An Arab Surrealist
THE NATION (January 3, 2005)
by Robert Irwin
An Arab Surrealist
The Springs of Adonis (now also known as the River Ibrahim) run through the Byblos region of Lebanon down through steep gorges to the Mediterranean. Iron ore deposits stain its waters red at times of flood. The cult of Adonis used to be celebrated in a temple close by. The beautiful youth Adonis, who was loved by the goddess Astarte, went out hunting despite her warnings and was gored to death by a boar. But after long supplications, Astarte succeeded in securing his release from the underworld for half the year. The rituals of Adonis, of resurrection and the return of spring, were observed in Greater Syria for millennia. It seems that even in medieval Islamic times the return of Adonis to this world was still being celebrated in remote villages. Legends concerning Adonis and other figures from pagan Syrian lore were to figure largely in the quasi-mystical rhetoric of Syrian nationalism in the 1940s and ’50s.
The poet ‘Ali Ahmad Sa’id, who was later to assume the pen-name Adonis, was born in 1930 and grew up in the Latakia region of Syria in a remote little village called Qasibin, some 150 miles to the north of the ancient cultic center of the rites of Adonis. The area around Qasibin was and mostly still is agricultural, impoverished, largely illiterate and remote from centers of urban civilization. Until he was 12, the boy who was to grow up to become a globe-trotting poet on the Nobel short list never saw a car or a radio. Reflecting on his origins inIdentité Inachevée (“Unrealized Identity”), a collection of interviews, Adonis remarks that he never had a childhood, since from an early age he was put to work in the fields. But in the evenings his father recited poetry, much of it mystical, and kept the boy at work memorizing this poetry. In the daytime, in the hills, the boy began to compose poetry of his own.
Then one day he heard that Shukri al-Quwatli, who in 1947 had become the first president of Syria after it gained its independence from France, was visiting a town in the Latakia region to perform an official ceremony of some sort. The boy, determined to impress the president with his poetry, walked miles over the hills but arrived late at the official function. Nevertheless, he successfully begged to be allowed to read his poem to the president. When the boy had finished, the president, impressed, asked him what he would like as a reward. “I want an education,” the boy replied. Thereafter he went to school in Latakia, where he began to sign his poems under the name Adonis, and then to university in Damascus, where he produced a thesis on Sufi mysticism. In Damascus he became involved with Antun Sa’ada and his Syrian National Party. This party put Syria and its legends and history before pan-Arabism or Islamism. The charismatic Sa’ada put forward quasi-fascistic arguments for the future destiny of a Greater Syria (so great that it was to include Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus and even Iraq, which was to be redesignated Eastern Syria). After a failed attempt at a coup in Lebanon, Sa’ada was executed in 1949. In 1956 Adonis himself ran afoul of the Syrian government and went into exile in Beirut, where a year later he founded the magazine Shi’r (“Poetry”) with the Syro-Lebanese poet Yusuf al-Khal, another former follower of Sa’ada. In the 1980s, the civil war in Lebanon would in turn drive him into a second exile, in Paris. It is not surprising that the theme of exile pervades his poetry.
Once he had moved to Beirut, Adonis abandoned the cause of a Greater Syria and turned instead to pan-Arabism. But from then on, conventional politics ceased to play such a large part in his thoughts. At university in Damascus, he had discovered the Surrealists and the French literary ancestors of the Surrealists. This in turn led him back to the Arab poetical heritage. As Adonis noted in his brilliant Introduction to Arab Poetics (originally published in 1985 and available in an English translation), it
was reading Baudelaire which changed my understanding of Abu Nuwas and revealed his particular poetical quality and modernity, and Mallarmé’s work which explained to me the mysteries of Abu Tammam’s poetic language and the modern dimension in it. My reading of Rimbaud, Nerval and Breton led me to discover the poetry of the mystic writers in all its uniqueness and splendour.
