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It was with a mixture of intense delight and excitement that we interviewed Adonis (1998), a very unusual and wonderful person. He seems almost to be in tune with air itself, wafting through skies that know neither physical borders nor limits of time, as he explained that he felt the place where he was born was not merely geographical, and that the land of culture and creativity was quite separate from the physical world we inhabit.
Adonis is unique in that he is at the same time poet, philosopher and theoretician of Arab poetics. His influence on Arabic poetry since the Sixties is immense. His decision to reread and study the texts of Arab poetry by themselves and disregard what had been written about them, was far-reaching. Till now, the reverberations of this study are being heard, as Adonis was able through this virgin reading, to re-analyse and re-interpret the Arab poetic experience as pluralistic and akin to those of other, non-Arab societies. Adonis has lectured and spoken on this in many countries.
From widening the horizons of understanding in poetry, Adonis began to study the issues of conformity and originality in Arab culture, publishing to date three volumes. Adonis is concerned, like the late Octavio Paz, that words, the means of literary communication, have lost their “plural nature, their multiple literary forms, from reportage to poetry”; they have been usurped by the religious and technical worlds. He is counting on poetry, facing the twenty-first century, to assert its essential relationship with words and things material, and on poets to have the vision to find this renewed expression in new forms.
In his on-going epic work Al-Kuttab, Adonis is changing poetic form to incorporate elements of other arts. He recently saw the film ‘Titanic’, and commented how cinema includes all the arts, acting, photography, poetry, music and plastic arts. “Cinema is the most complete art of the future,” he said, feeling sorry that in today’s films there was so much cheap sex and violence. “I have seen a lot of beautiful movies in my life, Japanese, Italian, Russian, American. Cinema is a work of genius. I adore it and I can tell you that in the way I write my last work, Al-Kuttab: Ams al-Makan al-Aan (The Place’s Yesterday Now) I use the technique of the cinema.” This epic work (two volumes published, the third and final one out soon) is set somewhat like a script, with pages divided into three columns, the first for the Narrator, who sets the historical scene, the middle and widest column for the Poet’s words, and the third is for exact historical references and facts. Here Adonis gives us glimpses of his life and ideas.
I was born in a poor and simple village called Kassabeen, in the area of Ladhkia, in the year 1930. A village that belonged to the beginnings of creation; huts made of stone and mud that we called our houses. The mud cracked every season, and we had to fix the roof with new mud and thatch to make it withstand rain and wind and time. Nevertheless, the rain kept seeping through invisible cracks and its drops fell on our heads – father and mother and kids – as we sat to rest, or eat, or sleep. The house was so narrow that my father built a big wooden bed and raised it on high stilts where we all slept: it was like a smaller house inside the house, and we used the space beneath it for many purposes. In winter, when it was cold, our only cow, and her companion ox, slept under it.
Every day I went barefoot to the ‘Kuttab’, which means the village teacher’s abode, where the old man taught me how to read and write. I sat near him and he hooked his cane’s pointed tip between my toes, to keep me there, in case I thought of running away to roam in the fields, as I usually did whenever I had the chance.
I’d never known, till I was 12, what you could call a regular school. There was no such thing in the area where we lived. The nearest school to the village was so far away that a kid my age couldn’t possibly make it there, and back, twice a day – on foot. And till that age, I’d never seen a car, or heard a radio, or knew what electricity was. And of course, never saw a city.
At this age also, I began to discover my own body, when I had my first lesson in how a male and female get together. It happened at night, in a small valley outside the village, where she took me. After that, I used to press my body to the earth, and roll in the grass as if I was fondling a woman’s body.
After I finished learning how to read and write at the “Kuttab”, my father decided to send me to that far-away school. My mother was worried sick, so he assured her somewhat that I’d be all right because another boy, older than me, whose name was Abbas and who was the village mayor’s son, would accompany me. On a stormy, rainy winter day, we were walking back to the village and arrived at the river which separated the school from the village – it was called Al-Shidda (Dire Straits) and it was flooding.
