"If I had to choose one word to describe myself, it would be
peasant," the poet known as Adonis said recently in his cozy office at the Institute
for Advanced Studies here.
It is an uncharacteristic note of humility, coming from a man who renamed
himself after the Greek fertility god and who is widely considered the Arab
living poet. Adonis (pronounced AH-doh-nees) was born Ali Ahmad Said to
farmers who raised him in a Syrian village without electricity. But the only
patch of land this
urbane, irreverent man has cultivated is the garden of language.
Wearing a tweed jacket and a button-down blue shirt, Adonis, 72, has a wild
shock of hair, a grizzled face, clever eyes that always seem to be reaching for
and the light step of someone who has been on the move for nearly a half century.
Small and excitable, he can shift in a moment from literary theory to literary
Some Arab poets are more popular than Adonis — Mahmoud Darwish, the
Palestinian poet, for instance — but none are more admired. A pioneer of the
prose poem, he has
played a role in Arab modernism comparable to T. S. Eliot's in English-language
poetry. The literary and cultural critic Edward Said calls him "today's most
provocative Arab poet." The poet Samuel Hazo, who translated Adonis's collection
"The Pages of Day and Night," said, "There is Arabic poetry before Adonis, and
Arabic poetry after Adonis."
Experimental in style and prophetic in tone, Adonis's poetry combines the formal
innovations of modernism with the mystical imagery of classical Arabic poetry.
evoked the anguish of exile, the spiritual desolation of the Arab world, the
intoxicating experiences of madness and erotic bliss, the existential dance of self
and the other.
But what defines his work, above all, is the force of creative destruction, which
burns through everything he writes. "We will die if we do not create gods/We
will die if
we do not kill them," he once wrote, echoing his favorite poet, Nietzsche.
Poetry, he said, is "a question that begets another question" — a deeply
subversive stance in a region in which poets are often expected to take stands and
answers. Why is there so much didactic poetry in Arabic? Speaking in French,
Adonis gets straight to the point: "It's a tradition, beginning with Islam, which
the ideological use of poetry to the world long before Communism. There's a line
that runs from Islam to the caliphs to the parties of right and left." Thanks to the
difficulty of his work, and his often vehement critiques of Arab society, Adonis is
more respected than loved by Arab readers.
Adonis, for his part, appears to relish his contrarian reputation, sneering at "the
public" as "an ideological notion" and trying to please it "a sign of decadence for a
work of art." Asked about the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who is said to
have been chosen over him for the Nobel Prize in 1988, he said, "Mahfouz is
more of a
symbol than a great writer."
As for his rival Arab poets, they are "continuing the tradition with a few
variations, whereas I am the rupture with the past, I am the one who is
order of things, and that is ultimately what matters."
Adonis, who lives in Paris, is spending the year in Berlin, where he hopes to
finish the fourth volume of "Al-Kitab" ("The Book"), a Dantesque journey into
calls "the inferno of Arab history," beginning with the death of the Prophet
Muhammad and concluding with the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258. As a
the Alawites, a Shiite minority in Syria, Adonis has always had an acute sense of
being an outsider, and "Al-Kitab" offers a radically heretical view of Arab
seen by its many dissidents.
"I am among those who seek the ills of the Arabs in their own history, not outside
of it," he said. An outspoken champion of secular democracy and a ferocious critic
organized religion, Adonis has published many studies of Arab culture and
history, notably the book "The Changing and the Fixed: A Study of Conformity and
Arab Culture." In that volume, banned in certain Arab countries as heresy,
Adonis accused Islam's clerics of perpetuating what he calls past-ism — a
to cling to what is known and to fear the new. According to Adonis, even
apparently secular forms of politics in the Arab world, notably Arab nationalism
are religious in structure, presenting themselves as revelations — absolute
truths that confirm received wisdom instead of fostering debate.
"We live in a culture that doesn't leave a space for questions," he said, puffing on
a cigarillo. "It knows all the answers in advance. Even God has nothing left to
let out a high-pitched giggle, as he often does after saying something particularly
ominous or apocalyptic. What the Arab world needs, more than anything, he said,
"revolution of subjectivity" that would emancipate people from tradition. Until
this inner revolution occurs, he warned, Arabs would know only a secondhand
a dangerous brew of hollow consumerism, rigged elections and radical Islam.
