I Have Been Born Three Times: An Interview with Adonis – Michigan Quarterly Review

I Have Been Born Three Times: An Interview with Adonis

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part interview, the second part will be published on July 1.

Adonis is the pen name adopted by Ali Ahmad Said Esber. Born in 1930 in the Syrian village of Qassabin, the 13-year-old Ali knew that he was destined to be a poet. When he heard that the president Shukri al-Quwaytli was coming to visit, he journeyed on foot to the nearby town to recite a poem. Miraculously, he ended up reading his poem to the president who promised him an education in return. The impossible is always at hand in the story of Adonis’s life.  

He moved to Damascus then to Beirut where he founded Shʿir magazine, a platform for the some of the most radical ideas and postures in the Arabic modernist project of the twentieth century.  Adonis is always at interface of old and new, tradition and the avant-garde, and at the frontiers of change and controversy. He is the author of a long list of poetry collections in which he flirts with Arabic forms, breaks them down to build a constantly evolving Arabic poem. Some of these titles are The Songs of Mihyar the DamasceneA Time Between Ashes and RosesConcerto al-Quds and others which have not been translated yet such as Mufrad bi- s̩īghat al-jamʿ (Singular in Plural Form) and al-Kitab (The Book). His contribution to criticism and poetic theory in Arabic is that of a poet constantly reimagining his tradition as new. His Dīwān al-shiʿr al-ʿarabī (1964–68is a personal canon in which he curates selections of Arabic poetry from the pre-Islamic times to the beginning of the twentieth century. His al-Thābit wa al-mutaḥawwil (The Static and the Dynamic) (1974) is a retelling of Arabic literary and cultural history from the inside out. He crowds the story line with voices historically marginalizes, stigmatized, and silenced, and concludes that what propels a tradition forward and keeps it alive are the subversive voices which constantly challenge it and threaten its institutions.

In the summer of 2019, I traveled to Beirut to meet with Adonis. Every year, Beirut prepares itself for summer with some hope and much anticipation. In 2019, the air was full of possibilities other than war for a change. Lebanese youth from all the different sections and factions of Lebanese society had taken to the streets. What is often fuel for civil war was in that moment a potential salvation, the realization of a country finally shedding its old, decayed skin.

A scene we never thought possible was taking shape. Lebanon always found a way to maneuver change without really changing. No one thought a revolution could take place in Beirut, in a city that prided itself on always being in revolution, for always being a revolution. It is a city that never took its despots seriously. Obliviousness, cynicism, and an imagined exceptionalism were the Lebanese way of resisting, not action in the streets. All that was about to change in 2019. A real revolution was preparing itself to go out into the streets, and I was there to meet with Adonis, the self-proclaimed rebel who adopted Beirut as his launching point, his second birth.

Adonis’s home in Beirut is an apartment across the street from the makeshift Lebanese University’s Humanities Building, two residential buildings which have housed the Arabic literature department since 1959. Adonis taught in that department for 14 years before he was forced out due to what was perceived as his disruptive influence on students. When he crossed the street back to his apartment for the last time, his students followed him. They continued to gather in his living room and remained his dedicated disciples. I anxiously walked up the stairs. I was aware of something brewing in the heart of a city, at the cusp of a new beginning, a new end. I also knew that a conversation with Adonis was bound to be a conversation on the edge of a breakthrough or a conflict, on the verge of a revelation or a disappointment.

We spent around six hours over two days talking. He was hopeful and fearful, wistful and determined. He was happy that Beirut was stirring but worried that its heart might be broken.

Beirut was where projects are imagined and launched, where dreams have the potential, even if not always realized, of threatening the fixed, the established, and the instituted in Arab life, of shaking it up and summoning the new, the dynamic, and the creative. Beirut could very well have been the revolution Adonis has spent his life imagining and theorizing. 

Yet, neither Adonis nor I could have imagined what was to come next: the explosion that took place on August 4th, 2020, the shattering of the city’s heart and the murder of our dreams of Beirut and ourselves in that country. Afterwards, Adonis remained hopeful as if he had seen it all before. Every time we spoke, and the world seemed to be ending, he was busy, either remembering himself or fashioning it anew. He was writing memoirs, records of his life in prose and in poetry. The prose is still in progress and the poetry, his Adonianda, was first published in a French translation in March 2021 and the Arabic followed in March 2022.

We continued our conversation virtually after the pandemic took hold and the world came to a pause in 2020. From his idyllic childhood in rural Syria to the incredible coincidences which launched his poetic and intellectual journey, Adonis’s life is a series of open-ended projects, a world beginning and beginning again. 

He has forged a language within language, imagined a time parallel to time, and invented a myth of himself which he remains committed to realizing. At 93, the poet is still searching for his poem and preparing for his journey to begin. 

Huda J. Fakhreddine (HJF): Here we are in Beirut the city of the second birth as you’ve described it. How did being in Beirut influence your writing?

ADONIS: I have said before that I have been born three times. My first birth was in the village. That was the natural birth in which I had no choice. The second birth was in Beirut, which allowed me to move to an urban climate with all its connections and tensions. And Beirut is not a complete city as is Damascus or Cairo, it has the feel of an open project, a work in progress. And I really hope it remains so, a project open to all elements, currents, and directions. I also hope that the cultural mix we talk about remains present and rooted in Beirut. I was born a third time in Paris. Paris received me and my work with open arms and I will remain forever grateful for her hospitality. 

Sh’ir Meeting with Khalida, Fuad Rifqa, Ounsi al-Hajj, Yusuf al-Khal, Laure Ghoraieb, Adonis, Shawqi Abi Shaqra, and Mohammad al-Maghut
Courtesy Archives Arwad Esber

HJF: What is it like to return to Beirut?

ADONIS: Returning to Beirut is not only necessary, but also enriching, especially since I have gotten accustomed to an easier life. Coming here is disturbing and necessary. Life here is difficult and keeps getting more difficult with time. There are many veils upon veils. Retuning to Beirut is important because it places me in the heart of the problems. And a poet ought to remain in touch with the heart of problems. For if poetry is a form of awareness and a form of expression, it is necessarily a form of political activity. This political dimension of poetry in society is fundamentally different from its ideological presence. The ideology leads a poet to preconceived ideas and everything preconceived is against poetry. This is why I have always been opposed to ideological political commitment. It is not only against poetry but against life itself. Such a commitment transforms poetry into a veil when poetry should be the most direct and free form of revealing and discovery. 

HJF: Is your relationship with cities reflected in the form of the poem you write? 

ADONIS: The city is a form that facilitates connections, a multiple form which enriches the vision. And once vision is enriched and challenged, insight is deepened as well. The city is a network, and the village is a nest. The city is a surface and a depth at the same time whereas the village is just a horizontal plane. If a depth exists in the village, it is an individual one related to the individual’s childhood or personal history, not an objective depth. A city is a collective project whereas in the village each works on his own, the only common experiences are birth, death, marriage and the rituals around them. A village doesn’t offer anything shared on a creative level.  The city is a depth and an expanse at the same time. It is also a horizon that keeps shifting. And thus, real cities face one with a challenge which awakens the need to compete and prove oneself. A city to me is a provocation to knowledge, to chasing a new horizon of knowledge. A city is open unto different and varied readings. 

HJF: But you grew up in a village. Tell us about your childhood.

ADONIS: I grew up in the village of Qassabin, a very particular environment. It didn’t fall within the regular cultural fabric of Syria at the time, or that of Arabic culture at the time.

HJF: How so?

ADONIS: I was born in a small poor village which did not have a school or electricity or a single car. I saw a car for the first time in my life when I was thirteen years old. 

Our culture, the Alawite culture, was intimately connected to land—to farming, mountain life. And ours was a history filled with horrors—we were a radical religious sect against the Shia. The Alawites often criticize the Shia, accusing them of pandering to authority, of submitting to ruling regimes that the Alawites have historically rejected. The Alawites are rebels. In their long history, they have been chased out and persecuted. To this very day, they are farmers down to their core. 

What the Baathists, who call themselves secularists, have done since they came to power in the late 1960s/early 1970s, is to destroy the Alawites’ relationship to the land they lived on and nothing urban or developed was ever built to take its place. They had no schools, hospitals, or roads. In short, they were stripped of life.

Adonis with his daughter, Ninar, in 1975.
Courtesy Archives Arwad Esber

HJF: Do you have siblings? Did any of them go to school? 

ADONIS: I have three brothers and two sisters. My sister Laila passed away and my sister Fatima is a brilliant and famous painter. They all got an education. It was easier for them because they were younger and by the time they went to school, there were more schools and things were easier than they were in my day.

HJF: What role did your mother play in your early life?

ADONIS: My mother didn’t know how to read or write. My relationship with her was like a relationship with an organic being—a beautiful tree, a distant spring. Sometimes she would look like a star. We had a natural connection, not one that was mediated through education and culture. It felt like I was an extension of her body, of her dreams, hands, mind, head. My father was the opposite—intellect, thought, poetry, and language. 

My father taught me to read Arabic poetry. He would tell me to read al-Mutanabbi, for example. He held al-Mutanabbi in the highest regard. He had me vocalize the text, putting the case endings on each word. By the time I turned twelve, there wasn’t a single word in Arabic that I didn’t know how to grammatically decline. The ancients had an infatuation with Iʿrāb— Arabic grammar—and as a child in the village I did, too. I was a prodigy of Arabic.

Adonis with his mother, Hasnaa.
Courtesy Archives Arwad Esber

HJF: What did your father do for a living?

ADONIS: My father didn’t really work. He was a farmer, but he didn’t do the work himself. He rented out the land he had inherited, and we lived off the income. He was an autodidact. He taught himself everything he knew and especially Arabic poetry.  

HJF: Where did his love of poetry come from? Was his interest in language and poetry unusual in his context?

ADONIS: Yes, he was somewhat exceptional in his context. His was of a generation that had just come out from under Ottoman rule and its “Turkifying project.” To them, their relationship to the Quran and to Arabic literary tradition and especially Arabic poetry were ways of asserting their identity and this is why he had this special dedication to the Arabic language and Arabic poetry.

HJF: Was he religious?

ADONIS: He was religious, but he never spoke to me of religion. He never projected it on me. He had a special standing in our community. People called him a shaykh as a sign of social respect not religious standing. 

HJF: What are the reasons for his unique relationship with religion?

ADONIS: I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me. But if I were to attempt an explanation now, I think it has something to do with our belonging to a minority in Islam. The Alawites, who venerate Imam Ali, are a minor and extreme sect of Shiism. Historically, they paid the price of that and yet despite the persecution they preserved their identity and their special relationship to the figure of Ali. They are also known for their great interest in learning and education. They compensated for their being poor and oppressed by their education and special interest in learning and poetry. 

My father never imposed his faith on me, but he insisted that I master the Arabic language and that I learn poetry. He never forced me to do anything and always encouraged me to make my own choices. To think and then make my own choices.

HJF: What other voices tempted you to write? 

ADONIS: I discovered early on which poets wrote because they were truly moved to write, and which used poetry for outward purposes: to praise, attack, eulogize. I was drawn to those who wrote poetry for its own sake, like Abu Nuwas, Abu Tammam, and Imru al-Qays. This released me from the hold of the common cultural dome under which consensus had placed what it called tradition. 

HJF: How could you distinguish between them at such a young age?

ADONIS: Poets were divided into groups, the poets of praise, the poets of invective, and the poets of elegy and so on. I found myself from an early age resisting these categories and seeking poets who didn’t squarely fall into them. I also didn’t entirely reject the poets of these categories, I looked in their work for what didn’t fit into the historically imposed divisions. I enjoyed poetry that wasn’t merely social phenomenon but mainly an artistic or aesthetic phenomenon and this applies to modern and contemporary poetry as well. In modern times, the poets of praise are those who celebrate the ideologies and the ideas to which they subscribe, and the poets of invective are the ones who attack the ideas and ideologies of others. 

HJF: When did you start reading contemporary poetry? Who did you read?

ADONIS: At the university. I passed through a phase of imitation. I imitated some of the great poets of the time, mainly the Lebanese like Saʿid ʿAql and Badawi al-Jabal as a classical poet. Nizar Qabbani was also a big name. Modern poetry was not as influential in my formation as was the Arabic tradition, but I was familiar with some of the big names.

HJF: Did you ever write poetry in service of ideology when you were a member of SSNP (Syrian Social Nationalist Party)? 

ADONIS: No, and this is why I did not stand out in the party as a poet. I was always an individual poet, concerned with personal issues such as love, despair, nature and so on. 

I was drawn to the poets who spoke about themselves. No two individuals have the same dreams. And poetry comes from the direction of dream and the body not the direction of thoughts. There is no poetry without thoughts, but these are thoughts that come through the body, the individual body that’s independent of others. Poetry is born singular and then becomes a point of intersection or meeting with others. 

HJF: You have often said this—that true writing originates from the body. 


HJF: Then your mother must have had some influence on your work.

ADONIS: Everything “particular” comes from my mother, and everything “universal” comes from my father. I combined the intellectual and the logical from my father’s side with the stuff of life, the body, nature, objects, emotions, and feelings—these things come from my mother. 

HJF: What do you recall of your introduction to formal culture and public education? 

ADONIS: Around 1943, when I was about thirteen years old, Syria gained its independence and appointed its first president, Shukri al-Quwaytli. I was sitting under a tree—it may well have been an olive tree—when I heard that the president was coming to visit our area. I was aware of the ancient patronage relationship between poets and caliphs. I swore I would compose a poem for Quwaytli and read it to him. I was confident that he would like it and offer me a chance to go to school. 

Adonis at age 19.
Courtesy Archives Arwad Esber

HJF: Do you remember its opening verse?

ADONIS: Unfortunately, I don’t. I’ve completely forgotten it! I do remember that I read the poem to my father first. He stared at me, surprised. I asked what he thought. He said, “Look, I’m not going to stop you, but I can’t attend this celebration organized by the local official.” My father was against this man, who he said was a feudalist. 

I put on my qumbaz, a traditional peasant robe, and a pair of worn-out shoes. I set out in the pouring rain. When I showed up at the venue of the presidential reception, the local leader, the feudalist my father wasn’t fond of, approached me. He asked, “Who is this kid?” People replied, “This is the son of so-and-so.” He said, “Get him out of here! I don’t want to see him around here.” I was escorted out. 

I decided to make for the city, which wasn’t far, and meet the president there. But when I arrived, I wasn’t sure whom to talk to. I caught sight of a large banner with the words “The Mayor of Jablah welcomes His Excellency the President,” so I went to see the mayor. I was completely soaked and covered in mud. I’ll never forget the mayor’s name, Yasin Ala al-Din. He loved poetry, especially classical Arabic poetry, and he let me read him the poem. He told me that I had to recite it to the president. 

He sent me to the governor’s palace, where the governor and other officials were gathered. They asked me to read the poem, and I did. They were very pleased. They told me to go downstairs and wait until they called for me. When the president arrived, each official got a turn to greet him, and they forgot all about me. The moment the president stepped up to the lectern that overlooked the public square, to deliver his speech, one of the officials noticed me. Very earnestly, he asked me why I had not read the poem. I told him that I did not know. I still remember his face, angry and red as he began to swear: “That dog! That crook! This is the governor’s fault.” He took me by the arm, and he yelled as loud as he could, “Gentlemen! People! Your Excellency!” Everyone fell silent. “This young boy who comes from a village in the mountains is here to deliver regards on behalf of the mountain villagers. Please hear what he has to say!” The man picked me up and put me in front of the lectern facing the crowd of people in the public square. I delivered the poem. The crowd went wild. And what did the president do? He repeated the final verse, which was, “You are a sword, and we are its sheath.” Then he turned to the crowd and said, “Just as this child has said, I couldn’t do a thing without you all.” 

After the president finished speaking, he asked for me. He put his hands on my shoulders and said, “My son, that was brilliant. Is there anything we could do for you?” I told him that I wanted to go to school. “It’s done,” he said. “You’re going to school.” 

About a week later, a couple of police officers came to my house to tell me that the governor of Tartus had instructions for me to begin school. I said, “What is Tartus?” Tartus was a city, an hour and a half away by car. It had the last French school in Syria, Lycée Français, a place for the bourgeoisie elite. I rode the bus for the first time in my life. I thought I was heading to outer space. I got there still wearing my qumbaz. 

HJF: This was the beginning of your education in French. And did you continue your study of Arabic poetry?

ADONIS: There really wasn’t much of an opportunity at the Lycée because everything was given in French. They would occasionally give a lesson in Arabic and I excelled. I would get into arguments with my instructors and debate them on topics I was familiar with. They respected the positions I would take, and I developed meaningful relationships with all of them. I became quite the personality.

But a year later, the government shut our school down and opened intermediate (middle) schools. I hadn’t yet received my diploma, but I told the principal of the intermediate school that I wanted to be admitted. He said, “That’s three years of schooling and you want to skip it all?” I told him yes. He refused. So, I told him that there won’t be a school if I’m not allowed to enroll.

HJF: You threatened him?

ADONIS: I mobilized the students and we shut the school down. After he relented and allowed me to skip the three years, we all went back to school. It was epic.

In the end, I graduated middle school with honors. According to the school’s policy, anyone who graduates with honors is given a scholarship. So, I said to myself that I would go thank the president because I knew that the amount that was being spent on my education was coming out of the palace treasury. Why should they have to pay, as long as I had the opportunity to officially continue my education at the state’s expense? It was my right. I wrote a letter to the president thanking him and politely declining his assistance since I was now funded by the state. He wrote back to me wishing me the best! So, I went to high school in Latakia and I studied to receive my diploma. 

Adonis and his wife, Khalida, in Damascus, 1954.
Courtesy Archives Arwad Esber

HJF: Tell me about your relationship with the Syrian Nationalist Party.

ADONIS: The whole thing began when I was at the Lycée, in Tartus. The French garrison was still stationed there. One day, we saw that some students had been expelled. We learned that it was because they were members of the Nationalist Party and they had organized a protest against the French Army. So, four or five friends and I went to the Party and asked what they were about. They told us that they were secularists against sectarianism. We were genuinely impressed. On top of that, they were ethical, honest, and good people. We were on very good terms, and I was fond of them; there was comradery. A little while later, I began writing poems for their protests and became a protest leader. 

People began to recognize my name—some kid who composes in a traditional style that’s also progressive. I stayed with them for about three or four years. I wrote about Palestine. In fact, the first poem I ever published was about Palestine. This was in 1948, at the time of the Nakba. It was called “al-Musharradūn” (The Dispossessed).

HJF: Where was it published?

ADONIS: It was published in a weekly journal called al-Irshād in Latakia. And this was the first time I used the penname Adonis. 

Adonis with his daughter, Arwad, in Beirut, 1959. Courtesy Archives Arwad Esber

HJF: Tell us more about that? Where did the name Adonis come from and how did you make that decision?

ADONIS: When I was in high school, I used to write under my real name Ali Ahmad Said and send to newspapers and journals mostly in Lebanon like al-Sayyad and al-Anwar and others. No one responded and no one published my poems. One day, I came across the myth of Adonis in a journal at school. This was where I first learned about Adonis the god with whom Ishtar fell in love and about the story of his fight with the wild boar who killed him and spilled his blood which returns every spring when the anemones blossom and when the river al-ʿĀssī in Lebanon turns red. I was fascinated by this story, and I said, these journals which are not publishing my work are my wild boar. They are trying to kill me and so I will name myself Adonis. I wrote the poem “al-Musharradūn” and signed it Adonis. Al-Irshād, which I later learned was very sympathetic to Palestinians, published it on the first page with a note that said: We kindly ask Mr. Adonis to visit our office for a very important matter.” 

HJF: They asked you to reveal yourself.

