The Paris-based Syrian poet and perpetual Nobel candidate Ali Ahmad Said Esber, better known by his pen name Adonis, is 93 this year. Yet, combining literary creativity with philosophical rigour, his mental energy is at its peak. Adonis continues to voice unpopular if astute opinions when the occasion arises, generating controversy wherever he goes. He refuses to talk about his achievements, for one thing.
“I don’t like the Arab way of talking about oneself,” Adonis tells me in Paris. “I am a person who learns, and the older I am the more I feel that I know nothing.” Compared to those of the true greats, he says, somewhat unfairly, his achievements would be modest indeed. “Besides, in Arab-Muslim culture there is no individuality. There is no true subjectivity. There is only a set of instructions, dos and donts. And everything I’ve done, I’ve done out of opposition to that culture.”
Adonis cites the ninth-century polymath Al-Farabi: “That which exists in itself owns itself, and that which exists as an instrument is owned.” By way of example he cites the eighth-century Al-Imam Al-Shafei, a very central figure in Islam, saying that whoever gives an opinion of the Quran is wrong even if they are right: “How do you feel about people living under that kind of culture? How can you even respect a person who says this? As a Muslim I have had to search for my sense of self, to overcome the instrumentality whereby that self is eradicated in favour of the group, the nation, and I was successful sometimes and unsuccessful at other times.”
Adonis insists that it is the individual who creates a poem, a painting, or even an automobile — not the group or faith community to which Arab society “lethally” subordinates them — and his life’s work has been as much as anything an attempt to assert individuality against all odds.
Adonis prescribes reforming the establishment — cultural and political as well as religious — turning religion, “a human need worthy of respect”, into an individual experience “like love,” binding only in as much as it is chosen. Without complete secularisation “it is impossible for us to have true societies”.
It has been a century exactly since the fall of the Ottoman caliphate in 1923, and in that century of major epistemic transformations, while the entire world went “from bad to less bad or from good to better”, the Arabs have merely accumulated backwardness. That, he says, is the first question: “In this same century, as Arabs, we did not manage to institute a single political system that respects the human being, their rights and freedom, nor create a state in the real sense of the word.”
He goes on to enumerate our failures — educational, medical, scientific — adding that it is not for lack of wealth, geography or history. A single museum in Egypt, Iraq or Syria “is worth more to me than all that the three monotheisms produced throughout their history”. Likewise in Latin America: despite all that Christianity managed to destroy, the mere remains of the Inca and the Maya, he says, are worth more than the entire history of Christianity. “If you look at it this way, you will see that the world we live in is not only closed off but actually lethal.”
Arabs, he goes on, have always existed in north Africa and western Asia, the places where Pharaonic and Phoenician and Babylonian civilisations — the very building blocks of humanity — emerged, and yet they are now dependent on the much younger and in principal weaker cultures of the north. Why is it, he asks, that we are dependent on countries that need us more than we need them?
Algeria, for example, is objectively the greatest Mediterranean country of all, and yet it hasn’t become Belgium or France or even Italy. It is dependent on France. The great cities to which the ancient Greeks others would flock to learn — Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad — why are they so benighted? The West appropriates our resources and disrespects us.
“I know this very well. I’ve had experience and I know. Muslims are not respected at all in the West, they are detested. And it’s true. When you read the religious literature coming out of Al-Azhar and the work of the religious authorities you feel ashamed of that Islam they are talking about. Where is the world of the intellect, the divine world, the secrets of the universe or the great branches of knowledge. There is none of that. It is all about intercourse whether in this world or the next. The person who is promised paradise is promised 70 houris and intercourse with them, not knowledge or understanding the secrets of the universe or controlling it.”
Such a narrative, he says, hurt Islam much more than Islam’s enemies. By imposing it on everyone you actually empty Islamic civilisation of substance, you turn Islam into nothing but “political capital”. “I am not personally religious. But I’d love for there to be religious people, great religious thinkers and intellectuals. And yet we don’t have a single intellectual. Even Ibn Rushd was not a religious thinker, because he interpreted Islam in a particular way. In my opinion we have not had a single thinker in the whole history of Islam except for Al-Ghazali and even he took a backward turn towards the end of his life, and he was censured by Ibn Taimiya.”
According to the poet, Arabs have two tasks ahead of them to transcend the impasse: they need to break with the narrative imposed on Islam, and they need to break out of Western hegemony. If they do not achieve both these aims they are headed for extinction “in the Roman sense,” he says. But, having been born on 1 January 1930, witnessing exactly 70 per cent of the 20th century and a good portion of the 21st, how might the influential figure describe the past century in general?
“It is the century during which, in the name of God, people are being killed in Arab-Muslim society and the one during which, in the name of freedom and democracy, the West is killing them. The basis of the West is freedom and democracy and human rights, but they have forgotten when the American settlers did to the original inhabitants of that continent, exterminating them entirely. And it is in the name of that same basis that they’re destroying the rest of the world today. We have to exit both these narratives:
“Western lies, colonialism and racism veiled in democracy and freedom and human rights; and the Muslim self-definition that thrives on ignorance and insularity and living in prehistory. I don’t know how a nation can be ‘the best nation that emerged’,” as the Quran says, “when most of its members don’t read. Muslims are the most ignorant people today. How is it that a country of 10 million people like Greece, according to UNESCO statistics, reads and prints and translates and publishes more than all the Arab countries, in which 400 million people live, combined? How can that be the case if we are the best nation?”
With reference to his repeated call for rereading and reinterpreting the Islamic canon, what he calls “my life’s project” — and it is a call he made articulately during the 2015 Cairo Book Fair — Adonis is all for “renewing religious discourse,” a process often championed in Egypt. But he feels that rewriting “the history of which you and I are part in the correct way” is a prerequisite for any religious reform.
