Ali Ahmad Sai’d or Adonis, a perennial contender for the Nobel literature prize, is arguably the greatest living poet in the Arab language. His poetry – and the little magazines he edited, Shi’r and Mawaqif – nurtured the modernist movement in Arab literature.
Syria-born Adonis, 85, went into exile in Beirut in 1956 after he was jailed for his political views, and then to Paris in 1980, during the civil war in Lebanon. Though known as a political poet, Adonis was sceptical about the Arab Spring and other democratic movements in West Asia, which he thought didn’t make a distinction between religion and politics.
Adonis was in the coastal town of Varkala in Kerala last weekend to receive the Kumaran Asan World Poetry Prize, instituted in 1981 in memory of the visionary 20th century Malayalam poet, Kumaran Asan. Senegalese poet Leopold Senghor, Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen and Australian poet Judith Wright are some of the previous winners. Hours after he arrived in Varkala from Paris on Saturday, May 2, Adonis sat for a chat with The Indian Express. He spoke in Arabic extensively on poetry and politics, which his daughter, Arwad Esber, translated to English. Excerpts:
In one of your poems (Celebrating Childhood), you say ‘Your childhood is a village/ you will never cross its boundaries/ no matter how far you go’. You have been living in exile for many years now. Tell us about the Syria you remember, your childhood and how you became a poet?
I said childhood has no boundaries. It is inside you. Wherever a human being goes, he takes his childhood with him. This is why nobody can cross the boundaries of childhood. It is with me wherever I go. As I grow old, the meaning of time has become about childhood. You begin to ask the question where do you find your self? In your childhood or old age? I am trying to rediscover childhood in my old age. Syria for me remains the place where I opened my eyes for the first time, where I first stood up, where I first faced the world for the first time. Syria, like all other countries, is history, civilisation, art, poetry – all of this together.
For me, the act of writing is to commit to a kind of hope, to the will to change. People like me, who grew up in poor peasant families, the first thing you do is to dream, to hope, to change things. This is what made me write. It is the poem that gave birth to me. In the act of writing, in hoping, in willing to change things, I was reborn.
A lot of classical Arab poetry and translations from all over the world influenced me. I love the poetry of the Orient. Because even if the Orient is old and is getting older, you always felt that humans can do something, be something. There is always something to do here, something to be done. In the West, you feel the world is disintegrating. It is like an old car falling apart.
You once said the poem is meant to be a network rather than a single rope of thought. Is that your idea of what a poem ought to be?
When I started writing, the prevailing vision of poetry among Arabs was that a poem moves in a horizontal way. That’s necessary for a poem to be lyrical. For me, poetry has to be about asking questions. In the lyrical tradition, the relationship between the poet and the reader is very straight. I found it difficult to accept that kind of poetry. I consider poetry to be the greatest expression human being is capable of.
There are points when philosophy and science are forced into silence, but poetry will have answers. But for that, poetry has to be a network of thoughts. A poet has to write about a rose as if he is writing about an atom. If he is writing about an individual it has to be about the whole of humanity. A poem then becomes a complex history of the entire humanity.
West Asia has been the cradle of many civilisations, cultures and languages. How does one explain the cycle of violence that has made it a land of sorrow?
At the base of this violence is the monotheistic vision of the human and the world. Each monotheistic religion considers it holds the key to the truth and believes it is the only truth and if you are against this truth you are against the religion. The human being becomes almost a slave working only for the religion whereas the larger vision is that the religion exists for the human being, not the other way.
We have to consider, and believe, that the human, the individual comes first. Religion has to be an individual choice and not a system that forces everyone to agree. There has to be a total separation between religion and the individual.
Beneath the violence in West Asia, there are narratives of social, economic and political oppression. What is the role of the poet in today’s West Asia?
Your question is like asking what is the role of the rose in the forest. The role of poetry is to diffuse perfume against ignorance, fundamentalism. Poetry can change the relationship between the word and the object and make it new. Poetry can provide a new vision of the world, open new doors. This may, indirectly, change the world. But poetry is not primarily an act of changing. The changes in West Asia through violence will not stay. Power centres and interests may change, but there will be no lasting impact on culture or society.
You once wrote, ‘language is the only living and free space’. Elsewhere you say, ‘My Language, a single world: freedom’. Do you see language as a sort of ideology of resistance?
Everything is against the poet. He is not free within himself, within the body, with the outside. But totally free poetry, nobody will dare to publish it. The only space where the poet is free is in language.
Poets are said to have a vision of future different from that of politicians and historians. How do you see the future of Syria?
Civilisations are like human beings. They grow up, get old and die. I see in the present conflict in West Asia a continuity of the past conflicts. Many civilisations rose and fell. The whole world is in a state of conflict. Many things will disappear at the level of civilisations. When we contemplate the destruction and the wreckage of the world, we realise that politics never created the identity of people. Neither did trade or economy. What created the identity of people are artistic creations. I have hope in artistic creations.
Who are the voices from the Arab world you wait to hear, see or read?
There are a lot of writers, artists, musicians. Artistic creation is not subject to economic growth. Poor countries, poor people also create. South America, which was once a very poor continent, was always more creative than the North. So, I have a lot of hope in the poor societies of Asia.
Your were once a socialist and your political beliefs forced you into exile. Are you still a socialist?
I was an active socialist long ago, in my childhood. Yes, I still consider myself to be a person of the Left. But the Left too needs to be criticised. I criticise myself first because I belong to the Left.
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