Abdel Sabour

By George Nicolas El-Hage, Ph.D.

[For Part 1 of this essay, click here. For Part 2, click here.]

7. Sabour’s Departure from Traditional Arabic Poetry

Up until now, I tried to demonstrate Eliot’s influence on Abdel Sabour’s poetry, especially with regard to his themes and techniques. Because of the vast gulf that separates the two poets culturally, spiritually, and educationally, it seems a vain effort to look for absolute similarities. On the other hand, it is easier for the critic with an adequate knowledge of the traditional models of Arabic poetry to notice that Sabour’s modern poetry departed almost completely from the classical tradition.

Prior to his exposure to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Sabour wrote traditional poetry using the classical meters. After reading Eliot, the Egyptian poet adopted new themes, techniques, and structures. He no longer used traditional meters with the long, heavy lines, built on two hemistiches and rhyming with each other throughout the poem. This new type of poetry was able to come into existence and flourish after a long struggle led by contemporary poets like Abdel Sabour. (19)

Starting in the late 1950s, the experience of writing in free verse became a familiar occurrence. In the poetry of Sabour, not only the mood, style, use of myth and illusion, and the interior monologue resemble Eliot’s, but “we have a sense of aimlessness and isolation, of memory and futility, it is definitely the mood of The Wasteland and the Hollow Men.” (20) Moreover, there are clear-cut images in Sabour’s poetry which demonstrate Eliot’s great influence on the Arab poet’s attitude toward life and death. Sabour also makes use of Eliot’s theme of alienation and of his description of empty rooms. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, Eliot says:
“The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes.
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes.”

Sabour says, echoing Eliot in his “My Peerless Star”:

“Fingers of an eastern wind
Rub the window-panes.”

Again, Eliot asserts:

“Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn.” (Ash-Wednesday”)

And Sabour responds:

“Because the days are sick
Because horror is born in the deadly night.” (My Peerless Star)

The similarities and the influences are unmistakable:

“Al-Sabour’s metrical techniques, his consonantal and assonantal rhymes, internal rhymes, and short, broken free-verse lines, the sense of passive despair, the emptiness of human relations, the inability to communicate… all these are without doubt indebted to Eliot. Al-Sabour is experimenting with moods, tones, and techniques drawn from Eliot’s.” (21)

To the Arabs who have an understanding of Western thinking, who have lived in the West, and who have pursued advanced studies there, this kind of poetry is the best, the most welcomed, and the most acceptable. But to the Arab generation before the Second World War who were still worshipping the ancient models, Sabour’s poetry was a shock. They absolutely refused to accept it because in their tradition, these bastard subjects, confused images, and imported moods did not exist.

8. A Brief Comparison Between Two Plays

Having read “Murder in the Cathedral” and having been influenced by it very much, Sabour went back to the Islamic-Arabic religion and theology to choose a great mystic figure upon whom he based his play in verse, “The Tragedy of Hallaj.”

Of Persian origin, Hallaj is a very famous personality in Islamic Mysticism. He lived during the early years of the tenth century A.D., studying the rules and ways of Mysticism. He diverted from the traditional ways to roam the country preaching his own thoughts. His teachings of Sufism were totally, or partially, refused by his contemporaries, especially by the political authorities of Baghdad. Hallaj was viewed as a heretic and was crucified. Sabour’s treatment of Hallaj depicted him as an extremely pious mystic who, after pleading with God to take his soul, dies willingly with solid spiritual believes.

