The Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi (1909-1934) is well known and appreciated throughout the Arab world. His words are committed to memory and reproduced in textbooks. With the recent Arab uprisings, his poems, and more particularly “The Will to Life” and “To the Tyrants of the World,” have witnessed a revival, yet with a whole new tone. It seems that the Arab spring has infused “The Will to Life” with a newly found hope, a new urgency, and new life. Its opening lines have been chanted, recited, and written on signs and walls in Arab cities.
Al-Shabbi was born in Al-Shabbiyya, Tunisia. He received a traditional Islamic education, and then became a student at al-Zaytuna in Tunis. He read Western Romantic poets in translation as well as Arab Romantic poets of al-Mahjar, particularly Amin al-Rihani and Jubran Khalil Jubran, who greatly influenced his work. Al-Shabbi wrote nature, love, nationalistic, and revolutionary poetry. His poetry was first published in the thirties by the Egyptian magazine Appollo. The most complete edition of al-Shabbi’s poetry collection was published in Cairo under the title Aghani al-Hayat (Songs of Life) in 1955. Al-Shabbi’s other published work, al-Khayal al-Shiʻri ʻinda al-ʻArab (The Poetic Imagination Among the Arabs), critiques traditionalism in Arabic literature and calls for a modernization of literature, thus contributing to the initiation of the cultural renaissance in Tunisia. At the death of his father in 1929, al-Shabbi had to abandon his studies and return to al-Shabbiyya. Suffering since birth from heart problems, he died in the hospital in 1934. Al-Shabbi’s distinctive contribution to Arabic poetry resides mainly in the way he deploys natural imagery to instill his poetry with an innovative and revolutionary vision.
The Will to Life
Then fate must obey
Darkness must dissipate
And must the chain give way
And he who is not embraced by life’s longing
Evaporates into its air and fades away
Woe to one whom life does not rip
from the slap of victorious nothingness
Thus told me the beings
And thus spoke their hidden spirit.
The wind murmured between the cracks
Over the mountains and under trees:
—If to a goal I aspire,
I pursue the object of desire and prudence obliviate
Neither the rugged canyons will I shun
Nor the gushing of the blazing fire
He who doesn’t like to climb mountains
Will forever live among the hollows
The blood of youth in my heart roars
And more wind in my chest soars
So I hearkened, and listened to the thunders’ shelling
The winds’ blowing and the rain’s falling
And Earth said to me—when I asked her,
“O mother, do you hate humans?”
“Among all the people I bless the ambitious
And those who taking risk enjoy
Those who don’t keep up with time I curse
And I curse those who lead the life of a stone.
The universe is alive; it loves life
And despises the dead, no matter how great they are
The horizon doesn’t embrace dead birds
And bees don’t kiss dead flowers.
Were it not for the motherliness of my tender heart
These holes would not have held the dead
Woe to those whom life has not ripped
From the curse of victorious nothingness!”
On one of those autumn nights,
With sorrow and boredom burdened,
I got drunk on the stars’ light
And sang to sadness, until it too was drunk
And I asked darkness: “Does life bring back
Youth to what it had withered?”
Darkness’ lips did not speak
And the dawn’s virgins did not sing
The woods told me with tenderness
Lovely, like the fluttering strings,
“Come winter, foggy winter,
Snowy winter, rainy winter,
Dies the magic, the branches’ magic,
The flowers’ magic, and the fruits’ magic
The magic of the soft and gentle evening
The magic of the luscious and fragrant meadow
Branches fall along with their leaves
And flowers of a dear and blooming time
The wind plays with them in every valley,
The flood buries them wherever it goes
And all die like a marvelous dream
That in a soul shone and disappeared
The seeds that were carried remain
A reservoir of a bygone beautiful era
A memory of seasons, a vision of life,
And ghosts of a world steadily vanishing;
Embracing, while it is under the fog,
Under the snow, and under the mud,
Life’s untedious spirit
And spring’s scented green heart;
Dreaming of bird songs,
Fragrant flowers and the flavors of fruit.
As time goes by, vicissitudes arise,
Some wilt, and others live on.
Their dreams become wakefulness
Wrapped in dawn’s mystery
Wondering, “Where’s the morning fog?
Where’s the evening magic? and the moonlight?
And the mazes of that elegant bed?
The singing bees and the passing clouds?
Where are the rays and beings?
Where is the life I am waiting for?
I’m thirsty for light over the boughs!
I’m thirsty for the shade under the trees!
I’m thirsty for the spring in the meadows
Singing and dancing over the flowers!
I’m thirsty for the birds’ tune
For the breeze’s whisper, and the rain’s melody!
I’m thirsty for the universe! Where is existence?
When will I see the anticipated world?
It is the universe, behind the slumber of stillness
In the tunnels of the great awakenings”
It took only a wing flap
Till her longing grew up and triumphed
The Earth shattered those above her
And saw the world’s sweet images
Came spring with its melodies
With its dreams, its fragrant juvenescence
And spring kissed her on the lips kisses
That return the departed youth
And said to her: you have been given life
And through your treasured progeny immortalized
Be blessed by the light, and welcome
Young age and life’s affluence.
He whose dreams worship the light
Is blessed by the light wherever he appears
Here you have the sky, here you have the light
And here you have the blooming dreamy soil
Here you have the undying beauty
And here you have the wide and glowing world,
So swing as you like over the fields
With sweet fruits and luscious flowers
Whisper to the breeze, whisper to the clouds
Whisper to the stars and whisper to the moon
Whisper to life and its longings,
To the charm of this attractive existence
Darkness revealed a deep beauty
That kindles imagination and thought inspires
And over the world extends a marvelous magic
Dispatched by an able magician
The candles of the bright stars illumined
The incense, the flowers’ incense perished
A soul of singular beauty flickered
With wings from the moon’s luminosity
Life’s holy hymn resounded
In a temple dreamy and enchanted
And in the universe it declared: Aspiration
Is the flame of life and the essence of victory
If to life souls aspire
Then fate must obey.