An Arab Poet Who Dares to Differ

Adonis With Adonis the front runner for the Nobel Prize in Literature again, I was reminded of this article by Adam Shatz in the New York Times almost a decade ago:

“I am among those who seek the ills of the Arabs in their own history, not outside of it,” he said. An outspoken champion of secular democracy and a ferocious critic of organized religion, Adonis has published many studies of Arab culture and history, notably the book “The Changing and the Fixed: A Study of Conformity and Originality in Arab Culture.” In that volume, banned in certain Arab countries as heresy, Adonis accused Islam's clerics of perpetuating what he calls past-ism — a stubborn tendency to cling to what is known and to fear the new. According to Adonis, even apparently secular forms of politics in the Arab world, notably Arab nationalism and Marxism, are religious in structure, presenting themselves as revelations — absolute truths that confirm received wisdom instead of fostering debate.

“We live in a culture that doesn't leave a space for questions,” he said, puffing on a cigarillo. “It knows all the answers in advance. Even God has nothing left to say!” He let out a high-pitched giggle, as he often does after saying something particularly ominous or apocalyptic. What the Arab world needs, more than anything, he said, is a “revolution of subjectivity” that would emancipate people from tradition. Until this inner revolution occurs, he warned, Arabs would know only a secondhand modernity, a dangerous brew of hollow consumerism, rigged elections and radical Islam. “There is no more culture in the Arab world,” he said. “It's finished. Culturally speaking, we are a part of Western culture, but only as consumers, not as creators.”

To American readers of Fouad Ajami and V. S. Naipaul, Adonis's criticisms of Arab society may have a familiar ring. But what sets him apart from these men is that he writes in Arabic for an Arab audience, and that he is equally critical of the West, particularly the United States. “What strikes me about the States,” he said, widening his arms as if he were conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, “is the richness of American society on the one hand and, on the other” — he brought his hands together as if he were measuring a grain of sand — “the smallness of its foreign policy.”