ADONIS: Yes. I was poor student still in high school. I didn’t make a great impression. I went directly to the newspaper offices. The man at the front desk asked me: Who are you and what do you want? When I told him I was Adonis, he stood up and said: Now you are Adonis! He ran into the editor-in-chief’s office, and they were all very surprised. I remember the editor-in-chief was called Adeeb Azar. 

HJF: What is your relationship with the name Adonis after all this time?

ADONIS: I love it, especially since my mother abandoned the name Ali and adopted it. She used to call me Adonis. She was illiterate, but instinctively she adopted Adonis as my name. It is my universal name, it transcends languages, cultures and religions. It is an organic connection with the universe, not with one people or one land or one culture.

HJF: Your first book of verse, Dalila. What inspired it?

ADONIS: I read the Bible and came across the story of Samson and Dalila. I was taken by the figure of the cunning, strong woman. I wrote a book-length poem about her. It was simple and childish. The book was published in Damascus around year 1948. My second book was Qālat al-ard̩ (The Earth Said), also published in Damascus around 1950. I later made selections from these two works and included them Qas̩ā’id ulā (First Poems), which Yusuf al-Khal published in Beirut in 1957. First Poems also included “The Dispossessed.”

HJF: This was in Latakia. What was the literary scene there?

ADONIS: Latakia was major literary center then. It has the very first poetry magazine in the Arab world: al-Qithārah (The Lute). I later published several poems in it. The publishers, who gave me a platform and encouraged me to write, were a group of brilliant poets and writers: Kamal Fawzi al-Shirabi, ʿAbd al-ʿAziz Arnout, and ʿIsa ʿAllami. When I met them, I learned that they were all connected to the SSNP, which further encouraged me to join the party. I was attracted to this group of educated people who dedicated themselves to building a secular non-sectarian society and resisting the French colonial power. 

HJF: How did your family respond to your joining the SSNP?

ADONIS: My father’s reaction was brilliant. He said, “Look here, son. I won’t answer yes or no. But before you make a choice, study, ask, and experience. Take your time and then decide.” He didn’t just say no. Instead, he encouraged me. Unfortunately, my father passed away a short time after. It wasn’t until later did I realize that he had been more of a friend than a father. 

HJF: When did you meet Antoun Saʿadeh?

ADONIS: The first time was when I was a young student in Latakia, but my name was well-known by then. I do not know if we even spoke. I greeted him and took my seat. All I know was that he had a charismatic personality. 

The second time I met him was when I entered a poetry competition organized by the American University of Beirut. They wanted a poem on the topic of orphanhood. The committee chair at the time was Muhammad Yusuf Najam. There was also Ihsan Abbas from the Arabic Department. When I heard the announcement, I composed a poem titled “al-Yatīm” (The Orphan) and sent it by post to the American University. It received first prize. I was asked to go see the party leader. That’s when I went to Saadeh’s office and greeted him there. Again, I felt stupefied. I’m not even sure I spoke with him.  I must have been eighteen or seventeen. I was mesmerized by him. Pure shock. It was a very brief meeting. Without speaking to him or having a conversation. Nothing. 

Afterward, I began to read about the party. I still believe in the essence of Antoun Saʿadeh’s ideology: we are a society that belongs to a land named Syria. We belong to no sect, ethnicity, race, or religion, etc. Christians, Muslims, Kurds, all the country’s inhabitants living on the land belong to each other. Together we are all Syrian. And because the Arabs were the last wave to descend on this country, we have since Arabized, and so we are Syrian-Arabs. The Arabic language is our culture. And that’s number one. Secondly, we are open to the rest of the world. Our civilization is that of the Greeks, Romans, and especially the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Phoenicians who invented the alphabet and founded a great civilization. The third principle was to translate the concept of “the People” through the idea of dynastic history. All these principles I just mentioned emphasize a “unified historical continuity” and for that reason we have a shared common history.

Editor’s Note: This interview continues in a second part to be published on July 1.

Special thanks to Robyn Creswell for his feedback and comments on this conversation in its various stages, and to Rawad Wehbe for his help in translating parts of the transcript from Arabic. 

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