“We [Arabs] have become extinct,” said Syrian poet Adonis in a March 11 Dubai television interview transcribed by the Israeli media monitor MEMRI, [1] but ignored by the mainstream Western media. The prognosis by Adonis, the only Arabic writer on the Nobel Prize short list, for the Arab prospect has become more bleak over the years, and his latest pronouncement has a Spenglerian finality.

“We have become extinct … We have the masses of people, but a people becomes extinct when it no longer has a creative capacity, and the capacity to change its world … The great Sumerians became extinct, the great Greeks became extinct, and the Pharaohs became extinct,” he said.

Poets are given to hyperbole, to be sure, but Adonis (the pen-name of Ali Ahmad Said) makes a deeper point in his writings on Arabic poetry. He argues that Islam destroys the creative capacity of the Arabs, who in turn do not have the capacity to become modern. What he calls the “hell of daily life” is the subject of his poetry, of which a representative sample is available in English translation. [2]

Adonis devoted a long career to creating a literary modernism in Arabic rooted in medieval Arab poetry, leaving a long trail of enemies both among Islamists and secular Arab nationalists. He is reasonably well known in the West. The Arab-American scholar Fouad Ajami profiled him in the widely read Dream Palace of the Arabs, and Thomas Friedman gave him a brief mention in the January 27 New York Times. Evidently Western analysts do not quite know what to make of this most recent apocalyptic pronouncement and averted their eyes. It is easy, but misguided, to dismiss Adonis’ doom-saying as an old man’s exasperation, for Adonis sees the decisive issues with great clarity.

Nothing less than the transformation of Islam from a state religion to a personal religion is required for the Arabs to enter the modern world, Adonis told Dubai television:

I oppose any external intervention in Arab affairs. If the Arabs are so inept that they cannot be democratic by themselves, they can never be democratic through the intervention of others. If we want to be democratic, we must be so by ourselves. But the preconditions for democracy do not exist in Arab society, and cannot exist unless religion is reexamined in a new and accurate way, and unless religion becomes a personal and spiritual experience, which must be respected.

The trouble, he added, is that Arabs do not want to be free. Asked why Arabs glorify dictatorships, Adonis responded as follows:

I believe it has to do with the concept of “oneness,” which is reflected – in practical or political terms – in the concept of the hero, the savior, or the leader. This concept offers an inner sense of security to people who are afraid of freedom. Some human beings are afraid of freedom.

Interviewer: Because it is synonymous with anarchy?

Adonis: No, because being free is a great burden. It is by no means easy.

Interviewer: You’ve got to have a boss …

Adonis: When you are free, you have to face reality, the world in its entirety. You have to deal with the world’s problems, with everything …

Interviewer: With all the issues …

Adonis: On the other hand, if we are slaves, we can be content and not have to deal with anything. Just as Allah solves all our problems, the dictator will solve all our problems.

The fact that the Arab world’s most distinguished man of letters has rejected the premise upon which US policy is founded – that traditional Islam and democracy are compatible – one would have expected from American critics a better response than silence. This is particularly true given how large Adonis looms in the Arab world, which translates only a fifth as many books per year as does Greece, with a 30th of the population. Arab writers of global stature are a tiny number, and their importance is disproportionately great.

I do not read Arabic, and have no idea whether Adonis’ poetry merits the Nobel Prize (on earlier occasions I argued that a novelist from a Muslim country, Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk, well deserved the 2006 award). But I doubt that anyone in the West will make sense of the spiritual condition of the Arab world without Adonis’ assistance, and not because what he has to say is difficult: on the contrary, he has the courage to say the obvious: the Arabs do not want freedom because their lives are intolerable. Islam not only suppresses the possibility of poetic expression, Adonis argues, but with it the capacity of the individual to have a personality. It is an astonishing, terrifying, and absolute indictment of his culture.

As a poet, Adonis does not describe the spiritual state of the Arabs, but rather evokes it existentially. The available literature on Islam consists mainly of a useless exchange of Koranic citations that show, depending on whether one is Karen Armstrong or Robert Spencer, that Islam is loving or hateful, tolerant or bigoted, peaceful or warlike, or whatever one cares to show. It is all so pointless and sophomoric; anyone can quote the Koran, or for that matter the Bible, to show whatever one wants. With Adonis one gains access to the inside of the Arab experience of modernity. It is a terrible and frightening one, not recommended for the faint-hearted, but indispensable to anyone who wishes to get beyond the pointless sloganeering of the pundits.