"There is no more culture in the Arab world," he said. "It's finished. Culturally
we are a part of Western culture, but only as consumers, not as creators."
To American readers of Fouad Ajami and V. S. Naipaul, Adonis's criticisms of Arab
society may have a familiar ring. But what sets him apart from these men is that
writes in Arabic for an Arab audience, and that he is equally critical of the West,
particularly the United States. "What strikes me about the States," he said,
his arms as if he were conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, "is the richness of
American society on the one hand and, on the other" — he brought his hands
together as if
he were measuring a grain of sand — "the smallness of its foreign policy."
Since Sept. 11, some readers have turned to Adonis's chilling 1971 poem, "The
Funeral of New York," a vision of the city in flames that has a strong claim to
Waste Land" of our time. In the poem, a nameless narrator wanders through the
Financial District and Harlem, looking in vain for Walt Whitman's ghost and
imagining "an eastern wind" uprooting skyscrapers, "a cloud necklaced with fire"
and "people melting like tears."
"New York, to me, is both heaven and hell," he explained, adding, "When I read
this poem today, it frightens me."
The eldest of six children, Adonis was born in 1930 in Qassabin, on the coast
near Latakia. Although his father could not afford to send him to school, he taught
his son to
read poetry and the Koran. According to a well-known story, when Shukri
al-Kuwatli, the first president of the newly independent republic, visited nearby
14-year-old Adonis insisted on reading a poem he had written for the occasion.
The president was dazzled by the boy's gifts. "Tell me, what do you want?" he
"I want to go to school," Adonis replied.
Within a week, the president had arranged for Adonis to attend a French-run high
school. From there he went on to the University of Damascus, where he studied
philosophy and discovered Rimbaud and Baudelaire. At 19 he changed his name to
Adonis because he couldn't get poems published under his own name. "I am a pagan
prophet," he often says, a self-description that, like his name, is the subject of
many jokes among his Arab peers.
In 1956, after spending a year in prison for antigovernment activities, Adonis
fled to Beirut, then a vibrant, cosmopolitan haven for Arab poets, exiles and
his friend Yusuf al-Khal, a Lebanese poet, he edited the seminal journal Shir
(Poetry), a forum for experimental Arabic poetry as well as European verse in
"All the poetry in the Arab world in this period was either traditionalist or
nationalist," Adonis recalled. "What we were trying to achieve was a rediscovery
of the self,
against the tribe, against the umma, against all these ideological forms of culture.
And though we were often boycotted and accused of Americanism and other sins,
everyone acknowledges today that all that is true and real in Arab poetry comes
In 1968, Adonis created another influential journal, Mawaqif (Positions), which
enlarged the focus of Shir by addressing the politics — and the illusions — of Arab
nations after their defeat by Israel in 1967. When the Egyptian leader Gamal
Abdel Nasser of Egypt was at his apogee, Mawaqif devoted a special issue to
ideology of pan-Arabism. The next issue took on an even more sacred cow, the
Palestinian movement. "Our project was to put into question an entire culture
not just poetry," he said, "in order to renew Arab thought."
Adonis said he would have been happy to stay in Beirut, but the civil war there
made that impossible. During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, his bedroom
bombed while he sat with his wife, Khalida, in the living room. A year later he
settled in Paris, choosing, as he puts it, the "hell of exile" over "the hell of daily
the Arab countries. Hell may seem a strong word to describe the life of a
middle-class literature professor at the Collège de France, but the earthly
comforts of life in
exile, he said, come with a painful sense of solitude, as well as the ever-present
menace of the fatwas issued against him.
"We are all seen as renegades and anti-Muslims, and we're all on hit lists," he
said, referring to secular Arab intellectuals. Meanwhile, he said, fundamentalism
nourished by the Israeli military campaign in the West Bank. "We are caught,"
he said, "between fundamentalism and the silence of our Jewish intellectual
"The Palestinian problem," he continued, lowering his voice for emphasis, "goes
beyond politics. It is an ethical problem, and ethics is never on the side of power.
and Palestinians must live together, whether it's in two states or in a federation."
He paused, sipping from a glass of red wine. "Religion has ceased to be a culture
become a mythology, for Islam as well as Judaism. These are people who do not
recognize, or reflect the other, in their language, people completely closed in on
themselves. Everyone pretends that God told them his last words." He laughed
heartily, but he did not look happy.
The New York Times