– “No, don’t cross! It is deep. Please, Abbas! We will drown. Let’s wait.”
– “It’s still light. If night falls, we won’t be able to cross. The flood might get worse. We either cross now, or go back to the school.”
It seemed to me that Abbas was eager to prove his courage, not to me, but to the people in our village; I had no choice but to submit, and I put myself in Abbas’s hands.
I couldn’t believe it when we landed safely on the other bank, and Abbas became suddenly gravely silent. He had realised what a risk he had taken. We could have drowned. Fortunately, only our books and satchels did. When we arrived home, the village celebrated, it was a feast.
Certain images of my childhood are still alive in my memory. I still remember the wooden crib in which a child was rocked as though in a second womb. The peasants tuned it into a paradox they tried to solve: “Something is nothing, has two feet and walks. What is it?” The rocking crib!
The mud oven too: I can’t forget the flames, the bread that emerged from it with its fresh heavenly smell.
But where is this village now? When I went back, after fifty years, I felt as if I was returning to something dead. As though I was climbing a mountain of wind. Perhaps I went back to visit my father who’d died, to whose funeral I was unable to go. Or maybe to examine, like many others, reality’s share in life, and memory’s, and imagination’s. Maybe to measure, in my mind, time as it flows and separates me from my birthplace – but then why do I feel that the place where I was born is not merely geographical? Why do I feel that I can create my birthplace as I do my poem? And a poem is never complete. Nor the place where one is born. Yes, one is born more than once, in more places than one.
I hope I’m not exaggerating when I claim that I was obsessed even as a child with a vague feeling that my birthplace was that somewhere from which I will venture out, and not stay. A feeling told me I’d find myself only somewhere else. In other places than this. But how? and where?
I don’t know how it occurred to me – in a waking dream, I suppose – to find a way that would allow me to attend a real school. The first president of Syria, after its independence from the French Mandate, was supposed to visit the Ladhkia region soon. I thought I’d write a poem of welcome which I’d recite in front of him. Maybe he would like it, and want to see me. He might ask me what I want. And I’ll answer him: “I want to learn.” He might grant me my wish. And this is literally what happened.
It was a rainy day and I was shivering like a sparrow which had lost its nest. The chief of our tribe was against my father and he was also responsible for the welcoming of the president. I told my father I was going to read a poem to the president but he didn’t reply; he just refused to come. When I arrived there, thousands of people were crowding round the president, and when the chieftain found out what I wanted to do, his men came and took me away. I started to cry, telling myself: ‘I am not going back to the village without reading my poem.” I quickly walked to Jibla, the next stop on the President’s visit and there, when I explained to the Mayor, Yasin Ali Adeeb, he promised to help me, saying to the President: “Mr President! There is a child who has walked a long way to read a poem to you!” and so I was allowed to read my poem. It was my first dream come true. I was thirteen years old. And since then, I love number 13.
After about two weeks, the gendarme came to tell me: “You must go to Tartus where you will attend school.” On the way to Tartus I don’t know why but certain images from my life in the village crowded into my memory: I kept seeing in front of me the day everything was shrouded in death when my youngest sister Sekina had died. I couldn’t even remember her, just my mother’s sadness and helplessness and silence. Why did death take this child – who was said to be very beautiful – at such an early age? She went to the village well and when she came back, she began to wither slowly. She was not sick, my mother said, but had caught the evil eye.
I also don’t know why I kept remembering my mother as she bathed me in a large tub in freezing winter. How I hollered and wept when soap bubbles burned my eyes, and how she said quietly: “I told you to close your eyes when I wash your hair.”
On my way to the big city, I had a glimpse in my mind of the village “Kuttab”, where I learned the Koran, and how to recite it, plus penmanship; those were considered the first rungs on the ladder of knowledge.
