It’s a Saturday morning and I’ve made my way to Paris’ La Defence district to meet Adunis, the man regularly referred to as the greatest living Arab poet. His building is a 37-floor concrete tower defiantly staring down the newer glass ones that surround it, which house some of France’s biggest companies. Completed in 1975, it isn’t the kind of building you think of when you think of Paris, if you don’t know Paris.
I eventually ride up to the 9th floor and the apartment is exactly what I expected – and hoped – it would look like. Books covering every inch of the walls, piled up as makeshift side tables. Bent paperbacks and large art tomes alike. There are papers floating around, folders organising thoughts, memories contained in frames dotted around the living room, sculptures, paintings – some of them Adunis’ own work. And some awards in a corner. They feel like the least proudly displayed of the items in the house, stacked out of the way. An obligation, almost.
I start by explaining why we’re here. That GQ is honouring its people of the year, and one Arab icon. I gesture towards him. “So I’m the icon?” He looks bemused. “OK, let’s go for it.” I tell him that many readers might not be intimately familiar with Arab poetry or his breadth of his work and ask him for a starting point for anyone curious.
“Poetry is like love. If there’s a starting point in connection with the world and humanity, it can only be through love. Poetry is like love in its relationship to the world.” There is no entry point he can help with, then. You need to find it alone. Let’s try.
Maya Jaggi, writing in the Guardian, compared his ‘seismic influence on Arabic poetry’ to that of TS Eliot in the anglophone world. Many believe that he has been robbed of his Nobel Prize in Literature, which he has been regularly nominated for since 1988, and has become a sort of perennial contender. His white hair parts down the middle, framing his face and grazing his shoulders. He’s sprightly and sharp, and a only few months ahead of his 90th birthday. I find myself hoping I’ll be half as vigorous at 70. Does he worry about his legacy?
“Never. If poetry is like love, however far along you are, you still feel as if you have not achieved anything. I only concern myself with the future. All I can see is what is ahead of me. I’m not bothered by what I have already done. Especially coming from a part of the world that is so preoccupied with its past, with looking backwards. My reaction to that has been to only look forward, and consider that I have done nothing yet.”
If you were to look backwards, in recent years away from poetry, Adunis has found himself in the middle of some controversy about his lack of enthusiasm in the early days of the revolution in his motherland, Syria. Does he have regrets? “I have no regrets about anything. Even my mistakes. You can’t do right if you don’t accept that you will do things wrong. This is one of the curses of the Arab world, in our society, we don’t accept our mistakes. We point the finger at others.”
Adunis himself is a revolutionary, credited with liberating Arab poetry from its traditional subjects, forms and verse. But even as a persona, he is never far from controversy. He was the subject of an expulsion from the Arab Writers Union, he has received death threats and calls for book burning on account of his criticism of traditional values. He is fiercely secular and a product of the modernising ethos of the ’50s and ’60s. “There’s a regression. The situation today is worse than it was in the past. There are many problems with our approach to revolutions.” He rattles off a laundry list of criticism. “Can you have a revolution in a country where women aren’t present? Where they owe the system but the system doesn’t owe them. Women need to be freed before the revolution can happen.”
Away from structural changes to entire countries, I wonder if we still live in a world that can accept poetry, or has that been set aside? “What poetry is losing is horizontal. Its readership is dwindling. But for the people who do engage with it, their relationship is deeper. So it is gaining vertically, in depth. Poetry’s role is actually more important now.
Poetry used to be populist entertainment. Now it helps you understand yourself, and the world, and the other.”
But he is cautious about the weaponisation of art by power, across the world. His criticism is not limited to the Arab world. “Power uses everything it can. The way it uses money and media, it tries to use words, too. Words have power. That’s the most important thing for the poet. To not allow power to use your words for their ends. Today even in Europe, culture has become a function. A job. Even poetry... Today entire nations die and intellectuals say nothing. There is a dominance over art now. The artist is now an employee. So the artist is losing his role.”
Does have hope in the Arab world? “You can’t despair about people, individuals. But I despair in all the systems. The Arabs achieve abroad, never in their own countries. These geniuses don’t appear in their own countries, they appear elsewhere. There are no institutions that can support these people.”
Beyond the Arab world, Adunis’ work has been translated into 20 languages. Surprisingly, he has found enormous success in China. “The first book I published there was 2009, and it is now in its 30th edition!” How does he explain this? Is there a particular interest in the Arab world? “They have a desire for knowledge. Everything you hear about China in the Western media, you have to be cautious of. As usual!”
I’m curious about his relationship to translation, and placing so much faith in someone to reinterpret his poetry. “Take someone who has written about sorrow. My sorrow is one thing and your sorrow is another thing. Translation is a new creation. To translate poetry, you have to be a poet…For example, I’ve been told I’m the most successful foreign contemporary poet in China. What that means is that the translator is successful. People are reacting to his translation.”
As we sit above Paris, drowning in the paraphernalia of a life’s creative work, I wonder about his relationship to the city he has called home since 1985. Is this an exile, as many have described it? “There is no exile for me. A human being, as soon as he exits the womb, is exiled. Exile is a political word. The nation is where you live in freedom. It’s not your father or mother or your tribe. That’s why I don’t feel exiled. I feel free here. I feel my rights are respected. More than where I was born.” He points to his chest, slowly and deliberately. “The only place I can be exiled is inside, if I am unable to express myself.”