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Adonis speaks to Forward: The living legend of Arab poetry PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Diego Gomez Pickering   
Monday, 29 November 2010 09:09

11/11/2010 - Issue 45


Adonis speaks to Forward: The living legend of Arab poetry by Diego Gómez Pickering

Last month, Adonis was robbed again of a Nobel Prize, after first being nominated in 1988. He would have been the second Arab to receive the honor.

With over thirty published books in almost equal number of languages, Ali Ahmed Said Esber, through his literary pseudonym, Adonis, is the Arab world’s most renowned poet and one of its best recognized intellectuals. Essayist, translator, literary critic, historian, journalist, editor and story teller, there is not a single area left untouched by his creative being. With a pen name taken from the pagan Syrian prophet whose cult spread to Greece, his work as daring and complex as it is beautiful. Adonis' revolutionary use of rhyme and metre modernized Arab poetic language, while retaining the suurealism and mystical symbolism that characterizes Arab literature.

Syria’s star son talked to us about his life, his works and thoughts between Paris, where he currently resides, Beirut, his adoptive hometown, and Damascus, where it all started.

Adonis was born to a modest family in 1930 in Qasabin, a small rural village in Northeastern Syria. He started writing at a very young age and opted for signing his first works as Adonis, a mythic god of Semitic roots, after magazines and newspapers rejected his early submissions.

What’s left of the Adonis of Qasabin, in Paris? What differences or similarities are between both?
From Qasabin I preserve my interest in discovering the world, in questioning, in proposing, in knowledge. There are very little differences, almost close to none, between the Adonis of Qasabin and that of Paris. The one of Paris is more mature, has lived a long life, but like all other poets is still a little boy, because if he stopped being so he would die.

How did the social and family backgrounds of Ali influence the conformation of Adonis?
Coming from a poor household things were never easy. My relationship with my father was like the one you could have with a teacher. From him I learnt everything, my affection for books, poetry, reading and intellectual search. Thanks to him I developed my creative flair; I enrolled in school and university and eventually became who I am nowadays. From my mother I got my emotional needs, my irrational self, everything that is required for having a balance between opposites. That is why I believe that regardless of the social or cultural background every person is born a poet or at least has the potential to become one.

At 80 years-old what is left to do for Adonis?
For me the most important thing is writing, and I wish to keep on doing it every day. That has been my life and that is the way I want it to stay; and not in a methodological way but rather spontaneous, in between cafés and the street, the river and the subway, watching passers-by and living life. Falling in love, that is what I enjoy the most and the main reason for us to be alive. Writing, travelling, drinking, sharing with friends and my close ones; because that is how you learn more about yourself and your own culture, that is how you discover your inner world and that of others.

Adonis arrived in Lebanon in 1956. In Beirut he reinvented himself and laid the foundations of his career. He embraced poetry, leaving behind his political militancy but not his fascination of it. There he lived the horrors of civil war until it was unbearable; escaping the Israeli invasion he recurred to exile for the second time in his life. He has been living in Paris since 1985, turning his back to all the atrocities but at the same time taking them with him.

What does exile mean to you?
For me there are two types of exile, the geographic exile and the exile of thought. The first one is lighter, almost imperceptible, when confronted to the second one, which is the exile of one self, of emotion and sentiment. It is a very personal exile, insurmountable and, most of the times, terminal and devastating. I believe I was born exiled but throughout my life I have been able to overcome that condition, step by step.

Do you miss your country, your affections?
For over 20 years I did not visit Syria, but now I try to go at least once a year. It is a country that I never really left behind but rather took along with me. That is why I do not miss much because I have always had it all. And I still have, I own the best of both worlds.

How costly is freedom?
Freedom has a very high price; a price one must pay to enjoy it. That certainly has been my case and that of many others. Like women, a fundamental piece of man’s life; part of my work and my thoughts, but so often misunderstood and undervalued in our world.

In 1957, alongside Lebanese poet Yusuf Al-Jal, Adonis founded in Beirut “Shi’r” (poetry), a monthly publication that soon became a turning point for literature and poetry in the Arab world. At the same time he published two of his best known works, “Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs” and “The Fix and the Movement”. During these early years, Adonis established the purpose that would accompany him throughout his career: renovating Arab poetry. Recreating language, surpassing the classics and making man the ultimate object of poems. Critically assuming local culture and acknowledging universal poetic and literary experiences.

Sufism’s role in the Arab world’s intellectual and literary development is undeniable. What role does it play nowadays?
Within the Arab world, Sufism is the sublimation of thought, its mysticism and philosophical connection. Unfortunately, nowadays its practice has been greatly reduced and separated from its roots; it has been persecuted by politics and constrained by social paradigms. Something that is detrimental for the spirit of illumination that should enlighten the obscurity immersing our world.

Where did you find your creative influences?
In Heraclitus, Nietzsche, Ibn Arabi and all the classic Arab poets.

What represents poetry for Adonis? Do you find it superior to other literary disciplines?
Somehow, it is impossible to define poetry. It is the means for expressing ideas and thoughts. The poet is a creator and poetry is a creative process, with which I feel more comfortable than with any other. For me there is no artistic style as such but only artists that are the ones expressing themselves, creating, being. That is why we can not say there is a discipline superior to the rest; purer or more important. That said, I must confess I am not a big fan of reading novels, I find them too long. I never seem to be able to read them in the correct order, not that I think I should. I never finish them. Maybe that is why I am not very fond of novelists.

In “Al Kitab” (The Book), considered by the author as his literary pinnacle, Adonis proves his deep knowledge of Arab society, culture and history, both before and after the arrival of Islam. It is a work that took him over a decade to complete and that was published in three different editions during a period of three years. Through it, Adonis brings the reader closer to his world, his people, his past and his present.

How real is the supposed split between East and West?
Between East and West there will always be crossed interpretations and misunderstandings because assessments and judgments on both sides are based on stereotypes, built upon mutual ignorance and disdain for the other.

What challenges faces the Arab world today?
Currently, Arab societies live with great apathy, veiled by an obscurantism based on an archaic interpretation of life and religion. There is a stubborn and absolute ignorance of what art, literature, poetry, the old masters and our civilization’s great cultural inheritance are.

From your perspective, what will happen with the Arab Israeli conflict?
There is no solution on sight for the Arab Israeli conflict; it might be prolonged for years or even decades. There is no willingness on either side to put an end to a war that has lasted for so long and has claimed the lives of so many innocents. The Palestinian people are the ones that have suffered the most; their plea is unique and very sad. They have lived over sixty years as refugees, unwanted and even rejected by their so-called brother nations who in many cases have used them as a political tool without really caring about their well being or about solving their disastrous situation. Palestinians are victims of times, history and circumstances. Palestine is a tragedy without remedy.


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