An Arabic poetry legend

The Man Who Remade Arabic Poetry

Adonis’s poems reflect a lifelong argument with his culture.

n March, 2011, when civil protests broke out in cities and towns across Syria, the country’s most famous poet, Adonis—who is in his eighties and has lived in exile since the mid-nineteen-fifties—hesitated to support the demonstrators. Although he had welcomed earlier uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, he flinched when Syria’s turn came. In an editorial published in al-Hayat, a leading Arabic newspaper, in May, 2011, by which time more than a thousand protesters were dead and government tanks had shelled several towns, Adonis wrote, “I will never agree to participate in a demonstration that comes out of a mosque.” He portrayed the opposition as young naïfs, easily coöpted by canny Islamists who dreamed of establishing a religious authoritarianism that would be even worse than the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Born in Syria, Adonis has lived in exile since 1956, first in Beirut, then in Paris.Illustration by Roman Muradov

Adonis’s assessment of the demonstrators echoed the rhetoric coming from the regime, and many readers were dismayed. For the past sixty years, he has tirelessly called for radical change in every sphere of Arab life, and he is the author of some of the most revolutionary poems in Arabic. Sadiq Jalal al-‘Azm, an eminent philosopher at the University of Damascus, was bewildered that Adonis, “the man of freedom, transformation, revolution, progress, and modernity,” should “disparage if not condemn the Syrian revolution from its outset.” But for Adonis the Syrian uprising was no revolution. In a recent interview in French (he has lived in Paris since the mid-nineteen-eighties), he claimed, “It is impossible, in a society like Arab society, to make a revolution unless it is founded on the principle of laïcité ”—the French term for a stringent secularism. Long before the emergence of the Islamic State’s caliphate, Adonis warned that the alliance of theology with state power was the region’s most deep-rooted danger.

Adonis’s long poem “Concerto al-Quds,” published in Arabic in 2012 and now available in an English translation by Khaled Mattawa (Yale), is the poet’s secularist summa, a condemnation of monotheism couched in the form of a surrealist montage. Its subject is Jerusalem—al-Quds, in Arabic—the spiritual center for all three monotheistic faiths and the site of their most apocalyptic imaginings. In the Islamic tradition, Jerusalem was the first qibla (the direction faced in prayer), the starting point of the Prophet Muhammad’s trip to the heavens (al-mi‘raj), and also the place where the archangel Israfil will blow his trumpet on the Day of Resurrection. In Judaism, the city is the site of the First and Second Temples, both destroyed, and the envisaged site of a third. In the Book of Revelation, John beholds a “new Jerusalem” descending from the heavens and hears a voice describing the life to come: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

The actual Jerusalem is rather different, of course—a city riven by sectarian conflict, coarsened by tourism, marred by the building of settlements and walls, and by the scars of occupation. This discrepancy between ideal and reality is the premise of Adonis’s poem, in which the heavenly archetype hovers like a mirage above the degraded modern city. The poem begins:

Up there, up above,
look at her dangling from the sky’s throat.
Look at her fenced with the eyelashes of angels.

No one can walk toward her,
but a man can crawl on his forehead and shoulders,
perhaps even his navel.

Barefoot, knock on her door.
A prophet will open, and teach you how to march, and how to bow.

Like many of Adonis’s long poems, “Concerto al-Quds” is a bric-a-brac construction, stuffed with quotations from medieval sources—particularly Arab historians of Jerusalem—and also from religious texts and modern fiction. Verse alternates with prose, and, occasionally, the poem becomes a textual net, with fragments of phrases spaced over the page in the manner of Mallarmé (one of Adonis’s chief influences). The musical allusion in the work’s title suggests that the assembled citations are meant as background for the dissonant solos of the poet’s own voice. While the orchestral parts sustain the celestial myth of Jerusalem, Adonis insists on its earthly history. He quotes a prophetic Hadith that says, “Whoever wants to see a spot of heaven, let him gaze at al-Quds,” but his Jerusalem is “a divine cage,” a wasteland of barbed wire and demolished homes, where “corpses and severed limbs” lie strewn atop the rubble. The poem isn’t a lament for a lost paradise but an indictment of the idea that some places on earth are more holy than others.

