18 April 2016
In January, I had the distinct honor of meeting Adonis, the Syrian poet who is perhaps the preeminent public intellectual in the Arab world. He is an innovator of the prose poem in Arabic, a literary scholar and translator, an ardent secularist, and a lightning rod.
Some background: Born Ali Ahmad Said Esber in a small village in western Syria in 1930, he adopted the nom de plume Adonis after numerous publications had rejected his poems. His family was too poor to afford schooling, yet he persevered in his writing. At the age of fourteen, a world of opportunity opened to him after he recited a verse in front of the Syrian prime minister, who was visiting his village. Taken by the young poet, the prime minister granted his one request: a scholarship to study. Adonis went on to study philosophy at Damascus University. In 1956, during Adonis’s army service, authorities incarcerated him for his membership in a local socialist party. Upon his release, he fled to Beirut, where he co-edited the formative literary journal Al-Shi’ir. Amid the Lebanese civil war, in 1985, he moved to France with his wife and two daughters.
Four months after conflict broke out in Syria in 2011, Adonis wrote an open letter to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad: “Mr. President, Today, more than at any other time in its history, Syria is in dire need of a brand new political alphabet.” But as he called for a democratic transition, the Assad regime had already killed over 1400 civilians.
For critics, Adonis had neither censured Assad nor supported the revolutionary’s cause in strong enough terms. Indeed Adonis’s initial response to the uprising was delayed, conservative and at times conspiratorial. In particular, his criticism of the protesters, or the “revolutionaries” as he often calls them, is overwrought. In the five years since, Adonis has been more forthcoming of his condemnation of Assad and his support for the Syrian revolution, yet criticism of him persists. Even so, Adonis remains a singular luminary and a critical voice providing a long view of Arabism, Islamism, and Syria’s history. Or, as one author wrote, “[T]he revolutionary culture Adonis has been calling for throughout the past fifty years has very little to do with political ‘revolution’ in any traditional sense of the word.”  During his long career, Adonis has called for a secular revolution, a sexual revolution, and more. Engaging and interrogating his positions today, rather than writing him off, thus provides insights into the broader inter-generational gap in the Arab region and of course raises questions about the failures of Arab secularism.
I met the distinguished poet at Nespresso café, a sleek flagship outlet on the Champs-Élysées. We discussed the enduring relevance of poetry, the detrimental effects of religion, the ambiguity of Arab identity, and the sources of ISIS’s barbarism. He was modest, exuberant, and generous—inquiring about my research, insisting that he pay for my espresso, and never once correcting my Arabic.
This is the first conversation that has been published with Adonis in about two years, and I believe that he was especially candid given that we conducted the conversation in Arabic, without a translator. Afterwards, I translated our hour-long discussion (with a little help from Sharaf Al-Hourani, a former reporter for the Washington Post) with the hopes of publishing it, and I was pleased that the New York Review of Books thought that “great many of our readers will want to know about his views on Syria.”
I also translated one of Adonis’ recent poems, which obliquely touches on his position on the Syrian conflict, both of which I enclose.
All the best,
“Now the Writing Starts”: An Interview with Adonis
Published on the New York Review of Books’ website on April 16, 2016, 10:00 am
In the Arab world, they say, everyone is a poet. And everyone knows Adonis, the Paris-based Syrian exile who invented the Arabic prose poem and who has frequently been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Since 2011, he has also been a controversial figure in the debate about the war in Syria. As the Syrian uprising began in early 2011, Arab intellectuals awaited Adonis’s comment, not only because of his stature as a poet but also because he is Alawite, the sect to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs. In June of that year, Adonis wrote an open letter to al-Assad, calling for a democratic transition. Yet the Assad regime had already killed some 1,400 civilians, and many criticized Adonis’s response as too little, too late.
Now eighty-six, Adonis has elaborated his views about the failure of the Arab Spring in a regular column in verse for the Pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, and in a recent book, Violence et Islam. It was released in France in November, the same month as ISIS’s rampage in Paris that killed 130 people.
