A Surreal-ist and a Journal-ist

Two Pre-eminent Arabic Writers Reflect

By Jo-Ann Mort

Published December 13, 2010.
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Adonis: Selected Poems
Translated by Khaled Mattawa
Yale University Press, part of the Margellos World Republic of Letters, 432 pages, $30

Journal of an Ordinary Grief
By Mahmoud Darwish Translated by Ibrahim Muhawi
Archipelago Books, 175 pages, $16

Though their styles are distinct, poets Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish are two of the Arab world’s modern literary giants and were once part of the same group of writers in 1970s Beirut that clustered around the magazine Mawaqif (Arab for “Attitudes”). Their differences are pronounced in two newly translated collections: Adonis’s “Selected Poems” and Darwish’s “Journal of an Ordinary Grief.”

Though the Darwish book is prose poems and journal entries, these pieces evoke the author’s poetry. Both his poetry and prose offer an approachable rendering of the heart and the head. Adonis’s collection, on the other hand, is allusive and surreal.

Adonis, who lives in Paris, is considered one of the world’s great poets and a profound modernizer of Arabic literature. Influenced by the unlikely combination of French surrealism and Sufi doctrine, Adonis has written that “Surrealism is a pagan form of Sufism whose goal is to become one with the absolute, whereas Sufism is Surrealist in that it searches for the Absolute and seeks to immerse itself in it….” Since Adonis is intent on stretching the boundaries of traditional Arabic literature, Sufism seems a perfect fit, as he defines it as an “innovative movement” that not only embraces poetry, but also “pushes” poetic boundaries.

A vibrant 80-year-old with shoulder-length gray hair, Adonis looked every inch the poet when we met before his recent reading at the 92nd Street Y. Born Ali Ahmed Said, in Syria, Adonis adopted his nom de plume when he was a 19-year-old aspiring poet intent on reinvention. His father was poor, but he taught his son to read poetry and the Quran. When Adonis was 14, he read a poem to the visiting president of Syria, who promptly arranged for the youngster to attend a French-run high school, and after graduating form that school, he studied philosophy at Damascus University. In 1956, following a year in prison for left-wing political activities, Adonis fled Syria for Beirut.

Over the course of his career, Adonis has championed Arab modernism in literature. He elaborated on this in our discussion: “A human being creates an identity as he creates his thoughts… and so identity comes from the future, not the past.”

He puts it like this in his poem “In the Embrace of Another Alphabet”:

I must take apart the body of the night, one piece at a time, to write a single step of Damascus.

to uncover her day, I must dress her in night, and what I write must be dictated by not knowing my way.

Evident here is not just the influence of Surrealism, but also the poet’s keen intent to push his language and culture where they have not been before. Adonis’s constant urge to innovate and enlighten is one of the reasons that he is perpetually shortlisted for a Nobel Prize, including this year.

Less active in politics than was Darwish, Adonis nonetheless is somewhat active politically, illustrated especially by his life in exile. While he has been outspoken about Israeli policies — and told me that he will go to Israel only once “there is peace” — he considers Israeli poets Natan Zach and the late Yehuda Amichai his friends, along with his Tel Aviv-based Hebrew translator, Sasson Somekh, to whom he asked me to send greetings. In Paris, he translated one of poet Paul Celan’s poems about the Holocaust into Arabic.

He has strong views, especially about religion and its impact on his home region. “I think with Spinoza on this, there has to be total separation between religion and politics,” he told me. “In the Middle East, because of this unity of religion and politics, we may be about to face wars that are more devastating than ones we experienced in the past, wars that carry us back to the Middle Ages, that are destroying the human being, the individual. In this regard, Israel insisting on being a Jewish state encourages Muslims to make religion the whole [of identity formation]. This is more dangerous than the political wars that we may have had… I do not believe in cultural life being led by a political regime.”

Yet, Adonis, both in his writing and in his personal performance of his work, is filled with optimism, something that resonates even through the poetry of loss and exile, as in this 2003 poem, “Imagine a Poet”:

A rose carries the whole of night in her sleeves,
Leans on Beirut’s chest,
and gives her waist to the air’s forearm
While life embraces her hatchlings
Placing her feet on the staircase of the future.
Is this really the world?
Shall I grieve? Shall I hope?
I prefer to sing.

Darwish, known for his love for good wine, also enjoyed singing, but he is understandably mournful in this collection, especially since so much of the writing here has to do with his detentions and with the war between Israel and the Palestinians. He was born in 1941 in the Galilee village of al-Birwa, near the Israeli city of Akko. He fled with his family to Lebanon during Israel’s War of Independence. Though his family returned to Israel to live in the Galilee after 1948, the poet never received Israeli citizenship. As a young man he moved to Haifa, where he became engaged in the Communist Party’s literary circles. In 1970 he left Israel for Egypt, Lebanon, France and Jordan, eventually settling in Ramallah in the 1990s. A political activist, he wrote speeches for Yasser Arafat, until the two broke ranks over the signing of the Oslo Accords.

As with much of Darwish’s poetry, the writing here is preoccupied with identity. The long section and title selection, “Journal of an Ordinary Grief,” is both moving and educational as it gets into the guts of the dilemma still faced by 20% of Israel’s citizens who are Palestinian, and by the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and elsewhere. It also painstakingly chronicles, in poetic prose, the military rule under which Arabs were placed in Israel until 1966.

Darwish digs deep into his life, sharing personal experiences in this poetic fragment in which he addresses his Israeli-Jewish girlfriend, who accompanies him to prison —presumably during the Six Day War — after he is sentenced for political activity. After accompanying him, the girlfriend goes off to war in the West Bank:

She may be in Nablus, or another city, carrying a light rifle as one of the conquerors….

She didn’t say goodbye.

And you didn’t say: “Go, and come back.”

You taught her to smoke, and she taught you the companionship of smoke.

The collection is a welcome addition to Darwish’s work in English, though it suffers because the list of footnotes is inadequate, not even providing the informed reader with enough historical basis to understand even relatively contemporary references. Unfortunately, too, the entries are not dated, which is especially unfortunate for selections from a journal.

Still, Darwish takes the reader through his intimate memories of life in Israel during a traumatic moment that remains unresolved, and the journey is well worth it. Both Adonis and Darwish — whose works are increasingly available in English — are critical reading, not only for lovers of literature or for those interested in Arabic literature, but also for anyone who wants insight into the minds of leading Arab intellectuals, especially those concerned and intimate with life among Israelis, Palestinians and the surrounding peoples. “In fog shifting between orange and the color of coffee, / I try to probe this rising century….” Adonis wrote at the beginning this century, and he does precisely that — by illuminating the gray zones amid the starkly configured fault lines of rhetoric and political bantering in a manner reserved for a poetic giant.

Jo-Ann Mort has written many reviews for the Forward, most recently one of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry.


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