When I adopted the name Adonis as a sobriquet, I was resuming my studies at the high school of Ladhkia, and was 17. I wrote texts in poetry and prose which I signed with my ordinary name: Ali Ahmad Said. I used to send them out to newspapers and magazines, but none of them were published. This went on for a while, and made me angry and depressed. In one of those moments of anger and depression, I picked up a magazine (probably Lebanese), and read an essay about the legend of Adonis: how he was so beautiful the goddess Ishtar fell in love with him, and how he was killed by a wild boar, and resurrected in spring of each year. I was fascinated by the legend, and told myself: “From now on, I will borrow the name of Adonis and sign it with my name. These newspapers and magazines that don’t publish me will be just like that wild pig who killed Adonis.”
So I wrote a poem, signed it with my new name and sent it off to a paper that wouldn’t publish me. They published it this time. I was surprised and sent them another poem which appeared on the front page, with a note from the editor inviting me to visit their offices. I was overjoyed when I saw my text published, and the note from the editor intrigued me, so I went there (in Ladhkia).
When I entered the editor’s office and told him I was Adonis, he was shocked; it seemed as if he was expecting to see a grown-up man, not a simple villager, very young and poor.
“Are you really Adonis?” he asked me. And I answered: “Yes, I’m him.”
From that day I adopted the name Adonis. I’d like to mention here that a lot of people saw in this adoption a hostile stance against Arabism and Islam. They used it as a proof to accuse me of all that stuff. What is strange is that someone in Damascus at that time named his film theatre, which was situated near the famous Havanna Café, “Adonis”, and the authorities ordered him to change it to something else. He renamed it “Balqis”, as if Balqis was an Arabic name! Some, it seems, fight even against words, against names. In Damascus they censor the name Adonis in the name of Arabism and Islam, in Tunisia they forbid its use because it’s “not familiar”.
In truth, I had no idea, when I chose this name, that it symbolised a break from all that’s religio-nationalistic, and an embrace of all that’s human and universal, and didn’t expect all that hostility, which came mostly from fundamentalist and nationalistic quarters. Well, if that is the case, then let those same quarters erase thousands of words from the Arab dictionary, the daily language and even the Koran, because those words are not Arabic in origin. But then, on the other hand, there are many Arabs today who name their children Adonis, from Beirut to Aden.
I didn’t see much of the city; never knew it in detail - its streets, architecture, and ancient sights. I didn’t visit the museum nor saw the Umayyad mosque, nor the castle. As far as I was concerned, Damascus was confined to a tiny room of a poor student who’d come from his village to get educated; there were the books, the lecture halls at the university, the offices of “The New Generation” newspaper, and later on “Al-Binaa”, where I worked as a literary editor, plus the houses of a few friends.
Damascus was my second village. It didn’t overwhelm me, as I was supposed to be, having come from distant poverty-stricken village. It was the big capital, but it didn’t strike me as such. I spent there about six years, from 1950 to 1956, and now, after more than forty years, I knew it only as a memory. I keep reminiscing about it, and find that Damascus, for me, was history - it as a time, not a place.
First I attended the Law College. After spending about a year there, I realised I couldn’t continue, so I changed to the College of Literature, Philosophy branch. I felt that studying Arabic language wouldn’t be of much use to me; I knew beforehand what I’d be taught, and it wouldn’t have added much to what I already knew in the fields of language and poetry. That’s why I chose philosophy, thinking it might open some new, strange vistas unknown to me. But I didn’t attend these classes in a regular fashion. My daily work presented that. That’s why I didn’t share much of the students’ life at the campus. I made very few friendships with the students, although I became acquainted with some of the teachers with whom I still have lasting relationships until today. In fact, strictly speaking, I wasn’t a mere student.
The love story I lived then, was with a girl who studied at the “Women’s College” in Damascus, not at the university, whom I later married and who became my companion for life: Khalida Said.
