Negotiating the Sky

A conversation between John Freeman and Adonis

The poet Ali Ahmed Said, better known by his pen name, Adonis, was born in a mountain village of a few hundred people in Northwestern Syria in 1930. His father was a farmer, and his mother, who died in 2013 at the age of 109, worked in the fields with him. Adonis did not see a telephone or a car until he was over ten years old.

Although he grew up in a pre-modern world, in the sixty years since he began writing Adonis has brought Arabic poetry into the present tense. His poetry strikes a bold, modernist stance, and his critical works—on Arab poetics, and as an editor of journals that introduced Western poets to the Middle East—have had an enormous influence across the Middle East. When Tomas Transtromer visited the region when his work was translated into Arabic, it was Adonis who guided him around.

For the past thirty-some years, Adonis has lived in Paris, but continues to write in Arabic. His poems of exile and longing reflect a long life spent, for political reasons, outside of his native Syria. He despairs of the war that rages there now, and does not see easy solutions. During a free-ranging conversation in New York City at the PEN World Voices Festival last spring, the spry, eighty-four-year-old poet explained how the forces behind his modern voice are actually centuries old. He also spoke boldly against the force of organized religion within the Middle East and Syria.

John Freeman: I keep reading that you retired from poetry, but clearly that is not the case.

Adonis: News about my resignation from poetry is highly exaggerated.

JF: In your poem, “In The Embrace of Another Alphabet,” you write: “Damascus will not live on unless it rebuilds the sky.” What do you mean by that?

A: We as Arabs have two basic forces in our culture: religion and poetry. And religion has defeated poetry. Religion has penetrated our lives. It has the family, the household, codes of behavior; everything has been dominated by religion. It’s a culture, in all of its manifestations. An individual is not allowed to declare his or her independence from religion in that sense because the structure of Arab/Islamic society is a collective structure. Individuals have never been born as such.

This collective structure has been a destructive presence. Religion imposed on individuals has led to the destruction of society, of culture, even of moral codes, because none of them are articulated individually. You can’t write the way you think, as a poet; you can’t love the way you want; and you can’t say I don’t pray and I don’t believe in religion. You are not allowed to say these things. This has created a stifling landscape.

In order for individuals to come forth, for society to have some renewal, we have to renew our relationship to culture, to connection, to friendship, to social networks. We have to renegotiate all of that and separate religion from it; religion cannot become the main critic of culture. And Arab society cannot renew itself unless it has a relationship with the unknown. This relationship with the heavens, with the sky, must be an individual relationship, not a collective one. The Arab relationship to the heavens, to the unknown, has been the same over time. Different people and forces have been in power, but the relationship with the sky has been the same. This is something that West doesn’t understand: that there has been a stifling stability and continuity to Arab culture.

JF: It’s very apparent in the difference between Western and Arab poetry.

A: In every respect. But what do you mean by this difference?

JF: I think of poets like Robert Frost, or Walt Whitman. They are individuals, first and foremost, even if the latter sees himself in everyone and everything. I wonder if reading these poets, and publishing them when you edited a journal in Lebanon in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, you were trying to renegotiate the sky via poetry.

A: This was part of our recognition of who they were, and our respect for their poetry. A religious poet is a contradiction.

JF: What do you think of Milton then?

A: He’s part of an ancient or older world, and of course Milton’s religious views were different from the orthodox Christian views at the time. I am not against an individual being religious, but I am against official religion when it is imposed on individuals in the same manner: all individuals have to live and worship and pray in the same manner. There is no Islam; there are only Muslims. There is no Catholic church, there are merely Catholics. The idea of one faith imposed on everyone . . . this should not be the case.

JF: So when your father encouraged you to memorize poetry when you were young he was not just instructing memory, or poetics, he was instructing you in wonder?

A: My father never taught me to believe in something. He said read all of these things, read them, and then you can decide what you want to think and what you want to believe. He taught me the great poets. There is not a single great Arab poet who was a believer in the strict sense, they are all doubters, atheists, agnostics, and the religious poets were all rather bad and not very interesting.

JF: When you took on the name Adonis, was it as much as mask as a tribute?

A: In the beginning it was a mask, but then with time, I realized the name had taken me out of the Arab and Islamic circle into a wider humanistic way of seeing the world and being seen. It was a position against religion—that stance, that name.

