I Have Been Born Three Times: An Interview With Adonis, Part Two – Michigan Quarterly Review

I Have Been Born Three Times: An Interview With Adonis, Part Two

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part interview, the first installment of which appears here.

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.  Read Huda Fakhreddine’s full introduction.

HJF: When and why were you arrested?

ADONIS: In 1955, I was arrested because of my connection to the SSNP. Adnan al-Maliki, a politician and officer in the army, was assassinated in Damascus and the party was blamed for his murder. And so, the regime cracked down on all the members of the party. I was in Aleppo performing the obligatory military service when I was arrested.

HJF: What do you remember from your experience in prison?

ADONIS: It was a very bitter experience. I spent a year in prison and then a year completing my military service. Prison was one of the most pivotal experiences in my life. I don’t like to talk about. It will be a major focus of the autobiography I’m writing. 

Later, I left the party because experience taught me that building functioning institutions in Arab society is almost impossible. Unless built, and repeatedly rebuilt, upon independent will and with a high degree of ethical commitment, institutions are bound to fail, especially in societies like ours in which the primary reference points are religion, sectarianism, and ethnicity. Political parties are always eventually swallowed by the beast they rebel against.

HJF: Let’s ask about meeting Khalida Saʿid, your wife. She is perhaps your most important reader and critic.

ADONIS: I never publish anything without her looking at it. The complexity of my relationship with Khalida is surpassed by the unshakeable friendship that exists between us. Love, we discovered, cannot grow if it is not embraced by friendship, no matter how powerful, or fierce, that love may be. What saved our relationship, despite all the difficulties and upheavals throughout our life, was the deep intellectual friendship that existed between us, and continues to exist even today. A friend is capable of talking to you, and you talking to them, unconditionally and under any circumstance. Abu Ḥayyan al-Tawḥidi once said that, “a friend is another who is you.” 

HJF: When did you meet Khalida?

ADONIS: We met in 1952 in Damascus.  She was in the Teacher’s College. We first met in the house of a friend called Abla al-Khouri who was a well-known radio personality and prominent figure in the cultural scene. She was connected to the party. Her brother was a prominent member. 

Al Maqalih, Adonis, Saadi Yusuf and Hasan Al Lawzi, former Minister of Information. Yemen. Courtesy Archives Arwad Esber

HJF: Was Khalida a member of the SSNP?

ADONIS: Not at the time. But later she joined and became more engaged than I was. She was imprisoned, too, because of her connection to the party. This was when I left for Beirut—she joined me six months later.

HJF: Have you ever fundamentally disagreed with any of her readings of your work?

ADONIS: We never publish anything without consulting the other first. I tell her to be critical, to read me objectively, and if there is anything she doesn’t like, to underline it with red pen.

HJF: How would you describe your relationship with you daughters, Arwad and Ninar?

ADONIS: Perhaps I can do it best with a story. When Arwad graduated high school, she attended a liberal arts college to study French literature. Many of her peers were active in leftist circles. One day, Arwad tells me that she wants to join the communist party. I told her exactly what my father had said to me: I won’t say no, but I won’t say yes either. I asked her what she thought about it. I told her to befriend them and to ask questions, to pay attention to how closely their ideas were reflected in their practice. It’s one thing if they live what they claim to believe, and entirely another thing if they don’t. I let her make the decision on her own—this is always the best way. Study things carefully, experience them, and then decide. She made her own decision. Two or three months later, she came to me looking upset. I asked her what was wrong. She said she was through with the communist party! 

HJF: Were you close with your daughters when they were growing up?

ADONIS: I never found the time to spend with them. I was always outside the house, either working, traveling, or writing. I entrusted their lives entirely to their mother. Their mother was educated, knowledgeable, and critical. She knew how to raise her children and take care of them the right way. I feel sorry, and sometimes sad, because friendship never grew between us.

HJF: Even now?

ADONIS: Now our friendship is intellectual, whereas I had always hoped it to be more intimate. That way, if anything were to happen to them, they would come talk to me. There would be some kind of empathy that goes beyond logic and reason—a relationship that is built on the life of emotions. We never got to have that, perhaps, because I was preoccupied with myself. 