I didn’t read much of the Arabic poetry written then except some poems by Badawi al-Jabal, Oman Abi Risha and Said Aql. In addition to what newspapers and magazines were publishing then by other poets, especially Nizar Qabbani. I read in solitude, in my leisure time, other poets, in French: Baudelaire, Rilke (translated), Henri Michaud and Rene Char, although my French was weak for I had never studied it at school, but rather learned on my own using the dictionary. I bought these books from bookshops in Damascus and also in Aleppo where I spent close to a year, “Serving the Flag”, as it’s called, at the reserve officers’ college there; except that I wasn’t very successful: all my other fellows graduated as officers, except me: I was a corporal!
I had no influence on the poetry movement in those days. Although I was recognised as a poet, and had published some poems in the Kaithara (The Lyre) magazine - one of the first to specialise in poetry, which came out of Ladhkia - I was still considered a merely talented poet. Then my reputation grew somewhat when I published my long poem “Emptiness”, at the beginning of 1954, which had a decisive impact on the poetry world on the level of metrical form, as well as vision. This poem was the link between me and Yousif al-Khal, who read it in New York, where he lived at the time, and admired it very much. Some saw in this poem the Arab “Waste Land” of Eliot. Of course, I had never read Eliot, not heard his name until that moment.
A deep friendship developed between me and Orkhan Muyasser; he was the first person who told me about Surrealism and its importance. We met often at his home, talking, exchanging ideas and reading each other’s stuff. After his death, I was requested to write an introduction to his collected poetry which was published by the Syrian Ministry of Culture, because I was closer to him and ore knowledgeable about is work than anyone else. I wrote the introduction and the book came out under the title Surreal.
But beginning with 1955 - the year I graduated - I dedicated myself to the study of Syrian poetry especially. This is the same year in which I began “serving the flag” which lasted for two years and was crucial in the way it affected my poetic sensibility and my outlook on people and life.
Nizar Qabbani was all over Damascus, rocking the boat, so to speak, in its stagnant waters. He distilled his poetry from its history but before everything else, its daily life in its most intimate details. He was showing this life how to turn into a poem itself.
Badawi al-Jabal encompassed the whole Arabic poetry into one body, reshaping it within its own language, elegant, luxurious and brilliant. In his poetry I discovered how memory can become memorialised, and how the ancient poets’ voices can intersperse and echo together, distant and at the same time near. I knew how in his poetry the past can become the present, without the second turning into a dress for the first, and without the first turning its back on the second.
I knew how poetry can align heart and mind, anger and love, bitterness and calm. Badawi al-Jabal (which means Bedouin of the mountain) was truly a mountain but at the same time, a wave. Omar Abu Risha was enticing reality, roughly sometimes and often lovingly to become idealised in his voice: a herald of freedom and liberation. He sang as if his was the voice responsible for Arab life. He gave the impression of someone furious who felt his country was too narrow for him.
There was another poet, Nadeem Mohammed, almost unknown even today, who delved deep into himself and wrote a collection called “Pain”, I consider to be one of the most important in the first half of this century. Among those voices coming to us from outside Damascus, was Said Aql whose presence was the strongest in my estimation. A marvellous craftsman, as if he had descended straight from Abu Tammam. His craft intimated a culture whose like I hadn’t seen in his contemporaries. He gave the poem a new structure, and laid the foundations for making a new poetic sentence, as new usage of words. His poetry is cerebral composition so abstract and lovely and fascinating it almost becomes play. I hadn’t read Shawqi yet. I didn’t know Jawahiri’s poetry and still hadn’t discovered Gibran.
I no longer had any desire to go back and reread what I had already read. My studies at the university were the abyss that opened between me and the past. The university was there to kill poetry and poetic taste at the same time. Tradition seemed to be a negation not just of life, but of humanity and progress too, the way it was presented in class.
And then at the university, also, the split began with the reality that was around me: I began to see the present as an extension of the past as it was presented at the university. I began to feel that I was living at the edge, swaying and ready to fall. In this respect, I began to be aware that it’s enough for speech, especially in poetry, to shake the body awake and renewed: the body too, had to do the same. Like man, language had its own tragedies, the biggest of which was the still-born book - Just a heap of words. I had imagined myself screaming in the university halls: “So many books - all ruins.”
