Today’s Most Daring and Provocative Arab Poet: Adonis

Adonis is the pen-name of Syrian poet, translator and theorist Ali Ahmad Said Esber. He is considered to be one of the most important Arabic-language poets of the modern era.

Adonis is the pen-name of Syrian poet, translator and theorist Ali Ahmad Said Esber. He is considered to be one of the most important Arabic-language poets of the modern era.

Adonis was born in western Syria on January 1, 1930. He was the eldest of six children. Growing up in a rural farming community, he did not have access to formal education, which was neither free nor readily available in his village of Al Qassabin. Nonetheless, the young Adonis attended the local kuttab, or mosque-affiliated school, where he learned to read the Quran, and thus, Classical Arabic. Adonis’s father was also instrumental in Adonis’s intellectual growth, teaching him classical Arabic poetry as they worked the fields. Before long, the budding poet had not only committed to memory centuries’ worth of Arabic-language verse, but he had also begun to compose his own.

When Adonis was 14, the first president of the newly-independent Republic of Syria, Shukri al-Quwatli, undertook a tour of his territory. When al-Quwatli visited Jableh, a nearby town, Adonis seized the occasion — despite the protestations of his father and the village leader — to declaim a poem he had written to commemorate the occasion. It was a resounding success: al-Quwatli was so moved, he offered the 14-year-old a full scholarship to the country’s last remaining French high school. The school, which was in Tartus, ended up closing down the following year, but Adonis managed to secure a transfer to another national school. He graduated high school five years later in 1949.

Around this time, the young poet adopted the pen-name of Adonis. The name makes the poet’s literary orientation explicit: Adonis drew his writerly inspiration from pre-Islamic and pan-Mediterranean muses. Adonis, the Greek god of fertility, is closely associated with the archetype of the dying-and-rising god (although the very existence of such an archetype has been called into question by modern scholars), and it is this element of rebirth that would later become a major theme in the Arabic poetry of the mid-20th century and among the followers of the Free Verse movement inaugurated by Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. As Adonis would later proclaim in one of his poems, “We will die if we do not create gods/We will die if we do not kill them.”

Adonis began his university studies at the Syrian University (now called Damascus University) in 1950. He published his first poetry collection, Dalila, the same year. Upon earning his BA in philosophy, Adonis served briefly in the Syrian military. However, he was arrested in 1955 as a result of his political activity — he was a vocal member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) — and spent a year in prison. The SSNP, often referred to in French as the Parti Populaire Syrien or as the Parti Social Nationaliste Syrien, advocated for the establishment of a Syrian national state spanning the Fertile Crescent. It was also involved in two attempted coups against the Syrian government, in 1949 and 1961, which provoked a major crackdown and led to ongoing and severe repression of the party and its partisans.

Shortly after his release from prison, Adonis fled to Lebanon. He quickly discovered a vibrant literary community in Beirut and joined ranks with Syro-Lebanese poet Yusuf al-Khal at a literary magazine called Majallat Shi’r (Arabic for “Poetry Magazine”) the following year. Arguably the most influential Arabic-language literary journal of all time, Majallat Shi’r was instrumental in the evolution of free verse in Arabic. Eventually, though, the journal came under fire from local authorities for publishing experimental poetry, and it folded in 1964.

In a 2002 interview for The New York Times, Adonis explained the mission of Majallat Shi’r like so: “What we were trying to achieve was a rediscovery of the self, against the tribe, against the umma, against all these ideological forms of culture. And though we were often boycotted and accused of Americanism and other sins, everyone acknowledges today that all that is true and real in Arab poetry comes from Shi’r.”

When Majallat Shi’r resumed publication three years later, it was without Adonis — by then, he was busy advocating for pan-Arabism in the pages of Beirut newspaper Lisan al-Hal. However, he did not stay away long, and by 1968, Adonis was again at the helm of a poetry journal, Mawaqif (Arabic for “Positions”). While Adonis’s new journal maintained a commitment to experimental poetry, he worked to expand the journal’s scope by addressing the disillusionment of the Arab world following the crushing defeat of the Six-Day War. Mawaqif was censured by several nations, but during its long run (it was in print until 1994), the magazine published the likes of Mahmoud Darwish, Elias Khoury and Hisham Sharabi in its pages.

Adonis’s poetry was characterized by an ardent nationalism and a mystical, Sufi-inspired outlook. In fact, Adonis came to be known as the leading exponent of the neo-Sufi trend in modern Arabic poetry, which would reach its apex in the 1970s. His poetry was also notable in that it broke radically with the tradition of formal Arabic poetry, prompting poet and translator Samuel John Hazo to later declare, “There is Arabic poetry before Adonis, and there is Arabic poetry after Adonis.” Indeed, his poetry introduced free verse and variable meters before doing away with verse entirely in his later prose poems.

Adonis earned a doctoral degree in Arabic Literature from Saint Joseph University in Beirut in 1973. After working as a professor of Arabic Literature at the Lebanese University for nearly 15 years, Adonis and his family emigrated to Paris in 1983. That city has remained his primary residence to this day.

Despite his impressive bibliography and his claims to have almost single-handedly modernized Arabic poetry, Adonis was expelled from the Arab Writers’ Union in 1995. His expulsion came two years after the offending act: a meeting between the poet and a delegation of Israeli intellectuals at a UNESCO-sponsored meeting in Granada, Spain. His expulsion was extremely controversial and led to the resignation of two of Syria’s most prominent writers — novelist Hanna Mina and playwright Saadallah Wannous — from the union in a show of solidarity with Adonis. While the poet’s attempt to foster a degree of cultural normalization with Israel may have found some support among the Arab intellectual and cultural elite, the broader Arab public resisted any attempts to give up what was seen as the last card in the hands of the Arabs before a lasting peace settlement had been reached. Adonis’s desire to open a conversation with Israeli intellectuals, along with his resolutely non-religious orientation, cost him a certain degree of affection among the Arab audience for whom he writes. More recently, the famously secular Adonis has been the target of a fatwa issued by a faction of the Syrian opposition, who claims he deserves to die due to his opposition to Islam.

A perennial contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Adonis has been regularly nominated for the award since 1988. Although he has yet to win, his legacy is far-reaching. As Edward Said, the well-known literary and cultural critic and author of Orientalism, has said, Adonis can be considered, on many counts, “today’s most daring and provocative Arab poet.”

Or in the words of the 2017 PEN/Nabokov Award’s judges panel, “…the force of his language, boldness of his innovation, and depth of his feeling […] has helped make Arabic, one of the world’s oldest poetic languages, vibrant and urgent. A visionary who has profound respect for the past, Adonis has articulated his cherished themes of identity, memory and exile in achingly beautiful verse, while his work as a critic and translator makes him a living bridge between cultures. His great body of work is a reminder that any meaningful definition of literature in the 21st century must include contemporary Arabic poetry.”

Adonis’s work has been widely translated and anthologized. Some notable works by the poet available in English translation include The Blood of Adonis (1982), Transformations of the Lover (1982), The Pages of Day and Night, (1994), If Only the Sea Could Sleep (2003), and A Time Between Ashes and Roses (2004).