HJF: What circumstances first brought you to Lebanon? What was it like to move there? 

ADONIS: I had an appointment with Yusuf al-Khal in Beirut. He was in New York with the Lebanese delegation at the UN led by Charles Malik when I published a poem titled “al-Farāgh” (The Void) in 1954. He read it and wrote to me saying that he was going to Beirut to launch a new journal titled Shiʿr. He thought that my poem was important because he found in it a real shift from traditional poetry to the poetry he was dreaming of, the poetry we later called shiʿr al-tafʿīla.

HJF: And you had written that modern poem on your own without any influences? 

ADONIS: On my own.

HJF: This was in 1954, you hadn’t read the other Arab poets who were experimenting with form in Iraq like Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Nazik al-Mala’ika?

ADONIS: In terms of structure my poem was different. My use of the metrical foot (the tafʿīla) was different.

HJF: Were you aware of their writings then?

ADONIS: Not then. I only met Nazik al-Malaika later, after 1960.

HJF: So Yusuf al-Khal had a project and contacted you to join him.

ADONIS: Yes. I hadn’t met him before, and we agreed to meet for the first time in Beirut. We met in Café Nasr by the sea in Beirut. We took a picture together there and it was later published many times. It was just the two of us. We came up with a detailed plan for the journal, and that’s how Shiʿr began. 

He and I prepared the first issue. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I wrote out most of the first issue myself by hand. We opened the issue with a poem by Badawi al-Jabal.

HJF: And a short foreword by Archibald MacLeish.

ADONIS: Yes. He was a friend of Yousef’s. 

HJF: Who funded Shiʿr?

ADONIS: No one. We worked for free and funded it ourselves. We didn’t pay any of our writers. We covered all the production expenses and had a few donors from among our friends. It was easy to do, and it didn’t cost much. We didn’t have employees or offices. Later we published some advertisements. 

HJF: Was Shiʿr responding to a movement, or creating one?

ADONIS: We didn’t care at all about what was there. We were a new movement. There were many magazines and journals and the leading one was al-Ādāb in Beirut. We were confident in our new project and weren’t convinced by the prevalent poetry. 

HJF: What was it like to put out such an influential magazine? What did it accomplish? 

ADONIS: The Shiʿr experience helped me arrive at the following two conclusions. First, to write truly new Arabic poetry, a poet must have an intimate knowledge of the Arabic tradition and a sincere appreciation of the beauty of the Arabic language. You cannot create something new or beautiful with a language you don’t know and whose heritage and memory you are not familiar with. A truly modern poem is at the same time a slice of its culture, a capturing of its history and not just a statement of personal opinions and feelings. Second, poetry alone cannot modernize a culture or a society. A modern poem requires a modern society and modern institutions to follow. Alone modernism in poetry is like an island without roots, a project in vain.

And here is where I diverged from the group. They were convinced that the new project had no use of the tradition. I disagreed and had to leave. I thought that they should be aware of and invested in the larger context, the Arabic context. For what is Lebanon after all? If Lebanon has a viable quality in terms of poetry, it is its connection to the Arabic language and the Arabic tradition?  What use is Baudelaire to you, I told Yusuf, if you don’t understand Abu Nuwas first? If you don’t know al-Maʿarri, how can you read Dante or Eliot? Unfortunately, Yusuf al-Khal and most of the group had a different opinion. This is why I left.

Adonis Yusuf al-Khal. Paris, 1980’s. Courtesy Archives Arwad Esber

HJF: If you were able to revise some of your theoretical propositions introduced in the early years of Shiʿr, is there anything you would like to change?

ADONIS: I’d revise our relationship with the Arabic literary tradition and our views on it. Many of the poets in the group, especially the Lebanese poets, didn’t know how to read Arabic poetry. Unsi al-Hajj was very fond of many Arab poets, but he couldn’t read them. Imagine not reading Abu Nuwas. He created the urban Arabic language, and he remains a marginal figure. Granted there are great talents among the poets of Arabic modernism, yet overall, their relationship with Arabic tradition needs to be revisited as well as their relationship with the foreign. The positions Shiʿr expressed toward the old on one hand and the foreign on the other hand were blunt and immature.

HJF: And that’s why you founded Mawāqif?

ADONIS: I think Mawāqif was more mature and balanced than Shiʿr. The Shiʿr project ultimately failed, and the journal soon ceased publication after that. While I don’t like to critique Shiʿr, I think the later issues which were published after I left were weak and were a betrayal of the principles on which Shiʿr was originally founded. 

In Mawāqif we were committed to cultivating a modern reader and a modern critic, a truly modern educated generation. There was a large group of dedicated friends who made Mawāqif what it was. Mahmoud Darwish was on the editorial board at some point as well as Sadiq al-ʿAzm. People from all around the Arab world and the world. It spread widely. Your father, Jawdat Fakhreddine, was also involved in Mawāqif for a while.

HJF: Has your experience in translation shaped your poetic language? 

ADONIS: In my poetry I have strived to charge my Arabic with non-Arabic influence. When translating, I did not surrender to the language of the foreign poet. I strived to write a poem in Arabic. Many criticize my translation and point out errors in translation. These were not errors—I allowed myself license to Arabize. I look for Arabic words that fit the context on the sentence in my Arabic text even if they were not the best equivalents for the foreign text. The textbook translation errors which are often pointed out in my translations are poetic decisions I consciously made. In general, the translations into Arabic are unreadable and riddled with poetic errors even if they were correct in a textbook sense.

HJF: Tell me about design and arrangement of The Songs of Mihyar the Damascene.

ADONIS: One theme with a multitude of variations.

HJF: The persona of the poem is Mihyar—based in part on the poet Mihyar al-Daylami. But he is also you, Adonis. 

ADONIS: Mihyar is my vision of the quintessential Arab person of the future. Firstly, he is free. Not only is he free, but his freedom is free. Like when Rimbaud said that freedom alone is not enough to mean freedom. Our freedom also needs to be free, meaning we should be able to practice it. This is a paradigm for the future: the future Arab person whose freedom is free. Then, it is a statement that all things are for the sake of or in the service of humankind. Everything: God, the universe, the world, love… Because the human being or the person is the world. Without the person there would be no world. There would be something else: matter, planets, angels, etc. The human world is the single true existence that belongs to us. Therefore, everything must be for the sake of the person, in the service of the person, including religion and poetry. But for us to deserve all these things, humankind must first be free.

HJF: Why did you choose to call each of the prose sections “mazmūr”—psalm?

ADONIS: To evoke ancient expressions. To mix things together and bring them back to life. Also, the origin of the word mazmūr is Syriac, so it is indigenous to Syria. 

HFK: Were you thinking about the ideas that came out of Shiʿr magazine about the prose poem as you wrote Mihyar? 

ADONIS: Yes. But we did not start out as well as we should have. In Shiʿr, we introduced the prose poem as new form of poetic expression without any precedent in the Arabic poetic memory. But innovation requires talent and education. Talent needs to be challenged and honed so it can participate in the world and not only reflect inward. Mihyar was a personal manifesto, different from the one in Shiʿr.

HJF: Between the prose sections, or the psalms, and the poems that are composed in metrical feet, there is a section that always makes me pause. The poem titled “Aslamtu ayyāmī” (I Surrendered My Days). If you were to rearrange the lines on the page, it can be a classical poem, no? It’s in classical meter (al-kāmil). But you have taken it apart and sabotaged it.

ADONIS: It is poetry composed of metrical feet in the manner of free-verse (the tafʿīla-poem). It varies on or rearranges the classical meters, yet this does not make it traditional. When you read it, when you listen to it, you do not feel that it fits within the traditional arrangement, it feels new.

Adonis with Tunisian author Abdelwahab Meddeb, the French Translator Anne Wade Minkowski and Arwad. Paris, 1983. Courtesy Archives Arwad Esber

HJF: What were the circumstances that brought you to Paris? Why did you decide to leave Beirut?

ADONIS: I was receiving many invitations from abroad. I spent two years in Princeton and then two years in Germany. I had many opportunities to leave. I chose France because my personal affiliation with the French language and because of the many friends I have here in Paris.

HJF: Did moving to and living in Paris help further develop your ideas about secularism and your position from religion?

