Arab Today, arab today adonis a page in the life
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Adonis: A Page in the Life

Arab Today, arab today

Arab Today, arab today Adonis: A Page in the Life

Damascus - Arabstoday

When I greet Adonis in his native language, the 82-year-old Syrian poet arches an eyebrow. “We’ll be speaking in Arabic?” he asks. “Well, I don’t speak completely fluently…” I mutter. “I shall call a translator,” he says. We are in the Mosaic Rooms in Kensington, where Adonis – who is annually suggested as a favourite to win the Nobel Prize for Literature – has been reading his poems and exhibiting his paintings. Born near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia in 1930, Adonis learnt both the Koran and classical Arab poetry as a child before studying philosophy at Damascus University. He was jailed for supporting a socialist party and in 1956 left for Beirut, where he founded an influential poetry magazine and wrote his own experimental verse. For the past 30 years he has lived in Paris from where he has continued to write poetry and prose (now more than 50 books altogether) and often makes forceful comments on the state of the Middle East. In person he is small and dapper, with a playful sense of humour. I tell him that in 2006 I spent six months studying Arabic at Damascus University. When I heard him reading at the Mosaic Rooms, I missed a lot but some phrases rang out clearly. Although his work avoids rhyme and logical narrative progression, he still writes in the classical language I studied rather than the Syrian colloquial. Some have suggested that one reason the Arab world remains so rigidly hierarchical is the huge gap between the formal language used in literature and politics, and ordinary speech. “The colloquial language is still poor by comparison,” he says, adding that using the classical gives the entire Arab world a universal language. Is it relevant that the Koran is the founding text of classical Arabic? Mention of Islam’s holy book brings a glint to his eye. “People talk a lot about the Koran but I doubt very much whether many Muslims read the book at all. I mean the fundamentalists but also most Muslims. In fact, Muslims are now throttling Arabic because of censorship – both social and political.” His point seems all the more pertinent in the week that a Saudi man was condemned to death for an irreverent but by no means insulting tweet about the Prophet Mohammed. “This is a problem of Muslims, not the Koran,” he says. “In the Koran there is a dialogue between Allah and the Devil. And Allah doesn’t censor the devil.” Adonis has had his own experience of censorship. At a reading in Jordan in the Eighties one particular line gave him trouble. He recites it for me: “I no longer knew that Allah and the poet slept like two children on the same stone.” There was “almost a revolution”, he says. “How dare you say God is a child?” He laughs at the memory but his tone is melancholy. Recently he has run into political trouble over his reaction to the Syrian uprising. Last June, he wrote an open letter to President Bashar al-Assad calling for an end to the violence. But he also expressed little support for the rebels. Some of the Syrian opposition – who pointed out that the rebellion began peacefully until a brutal army crackdown – accused Adonis of sitting on the fence. The poet belongs to the same Alawite religious minority as the president, they noted, and in his letter respectfully called him “Mr President”. (That his address might be ironic did not occur to his critics.) But he certainly fears a religious takeover of the Arab Spring. “I am against the regime,” he tells me, “but I don’t want the Muslim Brotherhood to win power.” What might the future hold? “I believe it will be more Iraq than Egypt,” he says. “It will be a very violent situation.” Already in the city of Homs hundreds are being killed by the regime each week. Is there a case for foreign intervention? “I am against violence of any sort. I am with Gandhi. If people cannot liberate themselves on their own they don’t deserve their freedom.” Adonis has turned away from poetry in the past few years and begun painting. “Sometimes I felt that Arabic words have become old and lost their power.” We look at some of his canvases and he explains that they are a collage of lines from his favourite Arabic poems. They look to me like a further retreat into obliqueness. Our translator leaves us. Having listened to him speak for the past hour, my Arabic has started to come back. I say our conversation has reignited my interest in Arabic. “You must read more to understand better,” he says. “Try al-Jahiz, The Book of Animals.” He is a ninth-century writer famous for his bawdy fables. They sound rather difficult, I suggest. “No, they’re easy,” he says smiling. “And beautiful.” * Tribute to Adonis at the Mosaic Rooms, Kensington, runs until March 30. www.mosaicrooms.org * Adonis: Selected Poems translated by Khaled Mattawa is published by Yale

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