The Syrian poet Adonis was recently accused by Syrian opposition circles of not distancing himself clearly enough from the Assad regime. Khaula Saleh talked to him on the subject
Mr Adonis, your statements on the events in Syria have prompted a great deal of criticism. A poet of your standing certainly has to react to the way people feel in his society. Yet if he denies their intelligence that means disappointing their hopes. Might one say that is exactly what happened between you and the protesters in Syria?
Adonis: My opposition stance to the existing regime in Syria did not come about through these protests – it stems from much longer ago. I've been in a constant struggle with the existing regime's dictatorship for about 50 years. That means I'm automatically against it, of course.
But there are differences in the methods of resistance. I deplore violence in all its forms, however those who use it may justify it. I cannot abide it either on the part of the regime or on the part of the opponents to this regime. I'm in favour of peaceful resistance, resistance of the type Gandhi preached.
That may be the difference between us and the present opposition, who want to see things sorted out immediately and directly, as if this is the other face of the state's violence. I believe the opposition has to create new ethics and values so as to build a new society. But despite all that, I am on the side of this revolutionary movement, no matter what comes out of it. This movement is a sign of the vitality of the people, and an indication that they are adhering to freedom and the construction of a different future.
But the people calling for freedom haven't coordinated their demands with the Syrian opposition; the protests are spontaneous. You may be against the opposition's plans or against their lack of clarity, but the citizens getting hit by rifle bullets are not responsible for the opposition's standpoint!
Adonis: I am one hundred percent on the side of these popular movements, and I have not once said anything against them or criticised them. On the contrary: I have supported them, beginning with the actions in Tunisia and the events in Egypt. I have always been on the side of these spontaneous people's movements, from the very beginning.
In your open letter to Bashar Al Assad, you refer to Assad as the elected president. Yet he was never really elected. His father came to power through a military coup and Bashar inherited him without consulting the people. Everyone knows that votes or parliamentary elections have no meaning whatsoever in Syria – and that there is no freedom of opinion there. That's why the opposition criticised your wording of "elected president". What did you hope to achieve through this phrasing?
Adonis: Is there a single parliament that was chosen by a free election in the whole of the Arab world? At least there were elections in Syria – and a parliament was formed. The parliament is elected, and that parliament elected this president. Yes, perhaps the elections were rigged. Perhaps we can say: This man is elected – but the election was rigged. But why should we waste time on words?
Bashar Al-Assad did not come to power through a military coup like his father. In actual fact he was elected – albeit formally – by a parliament that was elected – again only formally – by the people. That is the sense in which I referred to him as an "elected president", because he's not a military man. Bashar Al-Assad did not come to power through a military coup.
In your opinion, what is the best means for a poet to accompany his compatriots in their struggle against subjugation?
Adonis: There is only one of two options: Either he takes part in a practical sense and joins them on the streets, or he is on the side of the people with his thoughts, views and written statements. When it comes to poets, they are not generally on the practical side. They ought to be on the theoretical side instead.
Mr Adonis, one of the reasons why you received the renowned Goethe Prize in Germany is for transposing Europe's modern achievements to Arab culture. Do you want to use your works and projects addressing aspects of modern Europe to focus on the many changes that the Middle Eastern region is going through at the moment?
Adonis: First of all, it's a critique of the modern west with regard to the theoretical and practical side, as well as of western policy, in which modernism has become a mere instrument of hegemony. That's one thing, my critique of modernism as founded by the West.
The second is critique of Arab culture, that is, going further and further in criticising the Arab way of seeing oneself and the way of seeing others, but also the way the concepts of old and new are seen.
The third point is substantiating the future and the partnership between human individuals. The Arab individual – to be an Arab – has to be a human being. He has to be a German, a Frenchman, an American. That is, one's own self takes the place of the other, to incorporate him in oneself.
The extent that we incorporate others helps us to find our way to ourselves. Our own selves can't exist without the other. And that is the context of my critical work with regard to modern Europe and the modern Middle East.
Interview: Khaula Saleh
© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2011
Adonis was born as Ali Ahmad Said in Lattakia, north Syria, in 1930. He is widely regarded as one of the most important poets in the Arab world. He is also a perennial favorite to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp