The war of the press did not last as long as the war that was based on Nizar Qabbani’s poem “Margins in a Book of Setback” after the 1967 war. There was not a single writer or a poet, major or minor, who did not attack him, praise him or gain fame by saying “I am also here and I can respond to Nizar”.
Those who scolded him were many in number and the first of them was President Gamal Abdel Nasser who considered himself to be the first person concerned with Nizar’s words. He said “I announce to you, my friends, the death of the old language, old books, old words of sorrow and insults. I announce to you … I announce to you, the end of the ideology that led to the defeat”. However, Nizar wrote to Abdel Nasser to explain his sorrows and their causes, and the Egyptian president decided that the issue had been resolved. However, his supporters thought otherwise.
As usual during these kinds of battles, Nizar said his words and walked away. In her book “Nizar and Forbidden Poems”, the writer Nawal Mustafa said that Nizar came out of that crisis victorious just like he did with other crises. The controversy over the “Margins in a Book of Setback” continued for many months. You would see both famous and unknown people making comments and responding to them. On the inside, Nizar felt flattered and proud that he had shaken the pillars of the nation. He was the type of poet who felt that he “must marry the public” as the poet said. He used to happily say to me whilst laughing “I will follow every reader of Arabic to the other side of the world to collect a hundred dollars for the price of the collection of poems from them”.
After the controversy that Nizar’s poem caused, he enjoyed stirring political storms around him as opposed to the storms of adoration that he had stirred since the end of the forties. When he was seventy five, I wrote a lengthy opinion article in praise of the great poet and the beautiful person that he was. I ended it with two lines in which I expressed my wishes that he would stop writing love poetry out of respect for his age. I knew in advance that my phone would not ring anymore.
After a long time, we met by chance in front of Harrods and we hugged each other “like nothing had happened”. Then we strolled to a nearby coffee shop and after more than an hour we got up to leave. I said to him “Abu Tawfiq, you may have been upset by my article…” He immediately responded in his Levantine dialect “Of course not! There were two articles; the second consisted of two lines that the Editor in Chief added to the first one!”
He continued to stir storms until his illness, either through his weekly article in “Al-Hayat” and sometimes as a poet burdened with grief and full of revolt.