I met Adonis at a cafe on the Champs-Élysées.
Jonathan Guyer: At the beginning of the Syrian war you wrote a letter to President Bashar al-Assad. What would you say to him now?
Adonis: Nothing has changed. On the contrary, the problems are bigger. How can forty countries ally against ISIS for two years and not be able to do a thing? Nothing will change unless there is a separation between religion and the state. If we do not distinguish between what is religious and what is political, cultural, and social, nothing will change and the decline of the Arabs will worsen. Religion is not the answer to problems anymore. Religion is the cause of problems. That is why it needs to be separated. Every free human believes in what he wants, and we should respect that. But for religion to be the foundation of society? No.
When was the last time you visited Syria?
Before the war. Can you talk about the atmosphere then?
I don’t know—I hear the news, just like you. I know that Syria was destroyed, but for what? What is the project? Look, the revolutionary must protect his country. He fights the regime, but defends institutions. I heard that Aleppo’s markets were totally destroyed. This wealth was like no other, how do they destroy it? The revolutionary does not loot museums. The revolutionary does not kill a human because he is Christian, Alawite, or Druze. The revolutionary does not deport a whole population, like the Yazidis. Is this a revolution? Why does the West support it?
Your views on the Syrian conflict have drawn criticism in the Arab world.
You know, there are many Arabs who are employed by the revolutionaries and they always criticize me. They say that I am not with the revolution—[the revolution] that destroyed the museums.
What is the revolution and who is with it?
Something that cannot be said…A writer can never be on the side of killing. It is not possible, you know. But some people love killing and violence. How can a poet or a painter be on the [same] side as a person with an explosive belt who goes into a school and detonates himself? How? Those are children. How, how do you kill them? It is an unimaginable monstrosity. My brother, if the regime is tyrannical then fight the regime. Do not fight children and schools. Do not destroy the country. Do not kill innocent people. Fight the regime. It is humiliating. To belong to this world is humiliating. I have not seen anything like this in history, to destroy a country entirely—like Yemen—just to put in place an imbecile as president…
You see people supporting it. Intellectuals. How can you fight them? They criticize you for not being on their side. You have to become a monster like them.
Like the jihadists—
Not only the jihadists, because the jihadists are part of the people. The people who do not want this should announce their refusal publically. Have you ever read a single official statement against this? There are individuals who say what we are saying now. But have you read an official statement from [an Arab] country, from a prominent political party, or a big group against what is being done by the jihadist groups? There is a kind of acceptance. Patience is a kind of acceptance. There was not one single protest in any Arab country against what is happening. What is the meaning of this? They kill humans and sell women in markets. They are destroying museums, the greatest human achievements, and there has not been a single protest, not a single statement [against it].
In your new book, Violence et Islam, you wrote that ISIS represents the end of Islam. Will there be a new beginning?
You know, we have to remain believers. How so? If people, if humanity, comes to an end, then the world ends. As long as there are individuals—what I am saying now is that I am not alone. There are many individuals, in Egypt and other countries, who say what I am saying. This is why we have to remain confident that the human will reach a stage where he will find better solutions. But when and how will be determined in time. But I can say that the Arabs will never advance as long as they think and operate in this old, jihadist, religious context. It is not possible. This is what is extinct, what has ended. ISIS is the last shout. Like a candle about to go out, it ends with strength.
The renaissance needs time. Our society, during the fifteen centuries since the foundation of the first Islamic state, has not been able to establish a society of citizens. With a citizen’s duties come rights. Until now, Arab societies are formed of individuals who carry out the same duties but have different rights: the Christian does not have the same rights as the Muslim, for instance. Fifteen centuries. How can we solve fifteen centuries in a week or two, a month or two? But I trust that the time will come, but outside this context.
Does change require a new engagement with the West? I read your poem, “Desire Moving Through Maps of Matter” (1987), about the Eiffel Tower floating in the Mediterranean Sea, and a conversation you wrote between Abu Nawas and Victor Hugo. The bridge between Arabs and the West—
The East and the West are economic and military concepts, and were created by colonialism. We can say geographically that there are East and West. Economics and colonialism took advantage of that.
