May 12, 2015 By V.A Kabeer

Adonis: Words that Met Stars

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A December dusk with cool breeze wafting all along. The 16th Doha International Book Fair was all set to begin. The pivot of Cultural programmes, a key event in the fair, is the chief guest Adonis, the most remarkable Arab poet of this era. A Khayma (tent) has been specially erected on the sidelines of the fest to stage cultural events.  Hardly had I entered the khyama, the programmes began. Air conditioners were toiling hard to resist the cold outside. The fragrance of oud was wafting along the tent from a censor. An august audience consisting the likes of Dr Husam al Khatheeb, professor in linguistics at the University of Qatar and a Syrian compatriot of Adonis, Qatari poets like Dr Hajar and Dr Hasan Niama and many other writers and intellectuals. Dr Naima was the ambassador of Qatar in India and was very fond of the country where he worked. I had read reports about Dr Naima’s poetic soirees in the Arab League Embassy Magazines in Delhi. Sudanese novelist Tayyib Salih narrates in his memoirs about a charismatic Naima making it a point to visit Doha when he gets a transfer order from Delhi. His aim was to have the order quashed by the Sheikh Kaleefa, the then Ameer of Qatar. He did not like to bid goodbye to India, as he was obsessively fond of the cultural milieu of Delhi.

Dear, Hold out your forearms/Offer your qurbana- Flowers, rose-water, incense, oil, wheat/You are his rock/In which he builds love/Tantra-Sutra

The Khyama was woken up by the Sanskrit metaphors in Adonais’ poems. Sanskrit terms punctuated the lines he recited-Kama, Raga, Ananda, Arghya, Linga, Yoni, Adwaita. I might be the only Indian in that evening soiree. The recitation, though coincidental, seemed to have been specially chosen. It might also be coincidental that the anthology titled Awalul Jasad Akhirul Bahar (Beginning of body and the end of sea) which I bought contained the recited poem.

It was for the first time that I saw and heard Adonis. He almost shattered the picture I had from the youngish figure in his regular column ‘Madarat’ in Al Hayat. Reminding me that the poet crossed 74 eventful years, muscles in his neck were loosely hanging down. However, his voice stood the passage of time with its sharpness and thundering reverberations. The architectonic vividness of his poem reflected the rhythmic undulations of his voice in recitation.  He was sitting in a chair, only a foot above the stage, accompanied by a female reciter. They took turns in recitation, which was rendered into a song with the accompaniment of Naseer Shamma’s musical instrument ‘Oud’. The audience, drunk in the elixir of poetry was wrapped in attention. Silence of the khyma was made conspicuous by the murmur of the turning pages in the notebook. One could not help but adding a visual metaphor to this mesmerizing merger of sensations by evoking the maidens of Abul Farj al Isfahani’s Kitabul Agani time-travelling many centuries clattering their anklets. Adonis’ words went on their rebirth, bearing witness to the eternity of Arab poetry which transcended all definitions and delimitations, being optimistic of the promising future of poesy:

I will keep living/ as rose-flower bearing poetry/ I will exist/ Embracing clouds/ Stringing horizons down/ Pulling the sun aloft  in its sleeves/ Interpret me/ My body is a paper skin/ The book that scribbled/ Alphabets of clouds and stars is a way unto light

My body;

It aches over mystery/ that lies in the umbilical chords of Ways/ Interpret my life/with the books sea crows wrote about/ the oceanic families./ Let the books of wavy beads/Interpret my voice./ Say; None has come yet/ who can point, mark/ and listen to the dawn

Poetry is like sunlight distilled down into the room. Its beauty eludes us. Like music, we can merely enjoy it. Adonis was leading us all into that inexplicable ecstasy. Poetry, emerging out the cocoon of words, takes the form of a pupa in music. Meanings of music and poetry transcend terminologies and symbols. Naseer Shamma was translating Adonis, when he was touching on the strings of ‘Oud’, preparing the soft bed of melody for each word of the poet by fine-tuning the strings to the crescendo, decrescendo, ascent and descent of the poet’s voice. In a review of the evening, critic Husam al Khatheeb recollects the musical tradition of Shamma. His grandfather was a renowned ‘Oud’ player in Syria. A rural Arab happened to witness a musical evening of the grandfather. Carried away by the mesmerizing beauty of the evening, the Arab told the ‘Oud’ player: “I believed in God first; second in you; third in ‘Oud.”

Poetry is the breast milk of language. Language attains realization through the sonorous merger of words. Adonis transforms the language of poetry into vocal artifacts from the silence of paper and ink and from the deadpan stillness of thesaurus. His words fly away in search of their own sky like wayward birds. He keeps reforming himself and his words. In an article Adonis has written about the constant novelty as well as polyphony of his poetry, citing the renowned saying that no man steps in the same river twice.

With the curtain brought down on an hour-long soiree, Dr Hasan Niama, Dr Hajar, writer and businessman Yusuf Darvish and critic Dr Husam al Khathib took time to compliment the poet. When Husam al Khatib complained that the notebook that the poet used to read out prevented him from directly communicating with the audience, Adonis innocently replied that he did not know his own poem by heart.

After the soirée, i started visiting bookstalls in the fair and reached the stall of Saqi, the forerunner among the Arab publishers. Saqi has published many books of Adonis. I had already purchased Adonis’ work comparing Sufism and surrealism. I was in search of the poet’s new anthology of poems and, moreover, his book on the Quran and writing. When I entered Saqi pavilion, I was surprised to find Adonis there. He was there to sign the books purchased from there. After shaking hands, I introduced myself as coming from India. He held me in a warm embrace and signed the copy of ‘Awalul Jasad and Akhirul Bahr’. His notes in the book were so peculiar and had the feature of painting. Like Gibran, Adonis is a painter too. When I requested address, he scribbled the Paris address. I asked him about the book on the Quran and writing. He passed the question over to the stall owner who said that the book was brought out by another publisher in Beirut and they were not participating in the fair. My search for the book in gulf region ended in vain. Six years later, my son-in-law had his Lebanese friend purchase it from Beirut.
“If I had to choose one word to describe myself, it would be peasant,” Adonis told Adam Shatz of the New York Times in a 2002 interview. Adonis was born in a peasant family in Khassabeen, a rustic province in Syria. Ali Ahmad Saeed, who later came to be known in the pen name of Adonais, was the eldest among six children. Electricity had hardly reached Khassbeen then. Financial constraints forced Adonis’ father to keep his son away from school.
However, the father took the role of a teacher and taught him Quran and poetry. When Ali Ahmed Saeed later took the name of the deity for fertility in Greek mythology, symbols associated with poetry and peasantry qualified that choice. Adonis was a peasant, though he reaped harvest in the field of poetry. When the first president of independent Syria Shukri al Qatooli, visited Jabala, a village nearby Khassbeen, the young Adonais insisted on reciting poetry in the welcome ceremony. Attracted to the genius of the boy, the president asked him for a wish. He expressed the desire for going to school. The president took the initiative to enrol the child in a school run by the French in a week’s time. After secondary education, he continued graduate-level education in Damascus University in German philosophy. There he came to be familiar with Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. Meanwhile, He started writing poetry under the nom de plume. He chose the pen name after his entries under proper name were all rejected.

Adonais is not a popular poet like Mahmoud Darvish or Nizar Qabbani. However he played a seminal role in liberating Arab poetry from the coop of ossified tradition and, therefore, is counted as a pioneer among modern Arab poets. He is considered as the TS Eliot of Arab poetry. Edward Said called him “today’s most daring and provocative Arab poet.” Samuel Hazou, translator of Adonais’ Athahwwulath val Hijra fi akaleemillail va nnahar’ (Pages of Day and Night), opines that Arab poetry can be classified into the time before and after Adonais.

Arab poetry started oozing freshness and novelty from the state of ossification when Adonis started the magazine ‘Shi’r’ (Poetry) in 1956 with his friend and Lebanese poet Yusuf al Khal. Beirut was then a haven for Arab poets and exiled revolutionaries. ‘Shi’r’ took the Arab cultural milieu by storm as it became a platform for experimentations. Welcoming new sensibilities, the magazine spent space for translation of European poetry. Poem in vers libre, which kept appearing in the magazine, raised the eyebrow of traditionalists. Adonis says: Poetry in the Arab world was then following a traditional pattern or was obsessed with nationalism. Our attempt was to reclaim an identity which would counter tribes and other theoretical forms of culture and would challenge the society. We were alleged to be American stooges. However everyone admits that the real and sincere works in Arabic poetry have appeared in ‘Shir’. Arab nationalists considered Shir as an Arab version of Encounter and the hands of CIA were alleged to be behind the two initiatives.

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Many eminent people sincerely held the notion that while ‘Encounter’ aimed at communism, ‘shir’ tried to stymie the cultural renaissance of the Arabs. At a time when the Arab nationalism locked horns with the US Empire, it was not surprising that such notions had popularity and all around recognition.

