Monday, April 10, 2006

Adonis on the crisis of Arab culture

One of the characteristic features of modernity is the recurrent emergence of what Fritz Stern once called the politics of cultural despair. It has taken a very wide range of forms, and it continues to do so. One variety is expressed in this recent interview with the renowned Arab poet who goes by the pseudonym "Adonis".
--Jeff Weintraub
[Translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI)]
The poet Ali Ahmad Sa'id (b. 1930), known by his pseudonym "Adonis," a 2005 candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, left his native Syria for Lebanon in the 1950s following six months' imprisonment for political activity. In 1973, he received his Ph.D. from St. JosephUniversity in Beirut; in 1985, he settled in Paris, where he now works as a writer and literary critic. Among other occupations, he has edited the modernist magazine Mawaqif (Viewpoints), and translated some of the great French poets into Arabic.
The following are excerpts from an interview with Syrian poet "Adonis," aired on Dubai TV on March 11, 2006. TO VIEW THIS CLIP:
[Some excerpts follow. The rest of the translated passages are here. --JW]
Interviewer: "How do you view the plan for democracy, the 'Greater Middle East' plan?"
Adonis: "First of all, I oppose any external intervention in Arab affairs. If the Arabs are so inept that they cannot be democratic by themselves, they can never be democratic through the intervention of others."If we want to be democratic, we must be so by ourselves. But the preconditions for democracy do not exist in Arab society, and cannot exist unless religion is reexamined in a new and accurate way, and unless religion becomes a personal and spiritual experience, which must be respected."On the other hand, all issues pertaining to civil and human affairs must be left up to the law and to the people themselves."
"I don't understand what is happening in Arab society today. I don't know how to interpret this situation, except by making the following hypothesis: When I look at the Arab world, with all its resources, the capacities of Arab individuals, especially abroad - you will find among them great philosophers, scientists, engineers, and doctors. In other words, the Arab individual is no less smart, no less a genius, than anyone else in the world. He can excel - but only outside his society. I have nothing against the individuals - only against the institutions and the regimes.
"If I look at the Arabs, with all their resources and great capacities, and I compare what they have achieved over the past century with what others have achieved in that period, I would have to say that we Arabs are in a phase of extinction, in the sense that we have no creative presence in the world."
Interviewer: "Are we on the brink of extinction, or are we already extinct?"
Adonis: "We have become extinct. We have the quantity. We have the masses of people, but a people becomes extinct when it no longer has a creative capacity, and the capacity to change its world." [....]
Adonis: "That is our real intellectual crisis. We are facing a new world with ideas that no longer exist, and in a context that is obsolete. We must sever ourselves completely from that context, on all levels, and think of a new Arab identity, a new culture, and a new Arab society." [...]"Imagine that Arab societies had no Western influence. What would be left? The Muslims must..."
Interviewer: "What would be left?"
Adonis: "Nothing. Nothing would be left except for the mosque, the church, and commerce, of course." [...] "The Muslims today - forgive me for saying this - with their accepted interpretation [of the religious text], are the first to destroy Islam, whereas those who criticize the Muslims - the non-believers, the infidels, as they call them - are the ones who perceive in Islam the vitality that could adapt it to life. These infidels serve Islam better than the believers."