Syria's revolution has been usurped by mercenaries and Islamists, says poet Adonis

AdonisSyrian poet Adonis. (Photo credit: C. Shankar)Adonis, 85, is arguably the greatest living poet in the Arab world. He has been a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature for some years now. He was the first Arab writer to win Germany's Goethe Prize in 2011. He was in Kerala last week to receive the Kumaran Asan World Prize for Poetry.

Born Ali Ahmed Said Esber in Syria, he fled to Beirut in 1956 and then to Paris in 1980. He is known as the great moderniser of Arab poetry but he has also been criticised lately for not wholeheartedly supporting the uprising in Syria against the iron rule of Bashar al-Assad's government.

At a noisy and frowzy hotel in Varkala near Thiruvananthapuram, on a humid May day, he sits on a couch in the corner. His silver hair surrounds his easy smiles but he is a realist when it comes to the growing violence in Syria where his brother and nephews still live. He spoke to India Today's Charmy Harikrishnan over cans of soft drinks about his memories of homeland, why poetry still has relevance in a torn world and why he had been proven right on Syria where the "revolution has been usurped by mercenaries and Islamists". Adonis's elder daughter Arwad Esber joined in to translate his French into English. Excerpts:

Can poetry, an ancient literary form, capture the complexities of 21st century and this multimedia world?

- Poetry is created by man. The world's complexities are also created by man. Then, logically, poetry can capture the complexities that man creates. Poetry can talk about problems, but poetry cannot be the solution. Poetry can find solutions only in the way love can offer solutions - on a very personal level. Come to think of it, we don't always have to find solutions, do we? Let some complexities remain.

There is a humanitarian crisis going on in your home country Syria. Over 200,000 Syrians have died in the civil war in the past three years.

- The question all along has been this: why are the people not rising as one against the government? The regime is rotten in Syria. However, the violent struggle there has three elements that are not revolutionary at all. One, the protests against Assad have a religious aspect. And religion is against revolution. Two, there are mercenaries, who cannot bring about a revolution. Syria's struggle has been usurped by these mercenaries and Islamists - from Al Qaeda's affiliate Al Nusra to ISIS. Three, there is foreign intervention-by the US, UK and France. This means we have no revolution in Syria. We only have destruction of the country.

Do you see a solution to Syria?

- No, I don't. Syria is moving towards greater devastation. The revolution began in a good way - there was hope -- but quickly it turned into a fight for power.

Should the Assad government fall?

- Assad's regime today seems to be stronger than it was before. Assad will only fall through foreign intervention. But you know what happened in Libya after the international community intervened.

What can a poet do in such a situation?

- The poet can only speak out, say it as it is.

You had earlier spoken out against the armed violence of the opposition in Syria. You were criticised then. Now, with Al Qaeda and ISIS moving in, do you think your fears were valid?

- I had written that a revolution that begins from a mosque is no revolution. At that time, people were critical of me. But now they understand what I said then.

You had also said that you were with Gandhi, not Che Guevara. Are you still with Gandhi?

- Yes. Gandhi is a symbol of nonviolence. And I am fully on the side of nonviolence. The moment you turn violent, your revolution rejects all human values.

What is the future of Syria and the Arab world?

- If we talk only about civilisation, I said a long time ago that the Arab civilisation is dead. The countries will survive but the civilisation is no more.

What of poetry then, which is so much a part of Arab civilisation?

- The most beautiful Greek poetry was written at the fag end of the Greek civilization. It was the same in Rome.  The poet can still write about destruction, and beautifully so, standing amid the ruins.

You modernised Arab poetry. Is it time to reinvent it again?

- The word does not wear out. So much has been written but there is still so much to write -- the possibilities are endless. Poetry renews itself. That is why there will be new poets, new forms of writing.

Who are the poets you like?

- The first poet I liked was the Syrian-Greek poet Heraclitus who said you do not step into the same river twice. I love Rimbaud and Nietzsche because both of them were critical of the establishment, particularly religion, monotheism. There is a poet who nobody knows: he is a 10th century Arab mystic writer, An Niffari. He wrote against religious institutions. I also love poets who talk about their body, because body is oppressed, marginalized, hidden away, by all religions. Nobody knows their own body. Then how will you know the other?

How do you react to PEN giving the controversial freedom of speech award to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo?

- You cannot treat a word, a painting, as a crime. This is why I oppose with all my heart what happened at Charlie Hebdo (its journalists were shot dead for caricaturing Prophet Mohammed). True believers do not defend their religion by killing others.

What are your best memories of Syria?

- The sea. The women. The old civilisation. The alphabet. I was born in a village (Qasabin) that is not too far from where the world's first alphabet was created (Ugarit). There is a mythological tale: the Greek god Zeus kidnapped the Syrian goddess Europa. Her brother Cadmus went looking for her. He did not take any army with him. He did not carry any weapons. He just took the alphabet with him. He gave the alphabet -- and the name of his sister -- to Europe. I dream of a time where people will not take up arms, but will carry the alphabet, the culture, with them.

Do you have your family in Syria?

- My mother died two years ago. My brother and my nephews are still there.

What is home to you? Is it Syria, Beirut, Paris?

- I have been searching for home for a long time. Home, I realised, is not in a geographical place. Home is love, friendship, family, poetry.  

Have you written poetry after the Arab Spring floundered?

- Yes, I have. Incidentally, I have a new book coming up The Dust of Cities, the Misery of History. It contains my writings on the Arab Spring. It is in prose, but the introduction to the book is a poem I wrote in 2011 about Syria. The poem is called "Playing Solo on the Electric Guitar".

Why did you choose to call yourself Adonis? Adonis is the god of beauty.

- No, no, the Greek Adonis is the god of beauty; the Syrian version of Adonis is about love and resurrection. When I first started writing poems, I used to sign them Ali Ahmed Said, but the local magazines and newspapers never printed them. One day I read about the myths of Adonis and how he was killed by a wild boar when he went out hunting. From his blood, the red anemone flowered. I thought these editors who won't publish my poems are pigs who want to kill me. So I changed my name to Adonis. I must have been 15 then. And from then on all my poems have been published. Adonis took me from a small village to a wide world.

Is a Nobel on its way? Do you wonder about it every October?

- No, that is not my problem.



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