Although Persian literature has a rich heritage of mystical poetry, by Hafiz, Rumi, al-‘Attar and others, most of medieval Arabic mystical poetry is pietistic, cliché-bound and frankly dreary. But “that divine madman,” al-Niffari, a somewhat obscure tenth-century Iraqi mystic, is an exceptional figure in the history of Arabic literature and mysticism. The mystically inclined British Orientalist A.J. Arberry (1905-69), who was the first to translate al-Niffari, wrote somewhat speculatively about the mystic’s life in the vicinity of the ancient town of Niffar:
And at night, in the desert, when the stars hung low, and the bright belt of Orion recalled legends of that giant who overreached ambition, this lonely wanderer, whose writings like his ashes have fallen upon unfrequented ways, found strength and consolation in the vision of the one true God Whose love and service atone for every lovely perishable thing that this uncertain world possesses.
Adonis’s appreciation of al-Niffari has been more literary, though no less passionate. Al-Niffari’s accounts of his encounters with the Divine are full of fierce energy, paradox and strange metaphors. His language became a tool for exploring a weird universe. Since his visions made him blind to social and literary conventions, he became a Surrealist poet avant la lettre: “The knowledge of the sea is an unreachable lustre, and its depths an unfathomable darkness, and between the two are fishes which may not be trusted.”
Other, more secular poets also form part of Adonis’s private pantheon of poètes maudits. Abu Nuwas, the louche ninth-century court poet of the Abbasid caliphs, a bisexual, a hard drinker and a poetical innovator, is in this pantheon. So is al-Ma’arri, the eleventh-century misanthropic skeptic and satirist. Perhaps even more important in shaping Adonis’s self-image as poet is the greatest of the poets of pre-Islamic Arabia, Imru’l-Qays, the sixth-century prince who roamed in exile until, it is said, he was murdered with a poisoned shirt that he was given. His most famous poem, his Mu’allaqa, is steeped in nostalgia and eroticism and rich with vivid imagery. In the essay “Poetry and the Desert” Adonis has written admiringly of the bleakness, sensuality and grim sense of destiny in pre-Islamic poetry and of the poets’ use of the Arabic language as a vehicle for magic and ritual. In Adonis’s eyes, modernity is not the monopoly of modern times.
Although he has a thorough knowledge of the classical canons of Arab poetry, which were first established by the pre-Islamic poets of Arabia, Adonis is emphatic that those canons should not constrain today’s poetry. Since the 1950s he has been one of the pioneers of free verse, prose poems and other forms of experimentation.
While Adonis is a prolific writer of both prose and poetry, only small selections translated by various hands have so far appeared in English. More of his work has been translated into French (and, in general, the French have shown a much greater interest in Arabic literature than either the Americans or the British). Anne Wade Minkowski has been his chief French translator. Not only has Adonis worked closely with her translations of his poetry, but they have cooperated in the reverse process, as Minkowski has assisted Adonis in his translations into French of the poets al-Ma’arri and Kahlil Gibran. Jean-Yves Masson in the introduction to the most recent selection of Minkowski’s translations of Adonis, Toucher la lumière, quotes Octavio Paz to the effect that poets have no biographies. In one sense, that hardly seems appropriate for Adonis, whose strange trajectory from peasant to illustrious writer threads its way through three-quarters of a century of political, religious and cultural upheaval in the Middle East. And, indeed, I believe that Adonis is currently working on his autobiography. Yet, in another sense, Paz’s observation seems most appropriate when considering the poetry of Adonis. The poems translated in Toucher la lumière are personal in the sense that only he can be sure what they mean, yet impersonal in the sense that he allows the reader no window into his private concerns. He is known to despise personal or psychologically revelatory poems.
Adonis’s universe is the theater of a solipsistic visionary. What he has to say is oracular and difficult. The poet has something of the Mahdi (the redeemer at the end of history) about him, but in his strange apocalypse it is not clear who is going to be saved and who damned. Damascus is the notional subject and setting for many of the poems, but it is a city of history, legend and above all strange Surrealist metaphors, rather than the congested, noisy, dickering place that is familiar to those who have actually visited it. The poet’s universe is constructed from emblematic things: the city, the sea, the mirror, the wind, the tree and the dream. There is something eerily childlike in the way objects are animated and given new meanings. In Toucher la lumière, the wind is a child that sits and cries on his shoulders. The dream advances toward infancy as one gets older. In one of these poems, words are defined as “wings for birds which take dreams as nests.” This whole selection can be read as a great Surrealist dictionary.
