Adonis, the greatest living poet of the Arab world, ushers me down a labyrinthine corridor in a stately building in Paris, near the Champs Élysées. The plush offices belong to a benefactor, a Syrian-born businessperson funding the poet’s latest venture — a cultural journal in Arabic, which he edits.
Fetching a bulky manuscript of the imminent third issue of the Other, Adonis hefts it excitedly on to a coffee table, listing the contributors “from West and East”, many of them of his grandchildren’s generation. He turned 82 this month. His eyes sparkle: “We want new talents with new ideas.”
A Syrian-born poet, critic and essayist and a staunch secularist who sees himself as a “pagan prophet”, Adonis has been writing poetry for 70 years.
He led a modernist revolution in the second half of the 20th century, exerting a seismic influence on Arabic poetry comparable to TS Eliot’s in the Anglophone world. Aged 17, he adopted the name of the Greek fertility god (pronounced Adon-ees, with the stress on the last syllable) to alert napping editors to his precocious talent and his pre-Islamic, pan-Mediterranean muses. Since the death of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in 2008, it would be hard to argue for a poet of greater stature in a literary culture in which poetry is the most prestigious form as well as being popular.
He moved to Paris in 1985 and was named a commander of France’s Order of Arts and Letters in 1997. Last year he was the first Arab writer to win the Goethe prize in Germany and each year is credibly tipped for the Nobel in literature — the only Arab recipient of which to date was the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz in 1988.
Fruits of the revolution
When the uprisings began in Tunisia and Egypt last year, he wrote ”little poems to express my joy and happiness”. But joy gave way to caution and warnings of tragedy. “It’s the Arab youth that created this spring and it’s the first time Arabs are not imitating the West — it’s extraordinary,” he said. “But despite this, it’s the Islamists and merchants and Americans who have picked the fruits of this revolutionary moment.”
His reservations sparked impatience and were widely attacked: Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi poet, novelist and assistant professor at New York University, claimed that the Arab Spring had “consigned Adonis, the self-proclaimed revolutionary, to irrelevance”.
There was, Adonis said, a “tendency for poets and painters in the Arab world to be politically engaged. There is a lot to fight for: for human rights and the Palestinians, and against colonialism, Arab despotism and closed thinking among fundamentalists. I’m not against this engagement, or against them — but I’m not like them. A creator always has to be with what’s revolutionary, but he should never be like the revolutionaries. He can’t speak the same language or work in the same political environment.”
He added that he was “radically against the use of violence — I’m with Gandhi, not Guevara”.
Last June, amid the bloody crackdown on the Syrian uprising, Adonis wrote an open letter to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir — “as a citizen”, he said. Describing Syria as a brutal police state, he attacked the ruling Ba’ath party, called on the president to step down and warned that “you cannot imprison an entire nation”.
Raging against the storm
He was nonetheless taken to task for addressing a tyrant as an elected president and criticising the “violent tendencies” of some of his opponents.
“That’s why I said I’m not like the revolutionaries,” he said.
“What’s really absurd is that the Arab opposition to dictators refuses any critique; it’s a vicious circle. So someone who is against despotism in all its forms can’t be either with the regime or with those who call themselves its opponents. The opposition is a regime avant la lettre.
“In our tradition, unfortunately, everything is based on unity — the oneness of God, of politics, of the people. We can’t ever arrive at democracy with this mentality, because democracy is based on understanding the other as different. You can’t think you hold the truth and that nobody else has it.”
He and his wife, Khalida Said, a literary critic, live on the outskirts of Paris. “For me, she’s a great critic, one of the best. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree.”
Adonis shows little sign of having just spent seven months in Lebanon convalescing from two major operations. Before that, he had announced his retirement from poetry while writing a long poem against monotheism, Concerto for Jerusalem. “Jerusalem is a city of three monotheistic religions. If there’s one God, it should be beautiful. Instead, it’s the most inhuman city in the world. I said I was stopping poetry as an act of defiance.” But alluding to his muses, he laughed: “The pre-monotheistic goddesses didn’t let me retire.”
He was born Ali Ahmad Said Esber in 1930, in Qassabin in western Syria, a “poor village isolated in the mountains”. His parents were farmers and he had no early formal schooling. “I’d never seen a car, electricity or a telephone till I was 13. I always ask myself how I was transformed into this other person.”