Professor Semaan, who translated Sabour’s play into English, explains that the parallels between Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and Al-Sabour’s Tragedy of Hallaj are striking. Each is in free verse and each has two acts, as well as a rich religious-historical background. Moreover, both poet-playwrights used verses of high rhetorical language derived from their religious traditions. In Murder in the Cathedral Eliot’s interlude is almost a “Christian cliché.” On the other hand, Sabour’s “Act One” is saturated with the Koran’s spirit. (22)

The other similarities between the two plays are:
– In both plays the cause of death is ambiguous.
– In the foreground in Eliot’s work stand the knights, in that of Sabour’s the crowd can be seen.
– In both plays the question of responsibility for, and the will to, martyrdom is raised. Yet, in both cases the poet leaves the question of essential causes ambiguous. Did Becket meet martyrdom or did he choose it? Was AL-Hallaj’s martyrdom his choice or his punishment? The crucial fact is that both of them rejoiced in accepting their fates and their similar ends. (23)

As there exists un-doubtable similarities between the two plays, of course some differences prevail between them. This is normal because of the religious and spiritual differences that form the peculiarities of each of the two poets’ cultures.

9. Conclusion

Eliot’s influence on Abdel Sabour can be deduced from the poet’s personal essays, articles, and literary interviews, from his poetry which speaks for itself, and from the work examined in this attempt. Eliot also taught Sabour that the whole literature of the world has a “simultaneous existence,” and that he should find an emotional equivalent for his thoughts, writing with a poetic language approximating everyday tongue.

Undoubtedly, Sabour is a gifted poet who knows how to color, with his own creativity, what he borrows, and how to shape it to appear as a part of the great culture and literature to which he belongs. In spite of Eliot’s considerable influence on him, Sabour has a distinguished voice and presence in the Arab world. He did not lose his identity and tone.

Beside his native tongue, Arabic, Sabour knew French and English well, which allowed him to read the great works of foreign literature in their original languages. However, he took every opportunity to announce the fact that he was the product of the great Orient, and that he belonged to a great and rich civilization. Even though Sabour’s indebtedness to Eliot is apparent in terms of the latter’s “poetical and theatrical techniques”, “Al-Sabour’s art continues to be typically Arabic and unmistakably Islamic.” (24)


19 See my three articles: “Badr-Shakir al-Sayyab and the Role of the Modern Arab Poet” in Dahesh Voice, Vol. 9, No. 2, (The Daheshist Publishing Co., Ltd., New York, 2003. “Madkhal ila al-Alam al-shi’ri ‘inda Khalil Hawi: Usluban wa madmunan” (Part Two) (“An Introduction to the Poetic World of Khalil Hawi: A Study of the Content of His Poetry and Style”) in Dahesh Voice, Vol. 7, No. 1.(The Daheshist Publishing Co., Ltd., New York, 2001) “Madkhal ila al-Alam al-shi’ri ‘inda Khalil Hawi: Usluban wa madmunan” (Part One) (“An Introduction to the Poetic World of Khalil Hawi: A Study of the Content of His Poetry and Style”) in Dahesh Voice, Vol. 6, No. 4.(The Daheshist Publishing Co., Ltd., New York, 2001)تحديد هوية الشعر العربي المعاصر (التزاماته تطلعاته واصالته) مرتبط عضويا ً بمشكلة الحضارة العربية المعاصرة, وتحديد انتماء الانسان العربي في عصرنا: سياسيا ً وفكريا. في هذا الصدد يقول الصبور: “نحن أمة عجيبة غريبة… لا أظن ان هناك امة تستهين بحاضرها مثلنا…” انظر تعليقه في “الثقافة العربية” العدد الثاني, السنة الثانية, شباط 1975, ص. 48؛ راجع ايضا ً مقال الدكتور مناف منصور, “واقع المدينة في الأدب العربي الحديث”, في “الثقافة العربية” العدد العاشر, السنة الأولى, آب, ايلول,1974, ص. 31-35, وراجع “المجلة” ندوة حول حركة التجديد في الشعر العربي الحديث, المقال المشار اليه سابقا, خاصة آراء الدكتور الشاعر خليل حاوي.
20 Semaan, p. 478.
21 Semaan, p. 489.
22 Semaan, p. 484.
23 Semaan, p. 485.
24 Semaan, p. 472.