Adonais brought out another magazine in 1968 under the title ‘Mawakhif’ (standpoints). Unlike ‘Shir’, the new magazine gave space for political analyses. The new magazine was started in the context of the Arab debacle at the hands of Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israel war. When Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasir grew on popularity, the magazine dared to attack Arab nationalism. The magazine also deeply analysed the Palestine question. Adonais says: The aim of our programme was to radically question culture and history. So, Poetry was not our only subject. It was vital for reforming Arab thought.” At that time such statements were sufficient for Adonis’ to get the tag of American stooge.
Adonis’ lines earn poise and maturity from his mooring in Greek-Roman-Egyptian mythology and his travel in the Sufi poetry. But there is such a deconstructive creativity in his poetry that makes us think that his own lines question the poet’s self in between. Adonis defines poetry as questions posed one by one. Where we insist on a clear, unequivocal standpoint from a writer, Adonis’ self-questioning can entitle him the tag of a rebel. He starkly rejects poetry that offers readymade answers. Adonis blames the increase in the number of didactic poems in the Arab world on the ossification of poetic tradition that started its career with the theoretical poetic tradition of Islam and with the later emergence of communism. ‘That way,’ Adonis says, ‘starts from Islam and continues through the Caliphs and ends in the right-left parties.’ Adonis attains huge renown in the Arab world for his complex style and for his penchant criticism of Arab society. The voice of a rebel is rather explicit in an open letter he wrote to Bashar Al Assad. Though he openly opposed the ‘Bath Party’ autocracy, he is not optimistic about the future of rebellion in Syria. Adonis considers autocracy as being genetically inscribed in the Arab culture. He mocks theories on popular trend in both art and literature. He considers attempts to earn popularity as signs of disintegration of the true art. He treats the Nobel laureateship of Nageeb Mahfouz as such an attempt at popularity. ‘Rather than being a great writer, Mahfouz is just a symbol,’ he says. He considers most of opponents as poets least interested in reforming and diversifying their craft and being prone to self-repetition. They are not able to travel a different way from what tradition requires. ‘However,’ he says, ‘I have broken ties with the past- the one who rebelled against the system.’ His ‘Al Kitab’, a four volume book, is a radical rereading of Arab history. It recounts the infernal voyage of Arab history right from the death of the Prophet, through the Mongol invasion in 1258 and the fall of Baghdad.  ‘I am one among those who search for diagnosis of the Arab’s disease inside their history, not outside’.  Adonis, who has written a number of studies on Arab history and culture, is a strong exponent of secular democracy. His treatise ‘constancy and Change: A Study on Originality and Repetition in Arab Culture’ is in that vein. Certain Arab countries banned the distribution of the treatise. Adonis sharply picks apart in the treatise not only the theocrats who, in fear of novelty, stick to the past but also Marxian nationalism, which is not structurally different from religion. Adonis thinks that these movements, rather than sharing dialogic spaces, claim absolute knowledge and truth.’
We live in a cultural milieu that does not let any space for questions. For every question there is a ready-made answer. Arabs need today an identity revolution. Then only can they be saved from repetitious thought. Arabs are familiar only with consumerist modernity. It is a mixture of fake choices, extremism and consumerism. No culture remains in the Arab world. We are part of the western culture, that too as consumers, not as original producers.’ Not only Arabs but the westerners also have been subject to his trenchant critique. He wrote a long poem in 1971 titled ‘A Grave for New York.’ It took the attacks on twin tower in 9/11 to understand the prophetic power of his verse. Critics have compared the poem to Eliot’s Waste Land. A strange narrator (‘Hakwati’) appears in the poem who is in search of Walt Whitman’s specter in between the corpulently rich Wall Street and the dejected Harlem of the blacks. An enraged man imagines the wind blowing from the east, uprooting tents and skyscrapers, clouds setting fire and people vanquishing.

Adonis says: for me New York is both heaven and hell. While I read the poem now, fear grips me hard.’
The speech Adonis delivered during a visit at Kurdistan provoked an outcry in the Arab world. The controversy centered around his critical remarks on Arab culture and civilization. Cultural leaders like Hashim Alzma and Fawas Twaralabsi took Adonis task for the speech. Adonis aimed during the visit to express solidarity to the Kurd minorities in the Arab region, especially Iraq. It came about at a time when Adonis was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. Critics made it a point that through the speech Adonis viciously aimed at the prize. Adonis, in his column at Hayat, gave a detailed response to his critics.

