The poet as free radical
Adonis is widely regarded as the greatest living Arab poet. He talks to Shougat Dasgupta about life, work and his suspicion of the revolution in his native Syria
Transcending politics Adonis
IF YOU were autograph-hunting in Goa during TEHELKA’s THiNK festival, stalking the halls of the Grand Hyatt for actors, ageing rock stars, itinerant gurus, feminist icons, even politicians, you would have been excused for missing the slight figure, still spry at 82, quietly well-dressed, his sympathetic face framed by soft, white hair. A retired diplomat, you might have thought, had you noticed, or a visiting academic. You would have missed, as VS Naipaul gravely intoned onstage, “an immense man”. “We may not know him so well,” Naipaul added, “but I think you should know that we have in our midst here in Adonis today a great man.”
Surprisingly scant attention has been paid to Adonis, a perennial tip for Nobel honours, by English-speaking readers. We are catching up to more than half a century of work — of poems, of course, but also essays, criticism, the editing of like-minded writers, the creating of influential journals, the stuff of a full literary life. Adonis is like an Arab Samuel Johnson, a man of letters of the highest distinction, whose work has shaped a literature, shaped language itself. Our ignorance cannot be blamed on a lack of translations. Adonis even taught for spells at American universities, at Georgetown and Princeton, and has lived in the West, in Paris, since 1985. The English-speaking world, including that part of India that reads mostly in English and takes its cues from London and latterly New York, is just too insular to pay much attention to a poet writing in a foreign language until there’s reason (usually not literary) to take notice. In Adonis’ case, ironically given his insistence on poetry transcending politics and ideology, it is politics, his Syrian origins, that makes him suddenly attractive to English speakers, or rather to those who shape our reading choices.
Last year, Adonis became the first Arab poet to be awarded the triennial Goethe Award, a German prize that has been awarded to the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Herman Hesse and the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska five years before she won the Nobel. Earlier this year, his textured collages, featuring calligraphy, bits of verse, photographs, pieces of rough-hewn fabric, were exhibited in London, part of a longer tribute to his body of work much of which, including the multi-volume Al-Kitab (his, by all accounts, brilliant poetic rendering of centuries of Arab history and culture) remains untranslated.
Two years ago, Yale University Press produced a handsome Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa, a professor at the University of Michigan. In his comprehensive introduction, Mattawa sets out Adonis’ place in the Arabic canon: “A culturally literate person in the Arab world today would find it difficult to recall when he or she first heard of Adonis. By the time one is old enough to drop the names of poets in casual conversation, Adonis is already there among the classical poets ‘Antara, Imruulqais, Abu Nawwas, and al-Mutannabi, and certainly among the modern pioneers Ahmad Shawqi, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Nizar Qabbai, and Mahmoud Darwish.” Of Mattawa, Adonis says simply: “I was lucky that Mattawa was a poet and that his knowledge of English was equal to his knowledge of Arabic. It’s as if English too is his mother tongue.” Adonis is phlegmatic about the delayed recognition in the English-speaking world of his poetic standing. “It’s hard to translate me because my poetic language is founded more on images than ideas,” he says, “while poets writing in English are closer to ideas than they are to imagery. The world of English language poetry, particularly American poetry, is the world of daily life and this creates a very direct and ordinary speech rooted in reality. My poetry is the opposite; it’s concerned with creating a new reality. ”
A poet’s job, Adonis might say, is to ask essential questions, to imagine the world anew. The Arab Spring is such an opportunity
We are speaking in his spacious hotel suite in Goa, his daughter ably translating until we are joined by Zikrur Rahman, a professor at the Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and former Indian ambassador to Palestine. Rahman had translated for Adonis in his conversation with TEHELKA’s editor Tarun J Tejpal at THiNK the previous day, an event memorable for Adonis’ lucid, eloquent distancing of poetry from the vested interests of ideology. At the end of the session, Rahman spoke briefly of Adonis’ connection with such Indian poets as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, how the former had often hosted the latter in Beirut. Adonis, Mattawa writes, was influenced by “the poetry of the Sufis, whose verses inflamed his imagination with its mystery and explorations of the inner life”. It’s easy to see how the two must have shared a bond: Faiz the sort of ‘godless communist’ who taught fellow prisoners verses from the Quran and Adonis similarly ‘godless’ to the dogmatists whose worldview cannot accommodate a poet’s questions. Faiz’s father and Adonis share a similar biography, both the children of poor farmers whose intellectual and verbal gifts were spotted in serendipitous encounters.