His love of poetry was nurtured by his father and at Qur’anic school. Aged 13, when he impressed the president of the newly established Syrian republic by reciting one of his own poems, his reward was a scholarship to the French lycèe. He studied philosophy at Damascus University and later did a doctorate in Lebanon.
During a year in Paris in 1960 he found his voice in the poem Mihyar of Damascus: His Song (1961), with echoes of Noah, Adam, Ulysses and Orpheus.
Although, for him, poetry and religion are rivals, Sufi mysticism is a force for renewal. Sufism and surrealism, also the title of his 1995 book, are united in the idea, as he expressed it in a poem, that reality is “nothing but skin that crumbles as soon as you touch it”. He is also drawn to a mystical view that identity is not fixed: “A human being creates his identity in creating his oeuvre.”
But Sufism was more profound than surrealism or existentialism, he said, “because it’s related to a revolutionary idea — that the other is me; that I am the other. If I travel towards myself, I must go through the other.”
He joined the secular Syrian Social Nationalist party, opposed to the colonisation and partition of Syria, “partly to get out of concepts of minorities and majorities”. He was jailed during his military service in the mid-1950s. Since he quit the party in 1960, he has never belonged to another. “Ideology is against art.”
Poetry as propaganda
Beirut, where he fled with his wife into exile in 1956, was a ”second birth”. He co-founded influential magazines, Shir (Poetry) and Mawaquif (Position), embracing colloquial Arabic and opposing both Arab nationalism and poetry as propaganda. TS Eliot was one of the first poets they interviewed and Adonis collaborated on translations of The Waste Land, as well as on the works of Ezra Pound, Stephen Spender, Philip Larkin and Robert Lowell. He combined new sources with an encyclopaedic, “virgin” reading of Arabic classics.
His long poem This Is My Name (1970) was spurred by shock at the Arab defeat of 1967.
The Book of Siege (1982) came out of the Lebanese civil war that began in 1975 and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which he lived through before leaving for Paris. As he wrote in the opening lines: “The cities dissolve, and the earth is a cart loaded with dust./ Only poetry knows how to pair itself to this space.”
He welcomed the Iranian revolution of 1979 but swiftly rejected its reactionary turn. His book The Fixed and the Changing (1974), on a struggle between creativity and intolerance in the Arab world, identified a malaise of “pastism”, which he defines as seeing the past as the “source you must return to, despite the river running on with time. One has to break this circular time. You can’t have a revolution to go back to the past.”
Against all despotism
As the Arab uprisings spread, Adonis said in a television interview that he could not take part in a revolution that emanated from the mosques. He was accused of siding with the regimes and being out of touch with the dire circumstance of revolt.
Does he worry that his words echo Arab dictators who pose as bulwarks against Islamists?
“But with a difference. I’m against the regimes of Ben Ali and Assad, and against the Islamist opposition, because I don’t want to fight one despotism for the sake of another … If we don’t separate religion from the state, and free women from sharia law, we’ll just have more despots. Military dictatorship controls your mind. But religious dictatorship controls your mind and body.”
What of Islamist power through the ballot box? “In that case, demo-cracy won’t be a criterion of progress, so the notion of democracy has to be rethought. Truth is not always on the side of democracy — what can you do?” But democracy, “with all its failings, is much less bad than dictatorship”. Rule by democratically elected Islamists would, “absolutely, be better, but I’d be against it”.
He is against both armed uprising and foreign intervention. “Guns can’t resolve these problems. If everyone took up arms, there’d be civil war.”
Outside military intervention had “destroyed Arab countries, from Iraq to Libya”. As for its humanitarian rationale, “it’s not true — it’s to colonise. If Westerners really want to defend Arab human rights, they have to start by defending the rights of the Palestinians.”
At a recent talk in the House of Poetry in Paris, he held up a photograph published in al-Quds of some American soldiers in Iraq desecrating the dead. “American soldiers pissed on Iraqi corpses,” he said indignantly. “So these are the same people they want to call in to liberate Arabs and piss on the living?”
But within the West, “there are many ‘wests’ — of Rimbaud, Whitman and Eliot, and of Bush, Sarkozy and Cameron”.
Adonis holds no hope that poetry can change society. To do that, “you have to change its structures — family, education, politics. That’s work art cannot do”. But it could change the “relationship between things and words, so a new image of the world can be born”. Theorising about poetry was “like speaking about love. There are some things you can’t explain. The world is not created to be understood, but to be contemplated and questioned.” —