But in art there is no East and West. You see it in the paintings of Paul Klee and how he was inspired by Tunisia and Eastern Arabia. You see it in the paintings of Delacroix and how he was inspired by Morocco. When you read Rimbaud, you see that the best thing about Rimbaud is that he is not a Westerner; although he was born in the West, he was completely against the West. When you read Abu Nawas, or Abu Al-Ma’arri, you do not say that they are Easterners or Westerners. The creative ones are from one world, regardless of what country they come from or where they went. They live together beyond geography, beyond languages and nationalism, and they belong to the creative world of humanity. In this sense there is neither East nor West. Whitman is just like Abu Tammam for me. He is a part of me, and I am a part of him.
But the West has developed social institutions that you think are lacking in the Arab world.
The problems that Europe experienced were overcome by the establishment of new societies, completely separate from religion and the church. In the Middle Ages, the ecclesiastical courts were just like the jihadists today. They killed people and burned them. But the West succeeded in separating church from state, and created modern societies. We are still in this stage. And if the West was successful in this separation then there is no reason to prevent the Arabs from separating [the two] as well. We are struggling for this separation. We will do it despite everything and despite Western politicians as well, because Western politicians unfortunately despise Arabs, and despise Arab regimes. Despise. [The West] uses these regimes as tools to execute its plans.
So how can an effective separation between religion and government be achieved?
Start [again] from the beginning. It needs struggle. Struggle is necessary. You cannot do things sitting down. You have to struggle, stand, and fight. Write and get imprisoned. I wonder why Arab prisons are not full of writers. I wonder why, because it means that Arab writers are not doing their jobs. They are not criticizing. They are not talking about deep issues, the real issues of life. They are not talking about the real crises. Hence, my criticism is of the writers, not the state. The writers should always be in prison, which means they are telling the truth. By being out of prison, it means that they are not telling the truth. As long as their books are getting banned… we can say that culture has a role.
But can poetry address the terrible, barbaric violence now engulfing Syria? One thinks of Adorno’s claim about poetry after Auschwitz.
This is talk. Auschwitz was a catastrophic disaster, but humanity has gone through many catastrophic disasters. On the contrary, I believe that writing starts with asking questions and uncovering the sources of evil, wherever they come from. Because with Adorno’s words, he prevents us from posing questions and forces us to accept. This is wrong. I do not agree with him. Now the writing starts, after Auschwitz.
What about writing poetry during the Syrian civil war?
You cannot compare the bomb with the poem. You should not draw this comparison. Any ignorant bullet can change a regime, any despicable bullet can kill a great person, like Kennedy, for example. You cannot draw such a comparison because it is fundamentally wrong. Making poetry is like making air, like making perfume, like breathing. It cannot be measured by materialistic standards. This is why poetry despises war and is never related to it. But after the war is over, it is possible to contemplate the corpses, the rubble, the destruction, the ruins. Then one can write something, but it is [still] an element of the war.
We are told that ISIS has written poetry, that Osama bin Laden wrote poetry.
This is not poetry. It should not be considered poetry—definitely not. Because poetry is a social phenomenon. When culture is a part of everyday life, everyone is a poet and everyone is a novelist. You now have thousands of novelists. But if you found five who are good to read, then you are in a good place. In America… there are thousands of novels; you will find five or six good ones, and the rest is garbage. The same goes for the Arabs. All Arabs are poets, but 95 percent of them are rubbish.
You wrote recently about immigration as an important part of Arab culture. We now face an immigration crisis in the Middle East and Europe. Can you talk about that?
I see immigration as caused by two things: either there is no work or there is no freedom—no work or no freedom. So the citizen, or the human, looks for a place to work and be free. And Arab countries are poor. For two hundred years we have been unable to establish a single good university or research institution, and we have great resources. We spend them on useless weapons. We buy weapons, and we buy planes; we even buy pilots to fly the planes and fight for us, like Saudi is doing in Yemen.
