twenty years. So Victoria, I smiled to see that you think it would come back quickly if I returned to it. 😊 May 27, 2017 at 5:01am Reply

  • kekasmais: I couldn’t begin to explain why, but the verse where Qabbani describes the tarragon stems his mother would attach to her letters to him makes me smile and tear up at the same time. Scent transports, even to places where we can never return. May 22, 2017 at 2:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s such a touching episode. I can read and re-read this poem and find something else to marvel in it. May 23, 2017 at 4:14am Reply

  • Lydia: So beautiful. Thank you for sharing this. May 22, 2017 at 7:39pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for sending me the link, which I posted above. I’d love to see what jewelry that artist ends up making. May 23, 2017 at 4:14am Reply

      • Lydia: I’m very glad you liked it. I’m also looking forward to her future creations. I’ve never seen anything quite like them – truly an original artistic vision. May 23, 2017 at 9:40am Reply

        • Victoria: I like the sound of a ring of jasmine. May 23, 2017 at 10:24am Reply

  • Alexandra Fraser: Wonderful poem – thank you. I shall be reading more of his work now
    I adore jasmine – sadly jasminium polyanthum which I used always to have in my garden is now considered a serious pest plant here and I can no longer grow it May 31, 2017 at 7:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: He writes so vividly, whether of places, people or emotions. June 1, 2017 at 11:28am Reply

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