“Religion exists in the service of the human being,” he says. “The human being does not exist in the service of religion, this is a rule. Humanity is the higher purpose, and religion should help to serve it.” He cites those verse of the Quran that indicate that it should be up to each person to believe what they will, and that even holy writ is subject to change.
And, even though he agrees that the Islamic State is an American creation, as Hillary Clinton said, he also feels it is the creation of Islam and Muslim fascists. “Muslims funded it. Daesh undertook acts that are humiliating to Islam first, because they demonstrated that what was happening to Muslims is nobody else’s fault. What Daesh did to the Yazidis — the way Yazidi women were literally enslaved, and the way whole communities were displaced by Daesh — is a disgrace to religion and to humanity.
“But even worse than this,” Adonis adds, “is the fact that no religious institution objected or criticised what Daesh did. Nor did Muslim thinkers produce a statement condemning those actions. That is the hardest part. In every community there will be criminals, but for the community to condone them or be silent — that is much more difficult. Muslims said nothing about crimes that destroyed Syria and Iraq and Yemen and Libya, and destroyed everything.”
Finally winding down to poetry — and many feel that Adonis’ real forte is neither as a poet nor as an intellectual but as a literary critic — the author of the hugely influential theoretical monograph The Static and the Dynamic feels that, over that same century, more recent poets are better than those of the past.
“Let me give you an example,” he says. “Ahmed Shawki whom we called the Prince of Poets, if you placed him today next to [the Abbasid greats] Abu Tammam and Al- Buhturi and Al-Mutanabbi, whom he attempted to summon up, it’s true that his language is refined but you can easily see that, next to them, he is nothing. In terms of vision or literary innovation he contributed absolutely nothing. He was incredibly conventional.
“By contrast if you look at [the more recent vernacular poet] Salah Jahine,” another Egyptian, “you can see that he’s capable of conversing with you. Salah Jahine talks to me and inspires me whereas I can never read Shawki. There is no doubt in my mind that Salah Jahine is the best poet in Egypt. He is poetically more important and humanly deeper and intellectually more far reaching than Shawki.
“Another example is [Shawki’s slightly younger Iraqi contemporary] Mohamed Mahdi Al-Jawahiri, whom we called the Arabs’ Greater Poet, he too contributed nothing new, and [the vernacular Iraqi poet] Mudhaffar Al-Nawwab is better than him. The same holds for all ideological poetry that was written about the Algerian Revolution and the Palestinian Revolution, too — where is all that now? It has no value whatsoever.
“Regrettably,” he says, “the scientific seed of the Arab Renaissance was completely buried. Shawki and Jawahiri are celebrated at the expense of [rationalists like] Ali Abdel-Razek and Mohamed Abdu, Salama Moussa and Shibli Shumayyil.
“My feeling,” he goes on, “is that what’s being written by Arab women and some young men — not many — is more significant than the entire output of my generation without exception.” Why? “If you lived in the same house as your brother, would that mean that you both have the same dreams? Do you have the same imagination, the same emotions?
“The individual’s problems concern the individual alone. They are not public. If there is a head that is public and shared, poetry does not come out of that head. It comes out of the body, its private problems, its uniqueness. The body thinks too. Thought is not simply revelation as religion would have us believe, because even the prophets came out of a woman’s body. The body is sacred, and it is in this sense that we should understand the pharaohs connection with death.
“Those young men and women now writing poetry, especially the women among them, have started leaving the culture of the head. They are leaving behind the traditions and restrictions of religious culture and all those narratives, and giving themselves the freedom to create a different world. Imagination and the body are increasingly essential to poetic writing. This is happening for the first time, and I’m now sponsoring a poetic project called ‘Transformations’ and a woman’s poetry project called ‘You are her’ that will start publishing in Cairo promoting the culture of the body and the individual.”
Adonis believes that the crisis of poetry is not poetic but rather a crisis in reading. “Poetry,” he reiterates, “is alive as long as love and death exist.” Unlike many in Arabic letters today he has no scruples about saying that poetry is the greatest human self-expression: greater, in particular, than the novel. He flatly denies the late critic Gaber Asfour’s famous — controversial — statement that we live in “the age of the novel”.
“Of course this is not the age of the novel but the age of poetry. I don’t see a single Arab novelist outside Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz is the only one I can boast of, because he is more than a novelist. He has a vision for society and civilisation. The others are prisoners of narration and storytelling. Mahfouz transformed narration into world creation.”
Adonis is unperturbed by the accusation that, while he critiqued and deconstructed, he did not come up with constructive or positive suggestions for the future of Arab culture or writing. “If there are some people who did the Arabic language favours, I am among those people. What I wrote about Arabic poetry no one else did, not even [the Dean of Arabic Literature] Taha Hussein.” He is “in love with this world”, he says, and wishes there were “true Muslim writers” worthy of reading.
“Sadly I have not found a single Muslim thinking correctly, or possessing a new reading of Islam. They all brag. Each says, ‘I am Muslim, you don’t understand Islam.’ Everything amounts to a critique of other Muslims as a kind of self-praise. An absurd kind of contest that never stops.”
Adonis feels that his presence in the West allows him to critique Western hegemony more meaningfully than if he had spent his life in the Arab world, and he believes that the way forward is breaking that homicidal, racist hegemony which remains murderous however appealingly it presents itself. The way to do that, he says, is to endorse multiplicity and interaction across the world. A multipolar world, in other words.
“Otherwise,” following the Covid pandemic, there will be more destruction. War will continue in Ukraine. The West rose on the basis of that racist, imperial impulse, and it must stop for the sake of the West itself. We don’t have to be pro-China as such, but there is no way we can be pro-America. What America is doing in the world is aggressive and racist. And that is their problem, not mine.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly