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Adonis' Quest

Lee Smith

Ladbrokes of London, the famous British bookmaker, lists the Syrian-born poet Adonis as a 4 to 1 favorite to win this year’s Nobel Prize, due to be announced in the next few days. According to one Ladbrokes official, “I really think this is poetry’s year, and without a doubt, the politically correct choice would be Adonis.”

The Nobel Prize for Literature hasn’t been awarded to an Arab since Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz received it in 1988. But for a decade now, since 9/11, and with the apparent rift between the West and Islam, Nobel handicappers have suspected that the prize is due to go to an Arab writer to counter the clash of civilizations narrative. There were several possible candidates—Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, and Egypt’s relative newcomer Alaa al-Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building —but Adonis was always the favorite.

Born Ali Ahmed Said Asbar (his pen name is taken from a figure in Greek and Levantine mythology), the 81-year-old writer is one of the pioneers of Arab modernist poetry, a founding editor of one of the region’s most influential poetry journals (Sh’ir —“Poetry”), and author of several major critical essays, like An Introduction to Arab Poetics. What makes Adonis’s candidacy especially noteworthy this time around is the uprising in his native land, where for more than seven months now a largely peaceful opposition has braved the murders, tortures, and other depredations of the ruling Assad regime. And yet Adonis’s support for the Syrian uprising, as well as the Arab Spring in general, is qualified.

Early on Adonis explained that he is “against the revolution that comes from the thresholds of mosques“—a position that may have been seen by some to have been complicated by the fact that he comes from the same Alawite minority community that also produced Syria’s current ruling clique. Even before the uprising started, Bashar al-Assad warned the international community that, if it weren’t for his regime, the country would fall into the hands of the Sunni majority, including that community’s extremist currents, which would crush the country’s minority communities. And now, half a year into the uprising, Assad claims the protests and demonstrations are the work of terrorists—which is to say, Sunni Islamists.

To talk of “the thresholds of mosques,” then, raises the specter of sectarian strife and of Sunnis having no real interest in political freedoms but merely exercising their sectarian grievances and hunting down Alawites. But the phrase also describes a simple truth—one of the few meeting places that the regime left available to Syrians is the mosque. Hence, many of the protests did indeed gather steam on Fridays as opposition members were leaving their mosques after noon prayers.

But coming from Adonis, there’s something else as well. He is a genuine Arab liberal, which has less to do with his feelings toward the U.S. and/or Israel—he does not like the U.S. at all, but his anti-Americanism is not Arab nationalist, just in the European grain (he makes his home in Paris). Rather, his liberalism is a function of his stance toward freedom of speech, including freedom of religion and, if one so chooses, freedom from religion. If the uprisings around the region have made Adonis anxious, it’s not because he doesn’t believe the Arabs deserve democracy but because, while he cheers what the revolutionaries are destroying, he wants to know what they’re building: “Are they working to build freedom and progress, and to restore respect for human rights?” In short, are they founding free societies or new despotisms?

“How can democracy blossom in an environment that does not respect individual freedom and human experience, and rejects other civilizations?” Adonis asks in this important interview with Gulf News. “There is no democratic basis in religion — as within Greek Occidental culture with tolerance and openness. The Arab man does not want tolerance but he wants equality. Without equality, there are no rights, no recognition of the other. Until that arrives, democracy in the Arab society will remain just a word without meaning.”

To date, the debate surrounding the Arab Spring has tended to avoid these larger, central questions about democracy, history, and civilization. A speech from Adonis delivered from the Nobel pulpit in Stockholm would go a long way toward setting out some of those arguments—their larger shapes as well as the details. So here’s hoping he walks away with this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, an appropriate award acknowledging a major contribution to world civilization.

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