Arab culture had not at all been the topic of his conversation. His remarks came about as a passing reference in his reply to a question. In the cultural milieu, there had been widely circulated allegation that Adonis described Arab civilization as a ‘rotten corpse.’ In fact, his statement that Arab civilization was heading to decay had been twisted to make it mean that way. “I have never said that. I had to correct the twisting some writers did of my statement. Culture here plays the role of national security and intellectuals that of a security officer, informer or a police officer. This trend has not started of late. Everyone interested in the Arab culture is aware of that. It is not the first time that I say about the decadence of Arab civilization. I have said so in Cairo, Damascus and Beirut. I desist from responding to the allegations about my Nobel aims. That statement is simply ridiculous. That does not have any relevance to the cultural dialogues. Those who know the tradition and foundation of world prizes hardly raise such an allegation.”
Adonis points his criticism at the political suppression going on in Arab countries. Kurds are the minority communities brutally suppressed in Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Though they follow a particular religious tradition, their linguistic, political and cultural heritage or even existence has not been recognized. Adonis belongs to Alawites, a minority among the Shias, themselves a minority among the Muslims. So he can easily fathom the mindscape of such a brutally suppressed minority community as Kurds.

“It is not that,” Adonis says, “Arab intellectuals don’t protest against or write about this crude injustice. For a decade and a half they have raised their voice. However more than a quarter of a billion people grow desperate. They live in pitiable state amidst embargos and in refugee camps. Countries decay on a daily basis. There is no hope of justice from those countries. These people are doomed to live under a suppressed system.”

What is the use of genius if we can’t form a democratic state? What should one say about those countries where criticism would land you behind the bars and where everything from a needle to motor car or from food products to science and knowledge is imported? It goes without saying that Arab renaissance had started even half a century before the Japanese renaissance. It was in 1866 that the Japanese renaissance was started under the leadership of a young Emperor Motso Hito (Emperor Meji?). Anyone who does not deign to open his eyes can see where Japan, despite scarcity of its resources, has reached compared to Arabs, who are blessed with the resources. Arab renaissance had started in the 19th century- even a century before the Chinese renaissance. If imperialism is cited as an alibi, just consider the fact that China was under the imperial clout of many countries, including japan. And where does China stands now, compared to us? I don’t say anything about Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Arabs don’t occupy a creative political presence in the whole political atlas of the world. All they have is a presence as market. The Oil wealth. They are not a creative force in the structure and built-up of this world. They are just tools for others. They have no will power to establish a nation state in Palestine, leave alone setting the stage for the return of refugees. For ends, there should be means. We can never achieve noble ends through despicable means.
Adonis the poet far excelled Adonis the painter. That is the reason the painter in him has not been duly recognized. Or else, it may because he chose painting as hobby. However he is a painter much like Gibran. He conducted a painting exhibition in Paris from 2000 November to 2001 January. Till then none but his close friends knew about Adonis the painter. His painting were all scattered here and there in his study where he wrote his poems. The exhibition provided a chance for the world to see his craft in the medium. I don’t know whether the Paris exhibition was redone in any Arab countries. Art critic Asad Arabi, in his review of the exhibition, noted the visual imagery created by letter forms subtly crafted in the background. Those were nuanced poems crafted with subtle variation in color in the stillness of a canvas.

Despite being incomparable to his quell, his brushstrokes, too, evoked his creative talent. Both media stand testimony to his penchant for surrealism. He has written that his painting took form in the same womb that harbored his poetic imaginations. French surrealist Jacques Prevert (1900-1977) was one of his close friends. It is not a wild guess that his mental voyage through the terrains of Sufi thought, which deeply influenced him and which advances spirituality sans religion, guided him to the shores of surrealism. His study titled ‘Assufiya wasurriyaliya’ (Sufism and surrealism) would bear this conclusion out. In the book there are several references to the poet’s intimate connection with the European surrealists.

Adonis is deeply interested in India and its culture. Like his compatriot poet Umar Abureeshai, he was influenced by spirituality sans religion advanced by Sufis. Therefore, when Adonis was chosen for the Kumaran Asan World Prize for Poetry, named after the Renaissance Kerala poet and also a disciple of mystical reformer Sri Narayana Guru, it can be considered as a coming together of two great geniuses who would have many things to share. It is not for the first time that an Arab poet is chosen for the award. Four decades back, the same prize was conferred on the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darvish. The Kumaran Asan Memorial Association which chose Adonis for the award has thereby shed sharp lights on the dark hole of the Swedish Academy.

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