The three teachers there whose friendship I cherish deeply were: Abdul Kareem al-Yafi, Badee’ Alexim, and Anton Maqdisi.
What to read then? I didn’t know any foreign language. I had attended for a year and a half, the French scientology school in Tartus, in the mid-forties. Then the school was closed at the end of the French Mandate. I was still able to read some French, if the texts weren’t too difficult. Then, I’ll read in French: and so I began with Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal. I wish I’d kept my original copy whose meanings I wrung out of the dictionary, each page a web of French and Arabic words, of lines and arrows and circles. And still I didn’t understand most of the poetry except for some images here of ideas there. I was not thwarted though. And kept on reading. I chose to read Rilke after Baudelaire (translated into French). These reading enhanced my awareness of the gap that existed between the dominant culture and my own aspirations.
I left Syria, firstly, for political reasons. I didn’t like the regime’s ideas nor its practices then. Intellectually, I stood against the theories of “Arab Nationalism” and “Pan Arabism” as this regime’s writers and intellectuals presented them. I spent close to a year in the Mazza prison in Damascus, and the military one in Qunaitra without trial. And came out, after all this time, innocent. Secondly, I left it in order to meet Yousif al-Khal. He had written to me from New York that he was returning to Beirut and intended to publish a magazine dedicated to poetry, to poetic modernism especially, and that he’d be glad to have me as a collaborator in launching it. And, thirdly, I left it because I longed to see Beirut, where I could lead a life without oppression.
It is an instance I can’t cherish enough, a bridge to the other shore, a historical instance in my life. It was the beginning of many pacts and alliances with the future; I didn’t feel sorry, nor had any regrets. I explored Beirut street by street, in all directions, particularly the sea, before meeting Yousif al-Khal. Then I met him within the first week of my arrival in Beirut, late October 1956. And from our first meeting, a strong friendship developed between us, on a human level as well as poetic; we were constantly together, usually at his house. He was aware and firm in his belief that with this magazine, Shi’r (Poetry), he was going to open new vistas for Arabic poetry, and he had talked about it already with other friends and poets.
This first meeting was a work session, we were like two people who had signed a pact between them without having met or known each other before. They had met to put this pact into practice. And so we were as if bound by an ancient friendship as old as poetry itself. We both were motivated by the same impulse to serve one goal; establishing a new Arabic poetics.
We discussed many things at this meeting but mainly the central topic: launching a magazine dedicated to poetry, to be named Shi’r (Poetry). He had decided on this name after consulting with many of his friends, among them Fouad Rifqa, Nadeem Nilma and Khalil Hawi. I liked the name. I admired the way he expressed his ideas, the harmony between the thought and its unfolding in his speech. It was the speech of someone possessed to the point of infatuation with the urgency to do something for the sake of Arabic poetry and Arabic language; he aspired to put this poetry once more on the world map, as he emphasised then, and as he was fond of repeating later. He was calling, then, for the foundation of a movement, for spreading an idea by way of the magazine, and through poetry for the sake of its advancement. This call was behind all his thought; it’s what led him to investigate linguistic problems and to create new ways of expression. I say a call, but without any apostolic pretensions, or ideological narrow-mindedness.
It was not easy - on the contrary, it was thorny with problems on all levels. All these matters crossed my mind as we talked. And while listening to him I silently asked myself: What can Yousif Al-Khal (who had already been accused, before the fact, before committing his “crime”, of being a “subversive” and “an agent”, and I was, along with other friends asking myself - What can he do in such an atmosphere, and how will he confront it? Anyway, we drank a toast to celebrate our meeting, and he ask
ed me quietly: “What do you think?” “I’m with you,” I said.
