poetry: 2 posts

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.

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Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates)

“From the colors and aromas of this world, my childhood made a poet’s lyre and offered it to me.” Sayat Nova, Armenian poet (1712/22-1795)

Certain images stay with you. They are so indelibly etched into your mind that it’s hard to identify with precision when you have seen them for the first time. I remember the stone ramparts covered with books, their pages turned by the wind, the Persian rugs hanging on the brick walls, and the blue wool in the metal cauldrons. Sometimes my memory plays tricks on me suggesting that these vignettes are from my own life, that I myself have turned those large yellowing pages and smelled the hot, freshly dyed bundles. But, no, they’re scenes from Sayat Nova, a film by Sergei Paradjanov that I saw as a child.

sayat nova1

That I came across it in the Soviet Union of the 80s is unusual. The film was released in the Soviet Union in 1969 in a handful of cinemas and then it disappeared; its surrealism and religious imagery not meshing with the social realist message of the era. Four years later the director, Sergei Paradjanov, was sent to a maximum security prison on outlandish charges, which included “surrealist tendencies.” My stepfather was close with Paradjanov’s son, and perhaps that’s how I saw the film, peaking over their shoulders. Being aware of the director’s tragic fate while watching his masterpiece today makes for a poignant experience.

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