BORN IN 1930, Adonis’ early schooling was limited to learning and memorising the Quran and tranches of classical poetry. It’s a romantic, pastoral image. “Since my childhood,” says Adonis “I was in a poetic ambience. Our tradition in the village where I was born was oral and all I knew was poetry.” His father and maternal uncle wrote poetry too and this hereditary impulse coupled with the act of memorisation “created a kind of rhythm, a musicality and it generated an inner desire to become like these poets that everyone talked about. It awakened a flame inside me”. At 14, Adonis, surprising himself from his current vantage with his confidence, the boldness of his action, thrust himself before the president of the new Syrian republic and recited a poem. Suitably impressed, the president arranged for the young Adonis, or rather the young Ali Ahmad Said Esber, to attend lycée, his first experience of formal schooling.
The transformation into Adonis was a natural one, a name Esber believed was his by right, a name designed to reflect the pan-Mediterranean, pre-Islamic culture to which he believed his poetry belonged. ‘Adonis’ was a confirmation of Esber’s extraordinary precocity, his desire not so much to reclaim as to reinvent Arab culture, to show that cultures and histories are composites, complex collages that result from centuries of history and crosscurrents of thought. Home, an early Adonis poem written in the late 1950s, will serve as a manifesto. Here it is in its entirety:
The story of ghosts in our house,
a horizon that crosses our lips
hidden by plow and threshing floor.
we are lit by our distant journeys,
our dreams of the unknown.
we leap from one universe to another,
and fly one generation after the next.
The poet and the reader, because reading too is a creative act, are free to wander. ‘Adonis’ is a liberation from the limits of geography, of background, of culture, of religion. There was also a practical consideration. “When I was 15,” says Adonis, his eyes bright with mischief, “I would sign my poems Ali Ahmad Said Esber and send them to newspapers and would never receive an answer. And then I read about Adonis and the wild boar that killed him. The anemone flower sprouted from his blood. I loved this story and imagined the newspapers as a wild boar trying to kill me. So I began to sign my poems ‘Adonis’.” Inevitably, the new, striking name captured the interest of editors. They began publishing him and, after his second poem, a particular magazine requested that he visit their offices. “I showed up dressed in full peasant garb, a young boy. No one believed it; they ran off to the editor-in-chief and he stood up in disbelief: ‘You, you are Adonis?’ And I realised I was.”
After school and university in Damascus, Adonis, serving in the military at the time, was arrested for joining a political party that believed, Mattawa explains in his introduction to Selected Poems, in a ‘Greater Syria’ in unpartitioned form: “The party advocated a secular, national (not strictly Arab) approach toward transforming Greater Syria into a progressive society governed by consensus and providing equal rights to all, regardless of ethnicity or sect.” Adonis was released from prison in 1956 and moved to Beirut, from where he left for Paris for a year of study in 1960. It was then that he gave up his party membership, ending his brief, unhappy flirtation with party politics.
It would be wrong to describe Adonis as apolitical. “When I say I am against ideology,” he says, “I am referring to those who wish to transform art, to put it into the service of ideology.” Adonis does not shy away from offering political opinion, writing in the 1970s in a poem about New York, “Out of an empire state of dirt and garbage/rises the stink of history.” Later, a dark, dire prophesy: “An eastern tent uproots tents and skyscrapers/ with its wings”. His much more recent opinions on the revolution in Syria have caused much censorious harrumphing, an Arab-American professor accusing him of “rehash[ing] stale Orientalist notions about ‘the Arab mind’”. The professor concludes triumphantly that the “Arab Spring has consigned Adonis, the self-proclaimed revolutionary, to irrelevance. And that is the beauty of revolutions.”
Dismayed by the suggestion that his disapproval of the Islamist tenor of the revolutions, his desire for a more secular revolution concerned with the rights of women is interpreted as support for Bashar al-Assad, Adonis is quick to stress his anti-Ba’athist bona fides, his total disavowal of the Syrian regime over decades. His critics seize on what they call his disdain for Arab culture, his insistence that it is not just diminished but moribund; to me, he described the culture as something out of the Middle Ages. I don’t think Adonis sees poets, in Shelley’s famous phrase, as the unacknowledged legislators of the world. He doesn’t want any part of the world. A poet’s job, he might say, is to ask essential questions, to imagine the world anew. The Arab Spring is just such an opportunity. Is it any wonder he cannot stand to see it hijacked?
Shougat Dasgupta is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.