One of the Arab world’s premier poets is currently being celebrated at the Mosaic Rooms in London. The exhibit, which opened February 3, is entitled A Tribute to Adonis and includes selections of the poet’s latest artwork, incorporating calligraphy, collage, and poem fragments.
Born January 1930 in Quassadin, Syria, Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Asbar) currently lives in France and Lebanon. He is an iconoclast, vigorously committed to challenging social and religious orthodoxies and conventions, advocating secularism and freedom of religion, and calling for democracy, pluralism, and respect for human rights. For this advocacy, he has been awarded both the Goethe Prize and France’s Order of Arts and Letters.
His poetry has often been considered radical for its violation of taboos. It has been stylistically innovative since the first verses he wrote as a young poet challenged the accepted form of Arabic poetry writing, which was written predominantly in 16 meters, and introduced free verse into contemporary Arabic poetry.
A vigorous champion of Palestinian rights, he has also challenged Palestinian nationalism and expressed both a moral and pragmatic commitment to a political solution that respects the rights of self-determination of Jews and Palestinians alike.
His measured, careful, and nuanced approach to conflicts and his rejection of tyranny— whether that of dictators or revolutionaries— leaves him with many detractors who cannot find satisfaction in his refusal to settle for rigid extremes. He is insistent that the welfare of the individual and the individual’s freedom to think, write, and act unhindered takes precedence over any overarching ideological vision, however emancipatory it may perceive itself and actually be.
Adonis is as much critic as poet, as much social commentator as writer. Although he avoids direct political activity, he is not shy in his pronouncements about the need for a new democratic politics in the Arab world. Women’s rights are one area about which he is concerned:
"Right now, we feel Arab culture is paralyzed. We suffer from women’s sense of their lack of freedom, of being deprived of their individualism. It’s impossible for a culture to progress with men alone, without women being involved."
Keenly aware of the limits of poetry on fomenting and sustaining social change, Adonis nevertheless believes it has an essential role to play in raising consciousness, asking questions, stoking freedom, and expressing the wide range of human experience, aspiration, fear, desire, and possibility. “Poetry cannot change society… Poetry can only change the notion of relationships between things. Culture cannot change without a change in institutions.”
And yet his early poetry clearly tried to create change by imagining new forms of identity, new ways of envisioning the self and the individual. He also reimagined religion and culture. These ideas could—if developed and sustained—lead to the creation of institutions (and the values and beliefs that sustain them) that would enable the social change for which Adonis has so powerfully advocated for so long.
"All the poetry in the Arab world in this period was either traditionalist or nationalist. What we were trying to achieve was a rediscovery of the self, against the tribe, against the umma, against all these ideological forms of culture."
This is radical radicalism; it is not a rejection of the usual suspects and sources of oppression from outside the Arab world: colonizers, invaders, Western powers. These have received the attention of so many Arab writers and intellectuals (such as Edward Saïd); it is easy to criticize these groups without evoking difficult emotions and unpopular ideas. Indignation is always an easy emotional position, especially when it is directed at others, as it usually is.
Adonis’ work is more challenging in that it is inward-looking, demanding collective self-criticism, the humility of empathy for others, and the necessity of integrating difference into increasingly rigid and stultifying nationalist and religious identities that exclude and marginalize non-dominant minorities. Above all, it calls for pluralism and tolerance for diversity, for creating the social conditions that enable constructive dissent.
Even as he criticizes Israelis and Europeans and Americans for a host of human rights violations in the Middle East, he simultaneously insists that, “I am among those who seek the ills of the Arabs in their own history, not outside of it.”
He argues that Arab culture has become too conservative and too confident in its conservatism, unwilling to cultivate new responses to contemporary challenges, to accept dissent not only as something that happens during moments of revolutionary fervor and national liberation—as in the Arab Spring—but as a daily commitment to practical democracy based on dialogue, mutual respect, and reason.
"We live in a culture that doesn't leave a space for questions. It knows all the answers in advance. Even God has nothing left to say!"
He states, “In our tradition, unfortunately, everything is based on unity – the oneness of God, of politics, of the people. We can’t ever arrive at democracy with this mentality, because democracy is based on understanding the other as different. You can’t think you hold the truth, and that nobody else has it.”
God is not a matter of great concern to Adonis —or more accurately, God is not a subject of reverence. Adonis’ concern lies with the way in which the concept of God can become an idol that perverts the very notion of divinity as a source of moral goodness and human welfare, of values that promote freedom, reason, and peace.
Adonis is sometimes depicted and maligned as being hostile to God and religion. This, however, is an oversimplification, a misunderstanding born out of dogmatism and zealotry rather than sincere engagement with his speeches and writings.
Adonis is not an angry atheist railing against the ignorance of the faithful. Rather, he is a person that demands of faith the same moral standards to which they ascribe to themselves: justice, compassion, mercy, honesty, and integrity. In this sense he shows a respect for faith and religion and its potential for good.
If anything, Adonis’ rigorous questioning of all religions and all ideologies can potentially strengthen world faiths, if they are engaged openly and honestly rather than maligned conveniently as heresy.
His criticisms are too probing, perceptive, and intelligent to be so casually disregarded, however one feels about them. Adonis is not a shouting polemicist or a demagogue; rather, he is a writer who employs evidence and reason, who invites dialogue and exchange as he simultaneously explores his own ideas and beliefs.
His probing questions may be difficult and challenge orthodoxies, but they are neither rooted in—nor desirous of—malice towards the devout.
His book, The Changing and the Fixed: A Study of Conformity and Originality in Arab Culture, was banned in some countries for its deep criticism of the development of Islam. Some have labeled—perhaps libeled—it as heretical.
In this book, he argues that Arab culture and certain strains of Islam within it have become ossified and fearful of change and development. This is not a problem of religion exclusively, for Adonis notes that secular movements such as Marxism and Arab nationalism have also promulgated absolute truths which are often fixed and impermeable revelations that establish narrow boundaries of legitimacy and freedom and that stifle creativity, conversation, and social development.
But Adonis’ poetry and writing is not only concerned with social critique. He writes of the intimacies of the human heart, of love and longing.
In his early rejection of traditional forms of Arabic poetry Adonis both developed a new and daring form of Arab modernism while also deriving inspiration from Sufi mysticism, evoking nature and human desire with passion not usually associated with modernism.
The very social diversity he so champions is reflected in the diversity of his poetry. Commentators have noted that, while some of his poems have the formality of a T.S. Eliot poem, others share more in common with the generosity, verve, and seductive enchantment of Walt Whitman’s poetry.
Adonis celebrates the Arab Spring, but cautions that it has already been appropriated: “It’s the Arab youth that created this spring, and it’s the first time Arabs are not imitating the West – it’s extraordinary. But despite this, it’s the Islamists and merchants and Americans who have picked the fruits of this revolutionary moment.”
Undaunted at 82, Adonis continues to write—and now to take on new art forms that integrate drawing and painting with poetry and calligraphy.
Both cautious and hopeful, Adonis offers a firmly Arab cosmopolitanism that is fully at home in the world and offers a vision of possibility for the Arab world that seems particularly prescient and worthy of reexamination in the context of the Arab Spring.
Even revolutionaries—perhaps revolutionaries in particular—need to pause and reflect: to read a poem, and question themselves with the combination of respect and temerity, confidence and humility, silence and speech, that one finds in Adonis’ fresh and historically resonant poetic voice.
A Tribute to Adonis is open at the Mosaic Rooms, London, until 30th March 2012