Adunis, the revolutionary poet

Syrian poet Adunis may be at the heart of modern Arabic poetry, yet the Arab Spring has consigned him to irrelevance.

Twice in recent years, Adunis has insisted that Arab culture is “extinct” [GALLO/GETTY]

The Syrian poet Adunis (1930 – present) (Ali Ahmad Sa’id) is and will always be one of the most important Arab poets of the 20th century. His poetry represents a genuinely radical break with what came before. His metaphors are dazzling and his voice is pristine. Although he was not the first, nor only poet to write what came to be known as qasidat al-nathr (the prose poem), his name became synonymous with it and his style was emulated by later generations of Arab poets. He has an immense talent and restless spirit, coupled with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Arabic tradition, a mastery of its poetics and from the outset, an openness to modern, especially French, poetry – all of which put him in a unique position to make a broad and deep impact on Arabic literary culture. In Beirut, he co-founded the influential literary journal, Shi’r, (1956-63) with the Lebanese poet Yusuf al-Khal (1917-1987). Later he founded Mawaqif (1968-1998). Both journals served as platforms for cultural modernism and a radical critique of tradition.

Adunis is also a cultural critic, actively engaged in the creation of a new vision of writing and culture. If his most memorable poetic work remains Aghani Mihyar al-Dimashqi (Songs of Mihyar the Damascene)(1961), his most important critical work is his doctoral dissertation, Al-Thabit wa’l-Mutahawwil (The Fixed and the Changing: A Study in Imitation and Innovation Among Arabs)(1974). This multi-volume work was bold and ambitious in its scope, but marred by Orientalist assumptions, reductive binary perspective and a misrecognition of modernity, both as a phase and a concept. Both his poetry and his criticism were deemed controversial by many and earned him legions of adversaries, but also many admirers.

Decades of devotion

I still remember going to the library of the College of Arts my freshman year at Baghdad University to check out one of his poetry books. The librarian told me that all of Adunis’s books were on the blacklist. His cultural project was antithetical to Iraqi Ba’thist culture which was at its apex in 1986, as was the war with Iran (1980-1988). Like many “Leftist” intellectuals (including Michel Foucault), Adunis rushed to support the Iranian Revolution in 1979, only to then withdraw his support soon after. That decision on Adunis’s part demonised him in the eyes of the Iraqi Ba’th Party. The party and its cultural clients who controlled literary outlets and institutions viewed Shi’r and the poets around it with deep suspicion.

Adunis seemed to relish his status as the outcast prophet of Arab modernism. Much earlier in life, he’d joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and paid for it with a year’s worth of imprisonment. He then left the party for good in 1960. Although he was no longer an active member of any political party or movement, for some time he still retained significant symbolic and political capital. Some time in the receding past, that is.

Over the last two and a half decades, Adunis has steadily squandered the precious capital he once possessed. Far from being the outcast prophet he has often presented himself as, he has been fully integrated into the Arab cultural establishment for many years, earning its major prizes and honors and appearing regularly at its platforms and podia.

In this light we might consider the column he has written for more than two decades for the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily, al-Hayat. He never utters a word about the horrendous practices and politics of the Saudi regime, but often rehashes stale Orientalist notions about “the Arab mind” and reduces the complex problems and challenges facing the Arab world to the need for a reinterpretation of religion. Arabs, he insists, are still imprisoned in the past and the concept of the individual does not even exist in Arabo-Islamic culture, as Arabs have yet to rebel against the super tribe. He sadly sounds like a fusion of Bernard Lewis and Irshad Manji. Some read these sorry statements as a symptom of his obsession with the Nobel Prize and a form of active lobbying for it since it would surely endear him to the committee to pose as the lone voice in the wilderness, even though there are hundreds of voices. When he was asked by the New York Times last year about the Nobel, he claimed that he was indifferent and didn’t want to talk about it. But in the Arab world, it has become a joke.

A revolutionary authority

It is strange that someone so covetous of the Nobel Prize would declare that the culture to which he belongs – the culture he supposedly champions – is also extinct. Twice in recent years, Adunis has insisted that Arab culture is “extinct”. In an interview with al-Arabiyya satellite TV on September, 7, 2007, he claimed, “We are a people who are on their way to extinction…We no longer have the creative capacity to build a great human society and participate in building the world.” In April of 2009, Adunis spent a week in Iraqi Kurdistan on an official visit and again declared that Arab culture was extinct and added: “If an American, a European, and an Arab sat at a table, what would the Arab have to offer? Nothing.” But this apparent contradiction finds resolution in another unusual aspect of Adunis’s self-presentation: he deems himself an exception and an aberration. Through sheer chutzpah, Adunis claims a unique revolutionary authority to be the one best suited to represent the culture that, according to him, has ceased to live.

Yet, when the revolution’s winds uprooted dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, the “revolutionary” thinker found no satisfaction in what people had done. What had taken place in these places, he said, was a “youth rebellion”.

Soon after, his compatriots in Syria revolted against a ruthless dictatorial regime that had suffocated them for four decades. You might expect a poet to salute the courage of unarmed citizens standing up to the bullets of a vicious regime with nothing but their voices and consciences. But Adunis did nothing of the sort. His March 31st column “In Light of the Current Syrian Moment” was dismissively pessimistic.  Rather than reaffirm the power of words and dreams of freedom, he presented a nightmare intended to frighten, the possibility of an Iraqi scenario in Syria,  Adunis stressed the need for a separation between religion and politics and wondered whether the revolts in the Arab world would end up with a new hegemony of “moderate Islam”. While this is a concern shared by many revolutionaries, it also parrots the tired scare tactics of these same repressive regimes and their foreign sponsors who, for years, have cynically manipulated such fears to foreclose the potential and promise of democratic change.

Perplexing views

By this time, many Syrian and Arab writers and critics were already taking Adunis to task for the ambiguity of his position. The Syrian novelist Maha Hasan encouraged [Arabic] him to take a firm stand. In an April 14th article in al-Hayat, she addressed him directly” “Today you have to be more clear, precise, and direct in saying the truth about what is taking place in Syria…this is your last chance.”

Adunis’s second article on the revolt in Syria “The Syrian Moment, Again” fell short[Arabic] even more than the first. The tone in this piece was a bit clearer and was critical of the one-party system. But at the same time, Adunis seemed to be as critical of those protesting against the regime, writing “a politics led in the name of religion by a cart pulled by two horses: heaven and hell, is necessarily a violent and exclusionary politics”. And the Orientalist hamartia is always there when he writes that “the present in some of its explosions is copying the events of the past with modern instruments”. As if the contemporary Arab world is destined to repeat past tragedies.

In an appearance on the Saudi-owned satellite channel, al-Arabiyya, Adunis had said that he could not take part in protests that emanate from the mosque and faulted the opposition for not starting its protests in public squares. Adunis’s stance on this point suggests just how detached he is from the lived reality of his own country. Not only have many of the protests in Syria erupted first on university campuses, but the choice of mosques as gathering-places cannot be said to express a particular religious ideology, since few other equivalent institutions exist across the country, and Syrian citizens do not have the luxury of picking and choosing between many sites for staging their protests. Indeed, there have been moving reports of Christians and atheists who went to mosques on Fridays in order to take part in what was sweeping the country.

Adunis’s latest intervention is an open letter[Arabic] to Bashar al-Asad he published in the Lebanese daily as-Safir. It is problematic both as a gesture in and of itself and in its tone and content. By the time Adunis composed his letter, the regime had slaughtered more than 1,400 Syrian civilians. By that time, the regime had tortured and killed a teenager, Hamza al-Khatib, whose mutilated body quickly became a powerful symbol of the regime’s brutality. Despite this, the regime continued to reject the legitimacy of the protests, employing the old refrains about foreign conspiracies and infiltrators.

And what, given this context, did Adunis have to say to the president? Adunis’s letter has the obligatory Orientalist canard about the Arabo-Islamic fusion of religion and politics, and claims like: “Politically, Arabs have never known democracy in their modern history, nor in their ancient history. It lies outside Arab cultural heritage.” After peeling away this wrapper, we find a critique of the Ba’th party and a call for a multi-party system. What is confounding about the target of Adunis’s critique is that he knows that the Ba’th party has been a skeleton for many years. He also knows that the source of Syria’s problems, and the power of the regime does not reside in the party itself.

Poetry’s power

More disturbing is the fact that Adunis goes out of his way to offer an even-handed critique of the opposition, as if the state and its opponents were equivalent in terms of power. Adunis divides the opposition into two major groups. “voices” and “actions”. On the one hand there are the “voices”, the writers and intellectuals who have noble aspirations, but lack a “document” and thus are not “embodied”. And on the other, there are the “actions” – the slogans and protests and people with patriotic and ethical ideals. Adunis wastes no time in pointing out that some among them “have violent tendencies” and a tone prone to “agitation”, “vengeance”, “sectarianism”, and “Salafism”.

Neither in this letter, nor in his previous articles does Adunis bother to refer to the massacres committed by the regime, nor does he pay respect to the hundreds of martyrs who were killed for simply calling for the freedom Adunis once sang for.

In other words, Adunis’s own rhetoric dovetails with the regime’s propaganda as it tries to delegitimize the protests and demonise the protesters. What is even more troubling is that Adunis addresses the Syrian tyrant as “an elected president”. Perhaps he forgot that Bashar inherited the presidency? It is ridiculous to think that Bashar himself has no responsibility for what has taken place, or that he could, even now, become an agent of democratisation. Yet, this is apparently what Adunis believes. Silence would have been less insulting to the Syrian people.

Perhaps there was a time when Adunis, the intellectual, represented the promise of radical and revolutionary culture, but that time has long passed. Adunis the poet, especially the early Adunis, will always be at the heart of modern Arabic poetry. His poems will be read with admiration and awe, but perhaps it’s time to forget about Adunis, the cultural critic and radical intellectual. The Arab Spring has consigned Adunis, the self-proclaimed revolutionary, to irrelevance. 

And that is the beauty and poetry of revolutions.

Sinan Antoon is an Iraqi poet and novelist. He is the author of I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody and The Pomegranate Alone. He is Assistant Professor at New York university.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.