Adonis in Osnabruck

Foto: Jesus Ochando/epa
Foto: Jesus Ochando/epa

Last September I wrote a blog entry about the Syrian poet Adonis receiving the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize of the city of Osnabrück & the resistance from a range of quarters to this award. You can read my original post here. Since then a fair amount of pressure has been put on the award committee demanding the award be rescinded, while the man who was supposed to give the laudatio — last year's winner of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, Navid Kermani, — bowed out. The committee has stayed with its original choice and today Adonis will be awarded the prize. The core reason for this opposition has been the accusation that the poet has not been loud enough in his criticism of the Assad regime. As I wrote in September:

I have heard such criticisms before, here in the US, & in France as well. Some may be justified — or can be explained by the elder poet’s weariness. [Adonis is 86].  Still, he has been very clear as to his thinking on these matters. At our last meeting — a year [& 1/2] ago — I asked Adonis about Assad’s regime — and the wider situation of the Arab world. His immediate and spontaneous reaction was to express a sense of deep pessimism, something close to despair. He is obviously not a fan of Assad’s, but is afraid that Assad, at this point, will only be toppled/replaced by a religious-based power structure (By the way, he has been saying this for many years, i.e. way before the rise of ISIS ...). He is deeply convinced that it doesn’t matter who, what kind of ruler, is running any given Arab country as long as religion remains central to the culture as such. Change, he said, possible democratic change on the political level too, can only come once the people realize that religion is what is holding them down, culturally and politically, and are willing to free themselves from this imposition. The culture has to change first in such a way — he put it elsewhere — that it will allow for questions to arise, which is not possible at this point. The Islamic culture that holds sway claims that all the answers to all possible questions were given when the religion was founded. There is thus no need to think, because any new thought is heresy.

He elaborated on some of these thoughts a few days ago in an interview with the German paper Die Welt, extracts of which I'm translating here below:

DW: An open letter you wrote to Assad in 2011 in which you call him the "elected president" gave offence. What would you write to him today?

Adonis: Exactly the same words: that he has to resign. But I also wrote a second public letter addressed to the revolutionaries. I have asked them what their vision was. But they didn't want to read it because they are not independent.

DW: From whom do they depend?

Adonis: The Americans, the Saudis, the Qataris, a certain European politics.

DW: You say the Arab world is sick. What is your diagnosis?

Adonis: It is built on a totalitarian model. Religion dictates everything: how you walk, how you go to the bathroomn, how you are supposed to love...

DW: A modern islam is not possisble?

Adonis: You cannot reform a religion. If you reform it you separate it from itself. That's why a modern Islam is not possible, even if modern Muslims are. If there is no separation between church and state then there can be no democracy, no equality for woman. Then we will remain in a theocratic system. That's how it will end. Theocracies are being set up across the Middle East with the help of the West.

DW: That's your old argument, that after Assad something worse will come. Do you think the developments in Syria are proving you right?

Adonis: Assad is only a detail. What interests me is the whole of the Arab world. Why does the West never talk about Saudi Arabia? Is that a democracy?

[The journalist mentions a book coming out in Germany with photos documenting torture under Assad's regime, photos that remind him of Nazi crimes. Adonis is asked what they remind him of:]

Adonis: They remind me of Guantánamo, of the horrors committed by the USA, the land of civilization, progress, technology.

DW: You really want to compare torture under Assad with  Guantánamo?

Adonis: I am against Assad and against Guantánamo. That Assad tortures, we have known for fifty years. The West has been an ally of the regime despite all this.

DW: Would you call Assad a criminal today?

Adonis: They are all this part of the world they are all criminals, not one has come to power through free elections. No difference between the regimes and their opponents...

DW: You judge the Arab world very harshly, and further that you are a critic of Islam. Is that why you are being attacked?

Adonis: I am a sort of scapegoat. I have been criticizing Arab culture and arab politicians since 1975 and I can only say: the Arabs are at the end.

DW: What do you mean by that?

Adonis: I mean that the Arabs are no longer a creative force. Islam contributes nothing to intellectual life, gives no impetus. It doesn't add any thinking, any art, any science, it has no vision whatsoever that could change the world. This repetition is a sign of its demise.

DW: A sad conclusion from the mouth of a man who is called the greatest Arab language poet alive…

Adonis: What is needed is a break, a new beginning. I had hoped the "Arab spring" would be such a new beginning, but I was wrong. It only led to regression, because they only wanted to change the regimes in power, but not society as a whole. The liberation of people is what is essential. What matters is to free woman from sharia law, and for all people to gain their human rights. To change society would have required to change the cultural and religious foundations.

DW: Isn't it the Arab world that is destroying itself?

Adonis: No, it is the West together with the Arab fundamentalists. You can understand what is happening in the Middle East only if you include the West in the equation. It has never promoted human rights or democracy. It has even considered Haytham Manna, the Syrian opponent to the regime who has always refused violence, as a marginal figure not to be taken seriously.

DW: Have you received death threats?

Adonis: Of course. I don't care. There are convictions for which one has to risk one's life.

Let me end by reprinting my translation of Adonis' poem I had quoted in September:

The air, misshapen.
The country’s entrails,  shredded by its children’s fingernails,
the crossroads robed in dust lit up by their wrinkles,
arrayed in clothes woven from their steps.

Who will tell the crossroads: no,
do not share your secrets with us.

We no longer expect the magic of dispersing us in them,
nor the bliss of reunion.