Adonis, whose given name is ‘Ali Ahmad Said Esber, was born in 1930, in the village of Qassabin, south of Latakia, in northwest Syria. His family is Alawite, but Adonis has never claimed a sectarian identity. As a teen-ager, he joined the Social Syrian Nationalist Party, which was a rival to the pan-Arab Baath Party, though the two shared a secularist ideology. The charismatic leader of the S.S.N.P., a Greek Orthodox Christian named Antun Sa‘ada, called for the revival of what he termed “Greater Syria,” a territory comprising Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. For Sa‘ada and his followers, Syria was a Mediterranean nation. Arab Muslims were only the most recent stratum of a civilization with its foundations in Near Eastern myth. ‘Ali Ahmad adopted the pen name Adonis in the late forties, after the Greek-Phoenician vegetal deity of death and resurrection. He published a number of poems—virtuoso pieces of rhetoric, for a poet in his late teens—on the theme of Syrian national rebirth. The new name signalled Adonis’s embrace of a layered, Mediterranean identity (the Greeks believed that Adonis was a son of the Assyrian king Theias) and his rejection of any narrowly Arab sense of belonging.

Adonis fled Syria for Lebanon in 1956. He had spent the previous year in prison—“a year of torture, a true hell,” he later called it—after a S.S.N.P. militant assassinated a Syrian Army officer, leading to a roundup of Party members. In Beirut, Adonis did his best to slough off his political past and reinvent himself as an avant-garde poet. As he later wrote in a memoir of the period, Beirut was, for him, “a city of beginnings.” In the decade following the Second World War, the Lebanese capital had emerged as the center of Arabic intellectual life, usurping the position previously held by Cairo. Lebanon was the banker of choice for the newly oil-rich Gulf States; tourists flocked to its deluxe hotels and bikini-crowded beaches; and, amid the rise of monolithic, one-party states, disaffected thinkers from across the region came to take advantage of its liberal censorship laws.

In 1957, Adonis helped establish the quarterly Shi‘r, a flamboyantly cosmopolitan magazine, whose name was borrowed from the American magazine PoetryShi‘r became a tribune for modernist poetry in Arabic. From his perch there, Adonis wrote manifestos in favor of the prose poem—a radical stance at the time, since almost all poetry in Arabic, from the pre-Islamic period onward, had been composed in fixed metres. Shi‘r published Arabic translations of European poets, including W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot; Adonis himself translated works by Paul Claudel, Saint-John Perse, and Yves Bonnefoy.

It was during his early years in Beirut that Adonis turned away from nationalist-themed verse and began writing the poems that were to make him the most revered and controversial poet in the Middle East. His 1961 book, “Aghani Mihyar al-Dimashqi” (translated into English, by Adnan Hadar and Michael Beard, as “Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs”), is widely regarded as his best. Mihyar, the hero of the collection, is a figure of mythic proportions, an exile who roams through a blighted landscape and trumpets a new creed—indeed, a creed of the New. Adonis’s language casts a liturgical spell:

Here he comes from under the ruins
in the climate of new words,

offering his poems to grieving winds
unpolished but bewitching like brass.

He is a language glistening between the masts,
he is the knight of strange words.

For some readers, Mihyar’s alienation from his native environment—his strange words and his affinity for Mediterranean masts—reads as a provocation. Arab nationalists, in particular, accused Adonis and his Shi‘r colleagues (several of whom were also ex-S.S.N.P.) of ignoring their own literary tradition. For such critics, anxious to safeguard the “unity” of Arabic culture, imported forms like the prose poem were the beachheads of a neo-imperialist invasion. It didn’t help that Adonis and many of his colleagues came from minority backgrounds—precisely the communities that European powers historically sought out as allies. Nazik al-Mala’ika, a prominent Iraqi poet, called Shi‘r a magazine “in Beirut in the Arabic language with a European spirit.”

“No, you didn’t hear the soft rustle of a sandwich wrapper!”

Adonis made it his mission to show his critics how little they knew of the heritage they claimed to defend. He spent the next dozen years immersed in the corpus of Arabic poetry, philosophy, and jurisprudence. The result was a pair of encyclopedic endeavors: the three-volume “Anthology of Arabic Poetry” (1964-68), which included poems from the sixth to the nineteenth centuries, and a four-volume work of historical criticism, “The Fixed and the Transformative” (1974). In both works, Adonis claimed to discover a “modernist” counter-heritage buried within the classical heritage itself. In the writings of Abbasid poets, Sufi sheikhs, Shiite divines, and Andalusian philosophers, he found a tradition of dissenters who thumbed their noses at the orthodoxy. Here was proof that there was no such thing as a unified tradition. Instead, there were many pasts within the past, and some that might be useful in the present.

In 1975, the outbreak of civil conflict in Lebanon put an end to Beirut’s Belle Époque. The war pitted Muslim, Christian, and Druze communities against one another, and outside powers soon swooped in. The Lebanese capital became synonymous with violent fanaticism rather than with intellectual openness. Intellectuals who had sought refuge there now looked for new homes. In 1985, the year he left for Paris, Adonis published “The Book of Siege,” a bitterly valedictory poem for his home of three decades. In its evocation of a city transformed by sectarian violence, it foreshadows his later poem about Jerusalem:

Murder has changed the city’s shape—this stone
  is a child’s head—
and this smoke is exhaled from human lungs.
Each thing recites its exile.

