Adonis during the award ceremony in Frankfurt on Sunday (photo: dapd)
Goethe Prize Awarded to Syrian Poet Adonis

Honouring Condescending Scepticism

It's the wrong time for the Goethe Prize winner Adonis to be criticizing the protests in his homeland, writes Stefan Weidner, Adonis's German translator, in his commentary

The Syrian poet Adonis, born near the coastal town of Latakia in 1930, has received this year's Goethe Prize at a ceremony in Frankfurt, a German literary award of high prestige. The award ceremony went ahead in spite of protests in the Arab world over statements he's been making about the situation in his homeland. There's a flood of awards for Arab writers this year which can only be explained by the democratic awakening in the Arab world.

As well as Adonis's Goethe Prize, there's the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize in Osnabrück for Tahar Ben Jalloun in September, the Peace Prize of the German book trade for Boualem Sansal in October, and the PEN Club's Hermann Kesten Prize for the Egyptian publisher Mohammed Hashim. The only one that's missing is the Nobel Prize, and Adonis is a hot tip for that. As a poet and a pioneer of the modernism in the Arab world he's certainly earned it – but is 2011 the best time for it?

Caught between God and technology

Adonis is an iconoclast and a (literary) revolutionary of the old school. To that extent Joachim Sartorius was right when he said in his speech honouring the prize-winner that Adonis had helped to prepare the Arab spring "under the skin, so to speak." Adonis turns tradition – and not least religious tradition – into poetic material for a spirit of awakening inspired by Nietzsche and Heidegger. It was this spirit which was in evidence in his address in Frankfurt, when he deplored the way in which the Arab mentality was caught between dependency on God and dependency on technology.

Protesters in the Syrian town of Banyas (photo: AP)
"Inappropriate timing": Adonis is publicizing his reservations about the protesters just as they are being shot and intimidated, before they can really express what it is they really want, writes Weidner

​​A way out of this disastrous dilemma is not in prospect – unless, perhaps, in the form of poetry. A year ago, that might have been an acceptable way of interpreting the state of affairs in the Arab world. Now it seems a bit out of date. Hasn't anything changed in the course of the last year?

If one reads what Adonis has had to say about the Arab revolutions and, specifically, about the bloody events in his homeland Syria, he seems to be strangely undecided.

In a first article in May, Adonis, the internationally best known intellectual of his country, called on the regime to scrap Article 8 of the Syrian constitution, which speaks of the leading role of the pseudo-Socialist Baath party. He deplored the harm which one-party-rule had brought with it, especially the brutal, ideologically motivated suppression of ethnic and religious diversity – a diversity which was now re-emerging, even if in the form of a bleeding wound which would not heal. Adonis refers specifically to the towns of Deraa and Banyas ("these sources of twin rivers of tears"), which were at the centre of the unrest at the time.

What the Syrian opposition found upsetting was that, in this and other articles, Adonis seemed to believe in the possibility of reform coming from above, at the instigation of President Assad (whom he wrongly called "elected"). But real reform and a genuine election of the president would unavoidably lead to the self-destruction of the regime. After 2,000 demonstrators have been killed, no-one can seriously believe that this will happen.

Adonis's statements on the issues are thus appropriately self-contradictory. On 5th August he said in a long interview with the Kuwaiti paper Al Ray, "I believe that the president is capable of reform." But in the same paragraph he adds, "The least the president can do is resign."

In dubio contra reo

In view of this indecisiveness, the Syrian opposition feels rightly that it has been left in the lurch. "I live in the yearning in the fire of the revolution in the magic of its creative poison / my land is this spark this flash in the darkness of the time to come," he wrote exactly forty years ago in "This is my name," one of his most famous poems. Now, half a lifetime later, the time has come, and the revolution is scattering its sparks and flashes. But Adonis doesn't quite trust it. In the same interview he says that one can't really speak of a real revolution because the protesters don't have a clear programme for the future.

photo: AP
'Selected by dad', not 'elected by the people': Syria's president Bashar al-Assad

​​Adonis has a point there: exactly who the protesters are and what they want beyond the lowest common denominator – the fall of the regime – is a good deal less clear in Syria than it is in the other states undergoing uprisings. One reason for this lack of clarity is clear: the Assad regime is responding to the protests with shameless brutality and is thus preventing the opposition from organising itself by every means in its power.

At the same time, the exiled opposition is too heterogeneous and has no influence on what is going on in Syria itself. Intervention from outside, as in Libya (which would itself look like Syria, if it had been left to itself) has been rejected by everyone. The propaganda strategy of the regime, which is mainly to discredit the opposition for being controlled from abroad, and for being violent and radical Islamists, seems to be working, in that, unlike in Egypt, the protests do not seem to have reached all classes of society and all religious groups.

The Syrian Christians are very evidently holding back in their support. They are worried, either by the possibility that radical Muslims will take power (which is what Adonis warns of), or that the country could collapse into Iraqi conditions, with religious persecution and repeated attacks under a civilian, but largely powerless, government.

To this extent, Adonis's reservations are shared, not only by many Syrian Christians, but also by many sceptics in the West. Some of the points which Adonis raises would probably meet with the agreement of members of the protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt, and are certainly justified. Among them are his call for a strict division of state and religion, as well as for truly equal rights for men and women. That was also, for example, one of the demands of the Egyptian writer Mansura Eseddin in an article she wrote for the Swiss newspaper, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Another was the end of discrimination against religious minorities.

But the decisive difference between Adonis and the secular circles in North Africa who are campaigning for emancipation is not a matter of content, but of extremely inappropriate timing. Adonis is publicizing his reservations about the protesters just as they are being shot and intimidated, before they can really express what it is they really want. And it seems strange not to start one's demands for an improvement in the situation with an insistence of the removal of the most obvious and significant evil, and that's the dictatorship.

Adonis during the award ceremony in Frankfurt, Germany (photo: DW)
"An iconoclast and revolutionary of the old school": Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, also known by his pseudonym Adonis, has made his career largely in Lebanon and France. He is a perennial favorite to win the Nobel Prize in Literature

​​Instead, Adonis makes conditions for that improvement, telling them that those who are suffering oppression that they have to adopt the right attitude, which, for him, means a Western and secular approach.

This condescending scepticism is not just typical of Adonis and other arrogant Arab intellectuals who find it appropriate to make maximalist demands of the protesters, it's also found widely in Europe – for quite a long time at the start of the Arab Spring it was the basis for official Western policy. Such an attitude is lacking in imagination, as well as in a feeling for what it possible. It doesn't allow for any development, precisely because a developing situation cannot have all its positions cut and dried.

And it overlooks entirely that no position, even the most emancipated, can be free from blind spots and vague areas. The protesters, whatever their position, have at least this advantage over their hard-bitten critics: at least they believe in a future, in the possibility that the situation could be improved – even if it's only because they have no other choice.

Adonis is not a supporter of the Syrian regime or of any other dictatorship. But he, like many other writers who have been surprised by developments, seems to have lost his faith in the future. And that is something one can even understand when one bears in mind how many failed utopias, ideologies and hopes he has experienced in the course of his eighty years.

But it's unfortunate nevertheless, not least because we need the voice of the outsider, the poet, the observer, the sceptic, looking at things from a distance. That was Adonis's voice (as it was also, in an entirely different context, that of Peter Handke here in Germany).

There's nothing to criticize in this role, this distance or this scepticism; what can be criticized is the fact that Adonis insists on these characteristics even as the unarmed demonstrators are being shot in the head and the dead cannot be properly buried, as people are tortured and the propaganda continues to sneer – all for a regime which couldn't break the pact with the devil it has signed, even it – against all expectations – should want to.

Stefan Weidner

© 2011

Stefan Weidner is Adonis's German translator. His most recent book is "Adonis. Verwandlungen eines Liebenden. Ausgewählte Gedichte." ("Adonis: the Metamorphosis of a Lover. Selected Poems"), published by S. Fischer.

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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