The Arab Poet Laureate: An Appreciation of Adonis

Ghayth Armanazi

Few can deny that the Syrian poet Adonis is a towering figure among contemporary Arab poets and that his literary influence both within and outside the Arab World is unmatched. In recognition of that fact he was awarded last August the prestigious Goethe Prize, the first Arab to receive such acclaim. In presenting the award, the Mayor of Frankfurt referred to the poet as belonging to the whole world. The poet, Joachim Sartorius, who delivered the ceremonial address, spoke of Adonis being the greatest Arab poet of his age. He said Adonis was deserving of the prize being presented to him because of the ‘cosmopolitan’ reach of his writings. Sartorius also underlined Adonis’ commitment to human liberty and the struggle he wages, through his poetry, against the ‘immobility’ that has stunted Arab and Islamic culture.

Indeed, Adonis, throughout his long life (he is now eighty-one years old) has bravely, some would say foolhardily, championed the cause of freedom of mind and spirit within Arab and Muslim societies. He has furthered a genre of Arabic literature where previously tradition held sway morally and intellectually. In the 1950s he pioneered a great transformation of the long and strongly-embedded structural edifice of classical Arab poetry. This school of ‘free verse’ which he founded together with several leading radical poets coalesced around the literary journal, Shi’r (Poetry). Launched in Beirut in 1957, it received wide attention – both acclaim and derision. The latter response sprung from those who considered the work of the new literary salon as heretical and a direct assault on the beauty and style of Arab poetry. How could one tamper with such an exalted heirloom, gifted down from one poetry-loving Arab generation to the next since the dawn of the Arabic language?

The attack on Adonis and the other poets of Shi’r also stemmed from thebelief that many of them belonged to, or were inspired by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). Created by the Lebanese writer and political activist, Antun Saadeh, in the 1930s, the SSNP advocated pan-Syrian unity along strictly secular lines. It attracted a strong following among intellectual and literary figures. Saadeh was executed in Beirut in 1949 following scandalously trumped-up court proceedings which saw him arrested, tried and shot in less than twenty-four hours. The death of the party’s founder caused his followers, among them a very young Adonis, to commit to a life of radical political action, some of it clandestine, as the region witnessed deep and bitter ideological conflict. That conflict caused the SSNP to be banned and suppressed in Syria in the mid-fifties, resulting in the imprisonment of Adonis along with many of the party’s followers. After his release he went to live in Beirut which became his adopted home for the decades that followed.

By 1961 Adonis had broken loose from the SSNP. However, he remains to this day an admirer of Saadeh. In an interview he gave to the Arabic daily, Al Hayat, in 2010 he paid tribute to Saadeh as an important influence on his life and thought. He referred specifically to one of Saadeh’s works, entitled Intellectual Conflict in Syrian Literature. That book, he stated, inspired the development of the new literature as exemplified by the poetry later to emerge through the medium of Shi’r magazine.

No narrative about Adonis, however, could or should bypass his remarkable early childhood. Born as Ali Ahmad Saeed, in the small village of Qassabin in the Alawite mountains of northwest Syria, to a farming family of very modest means, his poetic gifts were likely to remain muted if it were not for one accident of fate. In 1943, when Ali was barely twelve, the newly- elected Syrian president, Shukri Al Quwatly, arrived in the vicinity in the course of a tour of the country. The young boy was chosen to deliver a word of welcome – in verse – on behalf of the region’s children. His words so impressed the president that he asked the child what he would like most. ‘Education,’ was the answer. The result was a special government scholarship that allowed him to attend the ‘Lycée’ school in the coastal town of Tartous, despite it being the preserve of the rich and privileged. In that school, so he told Al Hayat, there were two competing political parties: the Communists and the SSNP. He was drawn to the latter when he discovered that several students belonging to that party were expelled for activity in opposition to French rule.

There is little doubt that the early part of Adonis’ life imbued him with the rebellious and radical nature that has characterised his subsequent literary output. He has consistently been a strong advocate of secularism, especially in Syria, where a mosaic of sects and ethnicities prevails. He is also ruthless in his denunciation of political Islam. Consequently, he places his intellectual and cultural identity as a Syrian firmly within the Mediterranean space in all its plurality, openness, and in the migration and traffic of peoples and civilisations.

It is a long time since Adonis eschewed the road to revolution through political parties. Saving his wrath especially for the Baath party and the suffocating heritage of nearly fifty years of one-party rule, Adonis saw in poetry and language a path to freedom more effective than any other social or cultural tool. He constantly stressed that the first mission of the revolutionary poet is to use ‘revolutionising’ language, imagery and style, as opposed to direct revolutionary agitation. ‘I personally lean towards the type of poetry that does not recreate what is there but destroys it through a new and comprehensive vision, inventing a new world, with a new language and different horizons,’ he told Al Hayat. Modernity, he continued, whether through poetry, art, thought or literature, cannot be a process of conciliation. It must represent a total break with inherited quiescence, based on a fundamentally divergent attitude to life, humankind and the world.

In his personal life Adonis lives the reality of his convictions. This includes an enlightened attitude to women (again planted during his years in the SSNP as he stated). He married, after a long courtship, the literary critic, Khalida Saeed. Imprisoned for belonging to the SSNP, Saeed was freed for a short period in 1956 to attend their marriage, only to return afterwards to continue serving her sentence before joining her husband later in Beirut.

In much of his poetry, and in the essays and reflections he published, Adonis deeply longed for the awakening of ‘stagnant’ Arab society. The ‘Arab Spring’, therefore, naturally evoked within him the hope and excitement of the changes he had long foreseen. His enthusiasm, however, is curbed by the worry he felt about the strong influence of ‘the mosque’ on the gathering storm. Especially in his native country, Syria, he was strong in condemning the violent crackdown by the regime’s forces on the protest movement. In a famous open letter he called for the overthrow of the single- party rule of the Baath Party. He accused the party of having become another of the ‘political religions’ he so detested. But he also expressed nervousness about calls that inflamed religious and sectarian passions and that had the potential of steering the society towards a horrific abyss.

All forms of coercion that define and limit the creative instincts of the human spirit are anathema to Adonis. That is why his poetry is truly universal, and should be universally acclaimed.

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