In 1992 Adonis published al-Sufiyya wa’l-Surriyaliyya (of which an English translation, Sufism and Surrealism, is forthcoming with Saqi Books in London next year). In that extended essay he argued that Sufism and Surrealism drew on common areas of the psyche and shared a language and goals. He presented Surrealism as a godless form of mysticism and argued that Sufism did not entail faith in traditional religion. Surrealism and Sufism both dealt in things that issue from a hidden world and that are unseen, unspoken and incomprehensible. Adonis drew heavily upon André Breton, al-Niffari and, above all, Rimbaud, whom he described as an “oriental Sufi.” Rimbaud’s father translated the Koran and Rimbaud himself studied Arabic. Sanguinary sultans and djinns stalk through his poetry. In A Season in Hell, he addressed European philosophers in the following terms: “You are in the West, but free to live in your East, as old as you wish it–and to live there well. Do not be one of the defeated.” Adonis portrays Rimbaud as a product of a culture that has been infiltrated by Oriental literature, via translations of The Thousand and One Nights and al-‘Attar’s mystical verses.
Al-Sufiyya w’al-Surriyaliyya‘s chapter on “Love” is almost entirely devoted to an exposition of the thought of Ibn al-‘Arabi, the thirteenth-century Andalusian mystic, who proclaimed that “to see God in the form of a beautiful woman is the most perfect vision of all.” Women feature prominently in the poetic universe of Adonis. They are not the sort of women one is likely to meet in Beirut or Paris but are, rather, the most powerful of the emblems in the emblematic universe of cities, seas and mirrors that the poet inhabits. Indeed, in some poems a woman appears to constitute the whole of an intensely eroticized universe. If Only the Sea Could Sleep, a selection of his love poems, takes its title from one of his most striking images: “If only the sea could sleep I would make its bed beside me.” In this strange landscape a grieving seashell lectures the poet on the nature of Woman and the poet speaks of wearing a woman and of her wearing him. This last metaphor may remind Western readers of Breton’s declaration: “I wish I could change my sex as easily as I change my shirt”; but Arab readers are more likely to think of the Koran’s declaration: “Women are your garments and you are theirs.”
In the interviews in Identité Inachevée, Adonis sets out his ideas on political, social and religious issues. The poet is a prophet and poetry is a force for social change and liberation. The poet-prophet fights on two fronts. First he opposes the dead weight of institutional Islam and the backward-looking and patriarchal nature of Arab culture. Society needs to be feminized. Second, Western materialism, globalization and a culture of dependency in the Middle East must be combated. In a sense, this struggle is another aspect of the first one, for he argues that it is the West that keeps corrupt, patriarchal Arab politicians in power and that the West prefers to cut deals with Islamic fundamentalists rather than oppose them. He singles out sports, computers, comic books, photography and, above all, the Internet as elements of a sinister new mode of Western existence that allows no space for the visionary. The Arab world cannot achieve modernity in terms set by the West. In one of his best-known poems, “A Tomb for New York,” he has written of the Statue of Liberty “lifting in one hand a rag called liberty,” while with the other it throttles the earth. Elsewhere, he has written of “Europe’s worm-eaten corpse.”
Yet Adonis’s attitude toward the West is always ambivalent. “A Tomb for New York” also apostrophizes Walt Whitman, and Adonis continues to argue that much of Western culture is really Oriental culture in disguise, noting that it was the dream of the Orient that shaped Romanticism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In one of his earlier essays, he suggested that the true religion of the West is a worship of the future. But Adonis prefers to turn back to the fertility rituals of ancient Syria, the bleak poetry of pre-Islamic Arabia and Sufic prefigurations of Surrealism. The best manifestations of modernity, he believes, are found in centuries past.