The world is mud. We are primitive. We are still in the Middle Ages, and you are asking questions of modern times. Do not be fooled by the [foreign] cars or the American University in Cairo. We cannot produce a car. We cannot produce a coffee cup. How are we modern then? Western politicians are fooling us. You are the intellectuals. You should know the facts.
In your recent writing, you have raised questions about Arab identity. For instance, “Who am I—who are we?” (Al-Hayat, 10 December 2015).
It is difficult not only for the Arab. It is difficult for the human being, broadly speaking. Because religion has provided answers: the Christian is Christian; the Jew is Jewish; the Muslim is Muslim. Each “other” is under scrutiny, under inspection. If he believes in what I believe, then I recognize him; and if he does not believe, then I do not recognize him. That is why the concept of the other in monotheistic religions is undefined. Thus, for the unreligious person, the concept of identity is complex.
There are suggestions concerning this issue among the Arab Sufis. You know that Rimbaud said, Je est un autre. I is another. The Arab Sufi, a thousand years before him, said, “The Other is I.” You know, in Islam, the Muslim inherits his identity, like he inherits his home, like he inherits his field, like he inherits his father’s money. Identity is imposed on him a priori. The Sufis said, No, identity is a continuous creation. The human shapes his identity by shaping his work and ideology. And if identity is a creation, then the “I” does not exist individually; it exists with the other, and the other is a part of it. For me to be myself, I have to pass through the other. Likewise, identity in Sufism is infinitely open.
As long as a person is alive, his identity is continuously renewable. If he were a poet, his identity would not end even if he died, because his texts are renewed and reviewed continuously, and are read in different ways, so his identity is open. In this sense, too, poetry is against religion. It cannot be with religion. I mean, you will not find one poet in Arab history who was religious. It is impossible to say This is a big, grand poet and that he is religious. If he were religious, he would be like the Sufi who calls himself a believer and believes in a god that is completely different than the official Islamic God—the God of tenet, law, and institution. So the true power of the human being is not in giving an answer; the real power is in posing questions.
Seventy years ago, you chose the name Adonis.
No, I created a name to exit the world of religion.
But now the name has become—
It is criticized for not being an Arab or Muslim name. Unfortunately, religious culture has debased all of culture. It has become shallow.
What then is the future of Arab culture in—
I told you, as long as death and love are there, art will remain. Don’t worry. The readers are fewer, but that’s okay. Nietzsche, the agitator of modern thought, was not published [in his time]. No one knew him. This is the destiny of art, always. Many get published and sell millions, but their books belong in the trash.
—Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Guyer and Sharaf Al-Hourani
Here is a recent poem by Adonis, which I also translated from the Arabic and which I referred to in the interview above.
Earth, Cultivated by Memory, Reaps Murder
Adonis, Al-Hayat, 10 December 2015
No, I do not ask any Arab to contemplate or analyze. And I do not want from him any answer,
I request from him, strictly, to be gracious with his gaze, just look at Arab geography and at its maps,
Just look at the “shooting stars” that rain down from every direction, from inside and out, from under and over,
Just gaze at “its body,” how it is kicked, degraded and severed,
No, I do not ask anything, except that each one pose this question to himself:
Who am I—Who are we?
Indeed, a fever of the pollution penetrates the body of our planet.
Uniting against this body, natural pollution and human pollution:
An Illness—will he find a remedy? When and how?
Till that moment, the head of time will continue to devour the liver of space.
The president will wiggle on his throne on a burning globe—a globe of
oil and gas and other precious metals.
Has the earth become just a theater for the presentation of lies and falsehoods, of every kind?
And why do thought and action appear on this stage as just tools for deception, or just a strategy in which the words, too, are just weapons of every kind?
And why do men appear as just “functionaries” and “employees,”
And the individual human seems to be nothing but the refusal of “the human being”?
And what is this prevailing intellect, which does not convey anything but peace, and only prepares and practices war?