ADONIS: No. These were developed and established during my time in Beirut and especially during my time working in Mawāqif. Mawāqif was a self-funded journal established by young, motivated poets and writers. It was also the first journal in the Arab world to decide to cease publication. I made this decision after we published a special issue about women in the Islamic Arabic society in general and especially from a rights perspective. We asked specialists, who might have been reluctant to offer critiques, to describe the status of women in this society. We asked law professors, lawyers, and academics. The response was disappointing. They all said we can’t. A description will necessarily include a criticism of religion and that’s too dangerous to do. We published one issue but didn’t follow up with others as we had planned because most of the people whom we invited to contribute apologized.

I called a meeting of Mawāqif and I told the team: If we can’t do this, then why keep the journal going? We discovered that we lived in a society that couldn’t handle and didn’t allow the exploration of crucial issues which directly influence our lives. I could not see a point to our work in journalism, to our cultural work in such circumstances. If we can’t seriously and freely talk about matters that determine our destiny.

HJF: Was this experience one of the reasons that encouraged you to leave Beirut?

ADONIS: Exactly. I felt I did all I could in Beirut, and it was time for me to try somewhere else.

HJF: Where were you when the Iranian Revolution happened? What was your reaction to it then? 

ADONIS: I was still in Beirut. I was pleased and I welcomed it as did the writers and poets of the world.

HJF: Did it influence you and your writing?

ADONIS: No, it didn’t have an effect on me. I was pleased for the Iranian people. In Mawāqif we had been writing against oppression, colonialism, dictatorships and so on. The fact that a people revolted against the idea of Empire, against oppression and foreign intervention was a great thing. Moreover, it was an ideal revolution, like no other in history. It was not organized by the working class alone. It was not a military coup. It was not organized by one class or faction. Rather, it was carried out entirely by the Iranian people. From the far-left to the far-right. That is first. It was an unprecedented historical phenomenon that appealed to us. This was the first thing. Truly astonishing. That is what appealed to me and what I wrote about in my first article on the revolution. 

I wrote three articles about the Iranian revolution. The three articles are republished in Al-Thabit wa al-Mutahawwil. But very few have read them. I am sure those who criticism me and attack me on this haven’t read them.

In the second article, I clearly stated that I am against a revolution that bases its project on religion. This was published in the Arab and International Supplement of al-Nahar newspaper where I wrote a regular column. This was the same column and the same newspaper where I had my first piece in support the Iranian revolution when it first took place. In the second piece, I warned against the establishment of a state based on religion in Iran.

I then wrote a third article titled, “The Military Jurist” (al-faqīh al-ʿaskarī) I warned against the involvement of religion in politics, and men of religion in governance and their coming to power. But no one ever read the other two articles. They read the first article but made all sorts of false statements about it. I have no emotional connection to the Iranian Revolution. I only commented on it as a phenomenon and then critiqued it as such. I don’t know anyone one involved in it. In fact, I am more familiar with its critics than its supporters. I was never invited to visit Iran when almost all the Lebanese writers have visited Iran. 

HJF: Your opinion on events in Syria is well-known. You denounced the revolution because, as you said, it emerged from the mosques. This position angered and disappointed many people who expected you, as the proclaimed revolutionary, to take a stance against the regime.

ADONIS: First, many of them retracted what they had said. They contacted me and admitted that they were mistaken, and I was right. Others critiqued me without reading a single thing I had written on this issue. For example, I wrote a book titled The Dust of Cities and the Misery of History, printed in Arabic and French, in which I criticize the regime and say that I supported the internal opposition. However, I still believe it is wrong, if not inconceivable, for any revolution that claims to be against the regime in power not to openly call for women’s liberation and equal rights. It’s inconceivable for a revolution to depend on another political regime that eradicated an entire indigenous population, that is, the United States. It is inconceivable to collaborate with Israel, a terrorist state that kills your own people, the Palestinians, daily. There is an ethical justification for this regardless of the depth of the regime’s corruption, and it is corrupt. Moreover, you cannot identify the regime with the people. Just because you destroyed Palmyra that doesn’t mean that you brought down the regime.

