Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
11 - 17 January 2001
Issue No.516
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

A life on public view

By David Tresilian

Downstairs from the current main exhibition at the Arab World Institute in Paris, which presents artworks drawn from some 80 international museums to illustrate the theme of "Andalucias, from Damascus to Cordoba", is a smaller, free presentation of the career of the Syrian poet Adonis. This puts on public view a life spent between Damascus, Cordoba, and as far afield as New York. Adonis, born Ali Ahmed Said 70 years ago in Qassabin, a village in Syria, is celebrating his birthday, and someone has had the good idea of mounting this exhibition in his honour: "Adonis, a poet in today's world 1950--2000."

The exhibition traces the main stages in the poet's career: an Arabic and then a French education; the hopes raised by the withdrawal of the colonial power, France, from Syria and its later independence; the young writer's liberal and cosmopolitan orientation; the period spent editing and producing first Shi'r (Poetry) and then Mawaqif (Positions), two progressive reviews, in exile in Beirut in the 1960s.

From there follow the years of Adonis's growing international fame in the 1970s and 1980s as one of the Arab world's leading poets, as well as one of its best-known intellectuals and critics. Finally, there is the Adonis of the 1990s and of the new century, grand old man of Arabic letters, university professor, author of some of the most controversial writings on Arabic culture of the last half century. As one of the contributors to the exhibition catalogue notes, what links these decades together, as well as the poetic and critical work they produced, is Adonis's permanent commitment to an open future, which should take the legacy of the past forwards and outwards, resisting the temptation to be content with inherited attitudes.

This commitment, it seems, is at the root of Adonis's well-known interest in European Surrealism and in the modernist elements that he, together with his collaborators, introduced into Arabic writing at mid-century and beyond. For the French poet and critic Alain Jouffroy, who has contributed a long and personal tribute to the poet in the exhibition catalogue, Adonis's peers are James Joyce and the French writers Antonin Artaud and André Breton. Like them, Adonis begins by questioning "the identity of the self, of the subject and of the people" by an effort of re-imagining a language otherwise made dusty by "commerce and the media."

According to Adonis, "Arab poetic modernity consists of a radical questioning that explores the poetic language and that opens up new experimental areas for writing. Writing here continually puts Arab civilisation in question, while at the same time putting itself in question." Many of the contributors to the exhibition catalogue, which as well as reproducing the many photographs and texts put on display at the exhibition, also contains a series of specially commissioned articles addressed to the poet on his birthday, underline this emphasis on experiment and on the special nature of the poetic language in Adonis's work.

For Yves Bonnefoy, writer and professor at the Collège de France, Adonis has carried forward a programme familiar from twentieth-century modernist aesthetics. "The mode of speech of poetry is, on the one hand, violence," he writes, "since it questions the stereotypes that choke our words; it cannot go very far in this struggle without a fury, a capacity to destroy these clichés, these vain, empty images that form in the language, as well as, unfortunately, in the thought and imagination of the poet. But in thus laying waste this mode of speech, what emerges, what appears from behind the fallen wall, is the presence of other things... I am thinking of the unhappy warfare waged [on language] by Baudelaire, or by Rimbaud."

For the Yemeni academic and critic Abdel-Aziz al-Maqaleh writing on Adonis's long poem "Tomb for New York" (Qabr min ajl New York, 1971), the fruit of the poet's extended stay in that city, this struggle with language as a struggle with the tools of thought has given Adonis a heroic stature. A question that hangs over Adonis's work, as it does over that of all writers, is, he says, "who is reading?" But even more than that there is the question of who sees what the poet, in his struggle to present the world differently, is putting before us. Al-Maqaleh suggests that Adonis's special ability is to make us see "everything in our existence that has not been determined in advance."

The exhibition itself nicely puts on show the documents of a long life spent in such a struggle. Photos and drawings record Adonis's activities across the decades, and there are displays of his books and of the journals and magazines he edited at various times, in Arabic, French and English. One late interest of his is collage, and a central space at the exhibition collects Adonis's work in this form, and there is a video presentation of the poet reading from and discussing his work. The exhibition catalogue contains valuable writing on the poet, as well as a full bibliography of his work in various languages and a comprehensive biographical presentation by his French translator Anne Wade Minkowski. According to Nassar El-Ansary, the Institute's director, who introduces the catalogue, it is intended as a work of reference that will interest readers unable to view the exhibition or who are unacquainted with Adonis's works.

Finally, there is the question of the significance of Adonis's chosen name. Why the borrowing from classical Greek, from the story of the wounded boy, Adonis, turned into a flower? Minkowski, in her biographical summary, gives the circumstances under which Ali Ahmed Said began to write as Adonis. Unable to get published under his own name, he sent his poems to a newspaper under this new one, and this time the paper published his work, asking that the poet, who had not given his address, present himself in the paper's offices. "There was great surprise when a shy young peasant boy, dressed in rough trousers and shirt and with great boots on his feet, turned up."

Perhaps, other contributors agree, even in 1950 at the age of 20, Adonis already knew that his future would take him far from his native land and across the Mediterranean, in a Homeric trajectory of departure and return.

Adonis, un poète dans le monde d'aujourd'hui 1950--2000 Institut du monde arabe, Paris, 11 December 2000 -- 18 February 2001 ; Exhibition catalogue published by the Institut du monde arabe, Paris, 2000, pp. 327, FF 190

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