Adonis’s current assault on monotheism has a lot in common with his older campaign against Arab nationalism. The very idea of unity—of homogeneity—seems to repel him. For Adonis, monotheism’s obsession with oneness leads inevitably to violence against people who hold different beliefs. Italso leads to spiritual small-mindedness. “Concerto al-Quds” is full of questions, as if in rebuke of the certainties of dogma:

How can man, creator of meaning,
draw his destiny into one utterance?
How can his spirit
be poured into a wall?

The poem is also Adonis’s most passionate statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (This is a topic that, unlike most Arab intellectuals of his generation, he has generally avoided, though he has long made clear his contempt for the Palestinian leadership.) In a memorable passage, Adonis quotes an especially repellent verse of Leviticus on pagan nations—“You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves”—and then, making the modern allegory clear, finds a riposte in a passage from Habakkuk: “Woe to him that builds a town with bloodshed, and establishes it on injustice!” Other sections of the poem recall the demolition, in 1967, of the Moroccan Quarter (torn down to enlarge the passageway to the Western Wall) and the ongoing tunnelling beneath the Arab neighborhood of Wadi Hilwa. For Adonis, this history of destruction and segregation is the shared legacy of all three monotheisms. Israel’s history of illegal settlements and territorial exclusions is only the most recent example of the dangers of mixing religion and politics.

Like many modernist poets, Adonis borrows literary authority from the tradition he declares obsolete. The speaker of his Jerusalem poem is a latter-day prophet, a warner who knows that his catalogue of crimes will almost certainly be ignored. It is impossible to read “Concerto”—the relentlessly high pitch of its language, its emphatic repetitions and violent imagery—without recalling its Old Testament and Quranic models. There is no other modern Arab poet who so successfully conjures the grim beauty of the ancient works even while casting them in forms taken from the twentieth-century avant-garde. In part because written Arabic is a literary language, distinct from the various vernaculars spoken across the region, rhetorical grandeur is native to Arabic in a way that it is not to English. Mattawa’s translation struggles to match Adonis’s wildest flights, but their eloquence and anger do come through:

Ruin is still the daily bread of God’s earth. Will the prophecies also turn into a siege? Will tunnels be burrowed into their words? Will their visions splinter into missiles and bombs, into volcanoes of gas and phosphor?

The “Concerto” can be a claustrophobic experience. By its end, Jerusalem acquires an infernal gloom that seems to allow no light in. The closest Adonis gets to suggesting an alternative to his monotheistic dystopia is at the beginning of the poem. Two pages in, we read:

But here’s Imru-ulqais passing
through on his way to Byzantium!
Before his feet touch the threshold of Bait al-Maqdis, he reads,
The blood shed on Mediterranean shores,
Since its beginnings, has spelled a ravaged history. . . .

Leaving the scene, Imru-ulqais says,
“In the beginning was the word.
In the beginning of the word was ‘blood.’ ”

Imru-ulqais (more commonly transliterated as Imru’ al-Qays) was an Arabian polytheist prince of the sixth century, famous, in part, for his determination to avenge the killing of his father by a neighboring tribe. According to legend, the prince was so maddened by the need for retribution that he sought aid from the Christian emperor Justinian, ruler of Byzantium. For some Arabs, this has made the name Imru’ al-Qays a byword for collaboration with outside powers.

But the prince was also famous for his erotic poetry. Even by contemporary standards, some of it is pretty racy. In his best-known poem, for example, a mu‘allaqa, or “suspended ode,” the poet describes making love in a howdah with a woman nursing her baby: “When he cried behind her she turned half of herself to suckle, / but the other half, the one beneath me, stayed right where it was.” In Adonis’s poem, the prince is a figure of witness for the blood-soaked history we’re about to read. It is no wonder that Imru’ al-Qays is a polytheist, a cross-sectarian collaborator, and a love poet, only “passing through” Jerusalem. There is no room for him in the capital of monotheism, and he soon fades out of Adonis’s poem as well. But he lingers, perhaps as a representative of what might have been, and, therefore, of what might be again. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have called Imru’ al-Qays “the leader of the poets into hellfire.” It’s an epithet that Adonis might proudly take as his own. ♦

This article appears in the print edition of the December 18 & 25, 2017, issue, with the headline “Hearing Voices.”
By Robyn Creswell



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