JF: As someone who is interested in Sufi ideas, do you believe your gift is your own, or does it come from somewhere else?

A: There is a view of Sufism that needs to be corrected. Sufism was always against organized or official religion. The Arab Sufis changed even the definition of God or Allah in Islamic thought. So the first really essential change in the Muslim world was Sufism itself, because it changed that definition. As in Judaism, God in Islam is this abstract distant being, who is isolated or separate from the human. In Sufism God is embodied in the human, is present in the human. The divine is in the human. I am the descendant of all of this rebellion of uprising and revolutionary thought in Arab thinking, and all these revolutionary ideas in the West as well. You have Nietzsche on one side, who is against religion, and the metaphoric transcendence of Sufism on the other side. Somewhere in between is where I stand.

JF: Does this heritage explain why, from a young age, you were experimental with poetry. You were against all orthodoxies, especially those regarding poetry itself?

A: It is impossible to be religious and an innovator. You cannot be an innovator unless you go back to previous innovators.

JF: Your book, Introduction to Arab Poetics, does this beautifully. Was it written for people in the Arab world or without?

A: It’s based on a new reading on Arab literary heritage. The orthodox view of Arab literary culture is the religious take on the evolution of culture. In a sense, I needed to write this reintroduction because it was new to both: to Westerners and Arabs. It put me at the heart of a controversy.

JF: When did poets from outside the Arab world begin to influence your work?

A: The first time I went to France was 1960. But I got the sense of renewal from Abu Nawas and al-Niffari, these were great poets in terms of thoughts and poetics and timbre and diction. Abu Nuwas was more revolutionary in content and diction in the Middle East than Baudelaire was to Westerners. So reading Baudelaire made me understand what a great revolutionary Abu Nuwas was . . . reading the surrealists made me realize the greatness of al-Niffari. Abu Nawas took Arabic from the desert pastoral into the city, to appreciate the city, to look at the workers in the city—he was also a homosexual poet—to engage the homoerotic, to really take poetry into city life, and Baghdad of the ninth century maybe had a half million people. It was a huge city. A thousand years before Baudelaire. In terms of the shape of a poem, the structure of the poem, there is nothing more revolutionary or innovative as what al-Niffari did in the tenth century. Niffari’s work lies in scrolls that had not been read for a thousand years, so I needed to reintroduce him to Arab readers. He was introduced to the world by A. J. Arberry, an English scholar, who had published a book of Niffari’s writings both in the original and in translation.

JF: So the old-fashioned orientalists are good for something?

A: (Laughs) Yes, but they didn’t know how to read Naffari. The orientalists introduced him as a minor idiosyncratic Sufi writer. To place him in the Arab canyon took someone who knew the Arab poetic tradition. Today other Arab scholars think of him as a mad poet. He would be like Antonin Artaud.

JF: Did you write poems when you were in prison in the 1950s?

A: I wrote two poems. I lived with the smugglers, murderers, criminals. One of them is called “A Madmen Among the Dead,” and another poem, in my second collection.

JF: Did that period change your attitude about staying in Syria?

A: It was a practical experience that solidified all my theoretical and philosophical thought. I came to prison with certain ideas about operations of culture and faith and humanity, and in prison all of these hunches or concepts were affirmed, everything I thought that was beyond the pale was confirmed to me. I’m glad I went to prison, I’m happy that I did.

JF: After prison you moved to Lebanon?

A: It was impossible for me to stay in Syria after that.

JF: Is that where you raised your family?

A: A week after prison I headed to Lebanon, but in that week I got married [to the critic Khalida Said]. We didn’t have money to pay for the marriage license, so her father paid. This was 1956. The day I left Syria, crossed the border, the national emergency and a national draft were declared. The Suez crisis had started, and Syria was supporting Egypt, so the whole population was called on to join the struggle. If I had stayed for five minutes longer, I would have had to stay in Syria and join the service and military. My life would have changed completely. I wouldn’t be here with you.

JF: Has your wife been your first reader your whole life?

A: Yes . . .

JF: Do you read aloud to her or does she read on the page?

A: She’s always been a companion as far as writing, on all levels, theoretical, poetic; she’s really the best reader of my work, having seen it all, discussed it all. It’s not like we always agree, though.

JF: Did your wife work on the magazines with you?

A: She did as a critic. The first magazine I worked on, Sh’ir, was mainly concerned with poetry itself, introducing the modern poets, some criticism. But Mawaqif was the coronation of that project: it created new knowledge, new criticism, new translations, cultural studies, philosophy. It was trying to make the poetry scene dynamic. It was trying to change the culture in a deeper sense.

JF: Were you still working on this magazine when you moved to Paris?

A: It stopped a little bit and then resumed again. The last issues were in the early 1990s and were on women in the Arab societies. We wanted to do one more issue of objective studies on what was the position of women in the Koran. Lawyerly analysis, linguistic analysis. We made the call for these papers, and none came, no one dared to write about that subject. When the subject we need to talk most about no one is willing to discuss, what is the point of having a magazine?

JF: Colonialism and Islamism sometimes seem, in their effect, similar—they both erase history. What do you think of their relationship to one another?

A: Colonialism has been a natural ally for Islamist societies. It seems to want the same thing. There are a billion Muslims in the world—1.3 billion. They are just a number. Islam is now a religion with culture, but it does not have a culture outside the faith. Muslim artists are unable to live in Muslim societies now; they all live abroad. The absence of artists in culture—these societies have become without critical faculties, war-like populations. These war-like populations can be easily manipulated into creating wars everywhere. The Muslim-located conflicts in China, or in Eurasia, or in Africa—these are conflicts that be easily created because they are in populations that are easily manipulated. One of the reasons why Muslim societies are easily engaged in conflict is that all solutions are to be found in religion. The mindset is: If we can bring in a good person to power, then we can bring in the rule of God, and have a good society. The politics are very simple and simplistic.

JF: If you were to be made a king today, how would address what is happening in Syria now?

A: I would hit both sides. I would separate religion from society, in a theoretical sense, and try to establish a new democratic society. Fifteen centuries of socio-political structure cannot be changed in ten days, or a year. There is also the resistance that has been allied with the West. The West does not teach them how to reengage democratic societies, how to lead peaceful resistance within Syria, how to create civil societies. The only thing that is coming from Western aid to Syrian resistance is weapons and training—just a perpetuation of what’s happening. And the two main local agents that are destroying Syria and have had a large role in the Arab spring are Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These are tribal regimes. How do you create a new democracy when your main supporters are these tribal chiefs with no sense of democracy?!

JF: Will Assad ever step down?

A: I don’t know. This revolution in many ways has made the regime even stronger. It’s more cohesive. Some people in the beginning were against the regime, but when they saw the resistance, they felt the regime was the lesser of two evils.

JF: What challenges does being the international spokesman for what’s happening in Syria place upon you as a poet?

A: At this point, whatever happens in the Arab world does not surprise me because I feel in many ways Arab society as a creative force that is done. That is gone. The Arab lands are a strategic landscape, a mineral or resources landscape, it is not an artistic landscape. The Arab territories are now merely spheres of influence, which the West uses for its interests and power. It’s also the place where resources can be bought and gained and controlled, and also used to determine the future of the world. Controlling the oil fields. Western control over these resources allows the West some control over the world. But I think in essence the West is also completely derisive toward the Arabs. There is no regard for them. On the same level, the West is also declining culturally and ethically: it has become corrupt. It is now beginning to arrange itself as a kind of militant economic powerhouse that is like a walled-in territory. Western policies betray the Western populations as much as they do the people of the Middle East. The human being, human rights, freedom of expression—all of these ideas have become meaningless, or more so, as time passes, in the West. The UN has really become a joke. And that’s where all of these Western values are supposed to get expressed and become policies.

Audience Question: In that context, when you use memory in a poem, does memory—especially because of how Syria has changed—become a kind of testimony?

A: There’s a memory that longs for the past, and there is a memory that awakens the present. My sense of memory is to write to remember to affect the future, not just to bring back the past out of nostalgia.

John Freeman is the author of How to Read a Novelist. His poetry has appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review.

Adonis was born Ali Ahmed Said in the village of Al Qassabin in Syria, in 1930, to a family of farmers, the oldest of six children. Adonis is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Adonis: Selected Poems; Mihyar of Damascus; A Time Between Ashes and Roses; If Only the Sea Could Sleep; The Pages of Day and Night; Transformations of the Lover; The Book of the Five Poems, and The Blood of Adonis. He is also an essayist, an editor of anthologies, a theoretician of poetics, and the translator of several works from French into Arabic. He has been a Lebanese citizen since 1961 and currently lives in Paris.

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