“The Arab poet,” he writes, “speaks ever of freedom and democracy as illusions. I say ‘illusion’ because life itself comes before freedom and democracy. How can I possibly talk about life when I am prevented from being myself, when I am not living, neither within myself nor for myself? [3]

“To be means to mean something,” Adonis explains. “Meanings are only appreciated through words. I speak, therefore I am; my existence thus and then assumes meaning. It is through this distance and hope that the Arab poet attempts to speak, ie, to write, to begin.”

Life is not possible without meaning, and meaning does not exist outside of culture, especially for a people defined not by political circumstances or territory but by language, namely the Arabs. In his essay “Poetry and Apoetical Culture,” Adonis makes the remarkable claim that the nature of Koranic revelation destroys the possibility of poetry, and with it the possibility of life. Before Islam, the Arabic language was rooted in poetry; after the advent of Islam, poetic language became impossible.

When this divine Revelation came to take the place of poetic inspiration, it claimed to be the sole source of knowledge, and banished poetry and poets from their kingdom. Poetry was no longer the word of truth, as the pre-Islamic poets had claimed it was. Nevertheless … Islam did not suppress poetry as a form and mode of expression. Rather, it nullified poetry’s role and cognitive mission, endowing it with a new function: to celebrate and preach the truth introduced by the Koranic Revelation. Islam thus deprived poetry of its earliest characteristics – intuition and the power of revelation and made it into a media tool.

… Poetry in Arab society has languished and withered precisely insofar as it has placed itself at the service of religiosity, proselytism and political and ideological commitments. [4]

Adonis adds:

In part, this explains the dominance in the Arab mentality of what I call “pastism.” In the context of this inquiry, pastism means the refusal and fear of the unusual. [5]

This is true, Adonis explains, because the Koran offers a revelation that is final and certain, excluding the possibility of doubt:

The political-religious institution exercised its power as a faithful guardian of the Koranic Revelation. It possessed the absolute certitude that the Revelation spoke and wrote Man and the universe clearly, definitively and without error or imperfection. This certitude, in turn, demanded that the Muslim individual be formed around a faith in an absolute text, one which allowed no interrogation that might give rise on any doubt whatsoever. Under such conditions, alienation is inevitable; the skeptical individual no longer has the right to be a member of the society.

Because Islam – the last message sent by God to mankind – has placed the final seal on the Divine Word, successive words are incapable of bringing humankind anything new. A new message would imply that the Islamic message did not say everything, that it is imperfect. Therefore the human word must, on an emotional level, continually eulogize and celebrate that message; on an intellectual level, a fortiori it can only serve as an explication.

Poetry, the most elevated form of expression, will henceforth be valued only for its obviousness. [6]

With reference to literature rather than theology, Adonis states what amounts to the same thing that Pope Benedict XVI said last year about the finality of Islamic revelation. [7] Westerners will assimilate this view only with great effort, for poetry of devotion is among the most artful and most complex in the literature. One thinks of Dante in Italian, John Donne and John Milton in English, St John of the Cross in Spanish, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Christian Fuerchtegott Gellert in German, and Yehuda Halevi in Hebrew.

To Christians and Jews, God is not a monarch who presents a final and indisputable truth, but a lover whose face is hidden – perhaps the most fruitful subject for poetry in human history. In the tradition of the biblical Song of Songs, St John conveys love for God in distinctly erotic terms. It is inconceivable for a Muslim poet to address Allah with the intimacy of a lover in the language of human passion. If poetry holds a mirror to our inner life, then the inner life of Westerners is profoundly different from that of Muslims, as different as the concepts of a God of Love who exalts the humble, and Allah who loves the strong and rewards the victorious. I have addressed that subject on a dozen other occasions.

One finds counterparts to the mystical-religious poetry of the Western mainstream only in the Sufi fringe of Islam, but never in its central current. Adonis praises in his study of Arab poetics [8] three medieval poets of the Islamic era whose originality of expression inspires him: Abu Nuwas, al-Niffari, and al-Ma’arri. Abu Nuwas “adopts the mask of the clown and turns drunkenness, which frees bodies from the control of logic and traditions, into a symbol of total liberation,” Adonis observes. [9] Al-Niffari speaks the language of transcendental bliss; it “eliminates the gap between the human and the sacred, humanizing the sacred and sanctifying this thinking, poeticizing reed: the human being.”

But Adonis’ greatest fascination is for the 11th-century Nihilist Abul Ala al-Ma’arri.

If poetry was, according to the “method of the Arabs,” “the art of words,” al-Ma’arri makes it into the art of meaning … Al-Ma’arri establishes nothing, at the level of either language or meaning. On the contrary, all that he proposes only casts doubt on both of these: for him they are simply two ways of expressing futility and nothingness. He creates his world – if “create” is the right word – with death as his starting point. Death is the one elixir, the redeemer. Life itself is only a death running its course. A person’s clothes are his shroud; his house is his grave, his life his death, and his death his true life … the truth is that the most evil of trees if the one which has borne human beings. Life is a sickness whose cure is death. [10]

We hear the term “culture of death” often enough, but do not normally have a window into a culture truly dominated by death. That is what Adonis, channeling Ma’arri, provides. The English term “despondent” does not begin to characterize the poems of Adonis; they do not express sadness about life so much as the belief that life itself is an impossibility. I cannot fairly represent the author’s translated poems in this venue, but a few examples give some of the flavor of his oeuvre:

Each day is a child/ who dies behind a wall/ turning its face to the wall’s corners. [11]

When I saw death on a road/ I saw my face in his. My thoughts resembled locomotives/ straining out of fog/ and into fog. [12]

“We must make gods or die./ We must kill gods or die,”/ whisper the lost stones in their lost kingdom. [13]

Strangled mute/ with syllables/ voiceless,/ with no language/ but the moaning of the earth,/ my song discovers death/ in the sick joy/ of everything that is/ for anyone who listens./ Refusal is my melody./ Words are my life/ and life is my disease.

Readers may peruse Adonis’ work for themselves to determine whether I am presenting only its dark side; in fact, it only has a dark side. Misery, self-pity and longing for death are the most common themes in Adonis’ translated work, but rage figures as well, particularly when he writes of the United States. One of his longest and most frequently cited poems is titled “The Funeral [sometimes The Grave] of New York,” and calls it (among many other unpleasant things) “a city on four legs/ heading for murder/ while the drowned already moan/ in the distance.”

When Adonis wrote this poem in 1971, he wanted to see the city destroyed, and appealed to the poor people of Harlem, “You shall erase New York,/ you shall take it by storm/ and blow it like a leaf away.”

In fairness to Adonis, he rather liked Walt Whitman, along with many other Western modernists (especially Stephane Mallarme and Charles Baudelaire) who, he concedes, helped him understand Arab medieval poetry to begin with. [14] Rhetorically, Adonis sounds a bit like a terrorist, but he harbors no such sentiments. Although he is a fierce anti-Zionist, he has met with Israeli poets and favors some kind of dialogue with Israel.

But as the bard of the Arabs, or at least the closest thing the Arabs currently have to a bard, he helps explain the remarkable willingness of Arabs to kill themselves to inflict harm on their enemies. Caught between a stifling traditional past and a threatening and unwished-for modernity, the Arabs in Adonis’ judgment cannot properly form a personality and are susceptible to nihilism, just as the poems of al-Ma’arri evoked it during the 11th century, and Adonis’ poems evoke it today.

The “hell of daily life,” the Arabs’ incapacity to digest the devil’s sourdough, instills a wish for death that expresses itself in the horrible events we see in the news daily. Adonis’ warning has become an epitaph for a tomb that is prepared, if not yet occupied: the Arabs are extinct.

Notes
1. The Middle East Media Research Institute.
2. For example, The Pages of Day and Night (translated by Samuel Hazo), The Marlboro Press 1994; and The Blood of Adonis, University of Pittsburgh Press 1971. Additional translations are in progress.
3. The Pages of Day and Night, Introduction, p 15.
4. Op cit, pp 101-102.
5. Loc cit.
6. Ibid, pp 102-103.
7. See When even the pope has to whisper, Asia Times Online, January 10, 2006.
8. An Introduction to Arab Poetics (translated by Catherine Cobham), Saqi Books: London 1990.
9. Poetics, p 60.
10. Op cit, p 65.
11. From “The Past,” in The Pages of Day and Night.
12. Op cit, p 21.
13. Op cit, p 26.
14. Poetics, pp 80-81.

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