'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'.
Adonis, the greatest living poet of the Arab world, ushers me down a labyrinthine corridor in a stately building in Paris, near the Champs Elysées. The plush offices belong to a benefactor, a Syrian-born businessman 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 spark: "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 where 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 autumn is credibly tipped for the Nobel in literature – the only Arab recipient of which to date was the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz in 1988. Though Adonis was Ladbroke's favourite in the year of the Arab spring, he does not begrudge the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer his laurels, having introduced him to audiences on a tour of Arab countries. When the uprisings began in Tunisia and Egypt last year, he wrote "little poems to express my joy and happiness". Yet 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 says. "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 has "consigned Adonis, the self-proclaimed revolutionary, to irrelevance".
There is, Adonis says, a "tendency for poets and painters in the Arab world to be politically engaged. There's 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 adds that he is "radically against the use of violence – I'm with Gandhi, not Guevara."
Like VS Naipaul, a friend who has praised him as a "master of our times", Adonis can be a contrarian, though he lacks Naipaul's acidity and irrascibility. For critics, some of his pronouncements on the "extinction" of Arab culture, or the "Arab mind", have an orientalist taint. Yet his translator Khaled Mattawa, an Arab American poet, sees it as measured iconoclasm: "He's been unsparing against the deeply rooted forces of intolerance in Arab thought, but also celebratory of regenerative streaks in Arab culture."
Although English translations of his poetry have lagged behind French, in the past decade there have been five collections: Mattawa's Adonis: Selected Poems won the Saif Ghobash-Banipal prize for Arabic translation. Adonis will be coming to London for the award ceremony next month, and also to take part in a two-month celebration of his work, "A Tribute to Adonis", at West London's Mosaic Rooms starting on February 3, which includes an exhibition of the poet's recent art works. He began making small collages using Arabic calligraphy 10 years ago, during a listless period of poet's block, and friends suggested he exhibit them. "I found another way to express my relation to things, other than the word." He uses parchments and rags, "bits and pieces of nothing, thrown away. I rarely use colour; I prefer ripped things," adding fragments of his own poems, as well as classical Arabic poetry "as a homage".
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 stresses. 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". He was none the less 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 says. "I'm with them, but I don't speak the same language. They're like school teachers telling you how to speak, and to repeat the same words. Whereas I left Syria in 1956 and I've been in conflict with it for more than 50 years. I've never met either Assad [Bashar or his father, Hafez]. I was among the first to criticise the Ba'ath party, because I'm against an ideology based on a singleness of ideas.
"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." He adds: "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."
His mother, aged 107, still lives in Syria. For 20 years after he left the country (when released from a year's imprisonment for membership of an opposition party), he was unable to see her. From 1976, he visited each year until two years ago, when "friends said it might be dangerous". But he is adamant that family circumstances have "never stopped me from saying what I think". Of those who accuse him of tardiness or equivocation in condemning the Syrian regime, he says wearily: "I've written many articles – I have a book of them coming out that's 200 pages long. These people don't read."
He lives on the outskirts of Paris, beyond la Défense, with his wife, Khalida Said, a literary critic. "For me she's a great critic, one of the best. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree." They have two daughters: Arwad, who is director of the House of World Cultures in Paris; and Ninar, an artist who moves between Paris and Beirut. 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. It was while writing a long poem against monotheism, "Concerto for Jerusalem". "Jerusalem is a city of three monotheistic religions," he says. "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 laughs: "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; it was almost miraculous." 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 lycée. 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. While for him, poetry and religion are rivals, Sufi mysticism is a force for renewal. Sufism and Surrealism – 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." Yet Sufism is more profound than surrealism or existentialism, he says, "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."
This is no philosophical nicety. His family belonged to the Shia minority Alawites, and it is sometimes suggested that this gives him his sense of being apart. "It's not being Alawite that gives me a sense of difference," he objects, "but the present state of the Arab world. A man isn't Protestant, Catholic, Sunni or Shia by birth; it's through projects and pathways that men become Shia or Alawite. I never subscribed to that." 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 duly jailed during his military service in the mid-1950s. Since he quit the party in 1960, he has never belonged to another. "I was only 14 or 15 when I joined – a child. Later, I said I can't be both poet and politically engaged. Ideology is against art."
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. True creation, he says, is "always modern because it speaks to us – Ovid, Heraclitus, Homer, Dante. What's not modern are the imitators. In classical Arabic poetry, you have to know how to distinguish between the greats and their imitators."
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." The six-day war "was terrible, but I wasn't conscious then of its tragic nature, as I was in 1982," he says.
He had first 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 an Arab malaise of "pastism", which he defines now 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."
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. Asked whether he supports the peaceful protests, he spreads his arms as though pulling a concertina: "If you have a petition, I'll sign it." Does he worry that his words echo Arab dictators who pose as bulwarks against Islamists? "But with a difference," he says. "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, democracy 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?" He concedes that 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".
With Syria teetering on civil war – and speaking before President al-Assad rejected Arab League calls to step down – Adonis was unequivocal that "the present regime absolutely has to go. The Ba'ath party has to go, and another regime to be put in place that's secular, democratic and pluralist." Yet 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 has "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."
Calls for intervention from within Arab countries "are wrong; it doesn't make sense. How can you build the foundations of the state with the help of the same people who colonised these countries before?" At a talk this month in the House of Poetry in Paris, he held up a photograph published in al-Quds of some US soldiers in Iraq apparently desecrating the dead. "American soldiers pissed on Iraqi corpses," he says indignantly. "So these are the same people they want to call in to liberate Arabs, and piss on the living?"
Yet within the west, he argues "there are many wests – of Rimbaud, Whitman and Eliot, and of Bush, Sarkozy and Cameron." Explaining his view of Arab culture as extinct, he says: "What is civilisation? It's the creation of something new, like a painting. A people that no longer creates becomes a consumer of the products of others. That's what I mean by the Arabs being finished – not as a people, but as a creative presence."
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". Yet he believes it can change the "relationship between things and words, so a new image of the world can be born." Theorising about poetry is "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."