In the beginning of 1957, the first issue of Shi’r came out. It was met with an all-out attack, from a strange mixture of individuals: Poetasters, poets, party-line followers, dealers in nationalist and in ideology, hangers-on whose ultimate ambition was to be mentioned as muck-hurlers: their language was mixed in dirt. We didn’t feel sad for ourselves as much as we were saddened by the culture itself and those who dominated it, the rationale behind it all. We were saddened by the low level of thinking, and the morals: we were damned and branded with all kinds of accusations. We certainly were expecting an opposition to our project that criticised our opinions and pointed to our faults or suggested something better and deeper. An opposition that showed us a better way to pursue our work in the service of Arabic poetry. We didn’t expect the reaction to be so ferocious and stupid. The accusations were a kind of symbolic murder (reactionaries, potters of intrigues, imperialist agents, traitors, etc.,) that provoked actual murder. Most of the attackers didn’t even discuss matters related to poetry. And form what they said and wrote, it was evident that they hadn’t read us, or, if they did, they didn’t know how to read or think. Or, finally, how to write. To them, the poet had either one of two roles: to praise or to harangue, to be a doorman or a jailer.
In reality, these attacks were not launched in defence of poetry or its advancement, for one cannot serve a cause he is ignorant of. They were rather a triumph of certain ideologies and politics. To them, poetry wasn’t the flower of language, the deepest possible expression of the Arab’s humanity, it was nothing but a pretext, a coat-hanger.
We expected the criticism to be positive, or at least objective; we thought we were given the world to compete in building it, not destroying each other. We thought that poets and artists and intellectuals were all aiming to ward one goal, that they walked together through the nights of the world no matter what they opinions and inclinations, we thought so, and thus had to shoulder the burden of our thought.
The first issue, as I mentioned, was like a divide or cutting edge; some of the Arabists and leftists who gathered around the Al-Adab (Literature) magazine (which had doubtless played an important role in the broader political movement) declared a holy war against Sh’ir magazine, branding it with every defamation in the book, from destroying the tradition and being hostile toward Arab nationalism and the Arab movement of liberation. We were accused of being narrow-minded, isolationist and regional. And, finally, of being American agents.
Some others among the Lebanese – Said Akl at their head – kept silent and ignored it as if belittling beforehand and what it could achieve. And yet some few others admired the magazine and wanted to be part of it like Unsi al-Hajj, Shawqi Abi Shaqra and George Ghanem who joined the magazine later after a short period of its publication. But the first issue was banned in all Arab countries, and the onslaught against it was especially violent in Syria. Yousif al-Khal was confident of his mission, and I shared his confidence. He wasn’t much surprised by the hostile reaction, and saw in it a political dimension. The magazine presented itself from its inception, as an open laboratory where many distinctive poetic voices whatever their ideological or poetical inclinations, would meet together. For instance, the first issue contained a modern (though metrically composed) poem by a communist poet, Sa’di Youssef, and, at the same time, a classic, one of rare craftsmanship, by Badawi al-Jabal. This way it showed that it wasn’t severing all ties with tradition, or destroying it” it, but rather exploring other horizons in Arabic poetics, parallel to other horizons among which should be mentioned the foundational, pre-Islamic period.
All that it did was to concentrate on expanding the limits of poetry, as established by our ancestors and suggesting another conception for poetry wide enough for writing without depending on metrics - or to write poetry in prose on the condition that it raised prose to the level of poetry. Thus the concentration was not in metrics but rather the nature of poetic language and its aesthetics.
The magazine was also a place where Arabic poetry could conjoin with the other, non-Arabic poetry, which could be considered as a combination of what Arab philosophers have done in their relationship to Greek Philosophy. They had made it into a composite of their own philosophical theses. And thus it was an artistic and intellectual openness that was a reminder of the supreme moments in Arabic history when they were open to other cultures.
The magazine introduced many talents, and launched various poets among whom were Unsi al-Hajj, Sargon Boulus, Fouad Rifqa and Shawqi Abi Shaqra just to name a few, who evolved and flourished within its pages. It also published some of the most important poetry collections which will dominate Arabic Poetics, more or less, I one way or another, starting with “The Rain Chant” (by Badr Shakir al-Sayab), “The Songs of Mihyar The Damascene”, The Rain and Ashes” (by Khalil Hawi), “The Abandoned Weil (by Yousif al-