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. Joseph University 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.
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Adonis: "Words are treated as a crime today. Throughout history, there has never been anything similar to what's happening today in our Arab society - when you say a word, it is like committing a crime."
Adonis: "Words and opinions are treated as a crime. This is inconceivable."
Interviewer: "You can be arrested for writing an article."
Adonis: "That's one example."
"In the Koran itself, it says that Allah listened to his first enemy, Satan, and Satan refused to obey him. I believe that Allah was capable of wiping out Satan, yet He listened to Satan's refusal to obey Him.
"At the very least, we demand that Muslims today listen to people with different opinions."
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.
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"On the other hand, all issues pertaining to civil and human affairs must be left up to the law and to the people themselves."
Interviewer: "Mr. Adonis, how do you view the democracy in Palestine, which brought Hamas to power?"
Adonis: "I support it, but I oppose the establishment of any state on the basis of religion, even if it's done by Hamas."
Interviewer: "Even if it liberates Palestine?"
Adonis: "Yes, because in such a case, it would be my duty to fight this religious state."
Interviewer: "What are the reasons for growing glorification of dictatorships - sometimes in the name of pan-Arabism, and other times in the name of rejecting foreigners? The glorification comes even from the elites, as can be seen, for example, in the Saddam Hussein trial, and in all the people who support him."
Adonis: "This phenomenon is very dangerous, and I believe it has to do with the concept of 'oneness,' which is reflected - in practical or political terms - in the concept of the hero, the savior, or the leader. This concept offers an inner sense of security to people who are afraid of freedom. Some human beings are afraid of freedom."
Interviewer: "Because it is synonymous with anarchy?"
Adonis: "No, because being free is a great burden. It is by no means easy."
Interviewer: "You've got to have a boss..."
Adonis: "When you are free, you have to face reality, the world in its entirety. You have to deal with the world's problems, with everything..."
Interviewer: "With all the issues..."
Adonis: "On the other hand, if we are slaves, we can be content and not have to deal with anything. Just as Allah solves all our problems, the dictator will solve all our problems."
"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."
"The great Sumerians became extinct, the great Greeks became extinct, and the Pharaohs became extinct. The clearest sign of this extinction is when we intellectuals continue to think in the context of this extinction."
Interviewer: "That is very dangerous."
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."