HJF: Why did you decide to abandon poetry for a time? What were you doing instead?

ADONIS: I thought I had said everything I had to say, but poetry pulled me back.

HJF: But you wrote Concerto al-Quds instead.

ADONIS: I whispered into poetry’s ear, but it did not listen. It spoke back to me and said, “I will never let you be done with poetry.”

HJF: Tell me about Concerto al-Quds. How did that poem come about?

ADONIS: It came from my complicated relationship with Palestine, politically and intellectually speaking. I can defend Hamas and their rights as part of the Palestinian people who resist occupation, but I am against them when they become the state. I cannot accept a Palestinian state that is built on the basis of religion. I cannot accept any situation in which one religion is at war with another religion. If Christianity, Judaism, and Islam confess to some common truth, then whatever ties these faiths together should, at the very least, manifest in the city we call Jerusalem, al-Quds. Jerusalem should have been the most gorgeous city on earth, objectively. Why is that? Because Jerusalem is where the monotheistic religions that govern this world all intersect, setting an example for coexistence, shared culture, and expression. Therefore, if there was honesty in these religious practices, then it should follow that Jerusalem would be the greatest and most beautiful city on earth. However, in practice it is the ugliest. Concerto al-Quds sets out to say precisely that. 

Adonis with Mahmoud Darwish and Vladimir Tamari, Yokohama 1974. Courtesy Archives Arwad Esber

HJF: Let us talk about a book that has not been translated to English yet: Al-Kitāb (The Book). In this work, you make poetry the primary text and push history to the margins. Tell us about the relationship between poetry and history. You are repeatedly preoccupied with history and re-writing history, sabotaging and marginalizing it…

ADONIS: It is like T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland or Ezra Pound’s The Cantos. But I think Al-Kitāb penetrates the surface more deeply than they did.

HJF: Why did you call it al-Kitab—the Book? Usually, the name refers to the Quran, or perhaps the book of Arabic grammar by Sibawayh.

ADONIS: The term al-Kitab indicates something foundational and comprehensive. The Book is both expansive and foundational. It’s paving the way for another stage.

HJF: In The Book, you experimented with meter and language. What were you trying to accomplish in terms of form or music in The Book?

ADONIS: I think the novel thing about it is its dramatic quality, like theatre. Had I wanted, I could have turned it into a narrative-style poem, like Homer, Gilgamesh, or Dante. However, I preferred to put all of history on a page facing itself and entangled with itself, as if Arabic culture was a drama playing out on a stage. That is what is new about it.

HJF: Were you deliberately thinking about audio-visual mediums when you were designing the page in al-Kitab, like a television screen. 

ADONIS: Yes, I got the idea from an Ingmar Bergman film. I don’t remember now which one it was.  I was watching one of his films. A shot would have someone listening to music and a painting on a wall. All on the screen, on one plane. I decided that the page had to look like this screen. I was searching for a form for about a year. Then, I finally found it. That was why I began writing Al-Kitab.

HJF: You once described the Arabic language as dead, but you also insist that it is where you reside, your homeland. What is the future of the Arabic language?

ADONIS: I agree here with Yusuf al-Khal, who said that the future of the language is an Arabic without diacritics. This Arabic that you and I are speaking now. This is a logical opinion. Why don’t we write in the same way we speak?

HJF: Do you see yourself writing in spoken Arabic?

ADONIS: No. This requires mastery, time, and a tradition. I can’t write in a language I don’t control. I will always write in fuḥā even if I knew that it will die tomorrow. I am not capable of writing in anything else. It’s important for one to know one’s limits. I cannot write in anything but fuḥā.

HJF: Do you read poetry in the spoken Arabic?

ADONIS: Yes. Of course, I do. And I encourage translating poetry in spoken Arabic into other languages. Some of it is great poetry. What keeps this language we speak in from becoming the language of writing? Some will say the issue of the Quran. What about the Quran? It can have its own language. And, in any case, the Quran is dead. No one really reads it. The Muslims don’t read the Quran even though they print millions of copies of it every year. 

HJF: What music do you listen to?