Everything that circulates in the world of politics, on the cosmic level, assures that the truth of politics erases the politics of truth,
That the prevailing culture is nothing but wilted flowers, the last water of heaven spills upon it from time to time,
How it abbreviates the human with authority, existence with consumption, death with murder.
That night of pollution sits on a gilded chair.
The highness does not fight it.
No authority fights it.
The planets together pledge allegiance to it.
The war stands at the doorstep of that night.
Some of the people demanded that [the war’s] family and friends distinguish between the houses of mankind and the cages of rabbits, but without having dared to demand stopping the war itself.
Some people crawled away, while knowing their voice will be a laughing stock, at the very least.
Crawled away, attempting to hunt the stars, like their friends did, in a high net of dreams, telling them while laughing: If you want to understand the mind of this world, you can do nothing but play with words.
Some people, in their war against this war, are able to assemble in between paradise
And hell in a single letter, but they cannot gather between their hearts and minds in many books.
And the most wretched of them, and they are the majority: Each one cheats the other, even their hands and feet, deceives even their eyes.
The table of convictionis lavish on that night,
Several of its guests are spoons, just spoons,
The male leaps around the table like a stag in the forest,
As for the female, she appears as a fish in a lake that is almost dry.
And from all sides,
A memory, which is of a simmering fire, surrounds the table. It carries on its back the firewood of language, and drives convoys of paper in front of it.
The appetite seems very overwhelming.
Among these guests, there is someone, about whom it is said:
His pockets are empty, except for one pocket, inside it hides a list of heads severed or enslaved, or that will be severed or enslaved.
A sword of darkness cuts off the head of sense.
In spite of this, there is nothing in the future but disappointed hopes of the past, some of them scream, far from the table.
And I saw most of them competing in a circle around [the sword].
A witness whispers, pointing to [the sword]:
Indeed, it devours his head, I do not know if it is the head of a child or a sheikh, male
Or female. Then he added:
For this present, sharp molars.
The guests travel, each back to his or her country.
The stories and rumors about them multiply. I will select for the reader some of the rumors that I have heard from many friends:
i. The First Rumor:
One of the guests asked his neighbor a question, which is:
Why has the Arab begun, today, to believe that he is not really Arab? Like others of other nations he revolt against his identity and gets rid of it.
He thinks it is only his tongue that is Arabic, and concerning the rest of his body parts, they belong to other countries.
But unfortunately, this question remained unanswered.
ii. The Second Rumor
The guest relates to this neighbor this story:
They burst into his house. They saw in it a beautiful box, tightly sealed. They smashed it and opened it. They saw inside a gilded globe, which has a shape of a beautiful female head,
“Do I sever it? Do I shatter the globe in order to see what is inside?
What to do?” The inferior leader asked the superior leader.
“Bring me the globe intact, do not damage it,” answered the superior leader.
iii. The Third Rumor
The guest continues, saying that they saw in the same house a testament, which stated:
“I prefer to be good to animals only. So I decided
Not to bequeath to anyone except some dogs or some cats.”
What is your war on this mass pollution, O poetry?
What would you say in heaven, which confronts the exile of one other?
What would you say about mankind, which competes to slaughter statues?
What is your opinion of mankind, which believes that moons revolve around sacks of paper, around corpses of words?
How do you imagine wisdom’s bell, which rings on a spider’s head, which his mistress eats?
And when you see with your own eye a rabbit with a peacock’s tail, and two rhinos embracing a gazelle, are you going to shut your mouth or speak?
The time of pollution advances in a crowd of darkness, without limits,
The seas and the oceans moan, and the cosmos announce a time of mourning.
 For instance, see: Sinan Antoon. “The Arab Spring and Adunis’s Atumn.” Jadaliyya, 11 July 2011. http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/2047/the-arab-spring-and-aduniss-autumn
 Kareem James Abu-Zeid. “The Arab Spring and Adunis’s Revolution in Context,” Jadaliyya, 19 September 2011. http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/2661/-the-arab-spring-and-adunis-revolution-in-context