ADONIS: I have always been fascinated with western classical music. I was drawn to its vast world from an early age. The composer who speaks to my very being is Beethoven and the composers who speaks to my joy and pleasure are Mozart and Bach. I wonder about this unique invention that Europe has single-handedly offered the world. We can say that European culture is mostly the product of interaction with and borrowing from other cultures, but classical music itself is purely a product of Europe and it continued to flourish first and foremost in Europe. Why? Some say the reason for that has something to do with the role of the church. I don’t know. 

 I wasn’t always a fan of Arabic song. Once, when I was writing for Lisān al-Ḥāl, I wrote a short piece criticizing Umm Kulthum. I later found out that she read it and said that she’d like to meet with me. I had a friend who was a huge fan of hers and who used to insist that I should listen to her work more carefully. He thought she was a genius. His name was Hanna Dumyan. He reintroduced me to her and I eventually became a fan. Among the Arab voices, Umm Kulthum and Fairuz are my favourite. I of course have a close connection with the work of the Rahabani Brothers as musicians as well. There are other amazing voices that fascinate me, like Wadi al-Safi and Asmahan.

HJF: We know you are not a fan of Ahmad Shawqi? Do you like to listen to Umm Kulthum when she sings his poems?

ADONIS: Yes, I do because she rewrites them in her voice. What remains is the voice and you forget the redundancy of the weak poetry. Umm Kulthum can transform the ugly into something beautiful. I have definitely grown to be a fan of hers.

HJF: Where do you write? Is there a specific place where poetry comes to you?

ADONIS: I write in any small café in any small street. The café could be in Paris or Beirut. I’ve written much in the Horseshoe café and the Rawd̩a café in Beirut.

HJF: Do you have a writing ritual?

ADONIS: No. I don’t. I could never write a poem sitting behind a desk. Writing poetry is like poetry, it has no rules. Every poet has his own no-rules. When you decide to write a poem, it never comes. 

Adonis with Joachim Sartorius, Berlin 2002. Courtesy Archives Arwad Esber

HJF: Describe a day in your life. What happens when you wake up in the morning?

ADONIS: No day of mine is the like the other. I don’t have a schedule or a routine. I don’t submit to the notion of days in the common sense.

HJF: No day like the other. How? What will you do when you wake up tomorrow?

ADONIS: I don’t know. That’s my secret. I don’t submit to the idea of the days which others subscribe to. I am always on the move. I don’t subscribe to mathematical time; I create my own time. Mathematical time is for walking, for running. It is for the group, for society. Poetry requires its own time, created outside time. All that is shared and common among people, I fundamentally reject it in poetry.

HJF: If not times, do you have places you write in?

ADONIS: The places change all the time. Most of the poetry and especially the longer poems I wrote outside in cafés and in the street. I rarely write at home. For example, I wrote parts of “A Grave for New York” while walking the streets in Beirut and then in New York. Parts were written on the plane. I wrote the ending in a monastery in Bekfaya in the Lebanese mountains. 

HJF: How much time do you spend on revisions?

ADONIS: Things are composed almost entirely in my mind. I don’t revise much but I spend time arranging parts and ordering them. The structure of the poem takes time, not the individual parts. 

HJF: Do you use the computer to write?

ADONIS: No and I never did, and never will. I can’t have anything separating my hand from pen and paper. I can’t write on a screen.

HJF: Are there times when you can’t write? What do you do then?

ADONIS: Yes, there are times when I can’t. Recently I’ve discovered collage. This keeps my hands busy when my mind is stuck. When the fingers are busy with color, ink, and paper, the imagination is triggered. 

HJF: Do you think about death?

ADONIS: No. I am too busy. I still have things to do. I am not afraid of death. I know it’s coming but I don’t have time to think about it now. 

HJF: Channeling your persona, Mihyar, I ask you: Who are you?

ADONIS: As long as I am alive, the answer is impossible. Even after death, the answer will remain open for others to find out.

HJF: Do you feel like an exile?

ADONIS: I am an exile on the inside, exiled from myself. Every artist is in perpetual exile. There must be a distance between the poet and him or herself, and in that distance or space, the poet attempts to close that gap or that distance with language, with imagination, with the work of art. Exile ends with death. We move through the phases of exile through writing. Writing is another life, and another existence.

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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