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Adonis Cracow Poland May12 2011 Fot Mariusz Kubik 01.JPG
Syrian poet
Born Ali Ahmad Said Esber
(1930-01-01) January 1, 1930 (age 85)
Al Qassabin, Latakia, French Syria
Pen name Adonis
Occupation Writer
Language Arabic
Nationality Syrian
Period Second half of 20th century[2]
Genre Essay, Poem
Literary movement Modernism[2]
Notable awards Bjørnson Prize
Goethe Prize

Ali Ahmad Said Esber (Arabic: علي أحمد سعيد إسبر‎; transliterated: alî ahmadi sa'îdi asbar or Ali Ahmad Sa'id; born 1 January 1930), also known by the pen name Adonis or Adunis (Arabic: أدونيس), is a Syrian poet, essayist and translator. He has written more than twenty books and volumes of poetry in the Arabic language as well as translated several works from French.

Imprisoned in Syria in the mid-1950s as a result of his beliefs, Adunis settled abroad and has made his career largely in Lebanon and France. A perennial contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature,[3] he has been regularly nominated for the award since 1988[4] and has been described as the greatest living poet of the Arab world.[5]


Early life and education[edit]

Ali Ahmad Said Asbar was born in Al Qassabin, Latakia, in Northern Syria,the eldest of six children to an Alawite family.[6] From an early age, he worked in the fields, but his father regularly had him memorise poetry, and he began to compose poems of his own. In 1947, he had the opportunity to recite a poem for President Shukri al-Kuwatli of Syria; that led to a series of scholarships, first to a school in Latakia and then to the Syrian University in Damascus, where he received a degree in Philosophy in 1954.

He joined the secular Syrian Social Nationalist Party, opposed to the colonisation and partition of Syria, "partly to get out of concepts of minorities and majorities". He was duly jailed during his military service in the mid-1950s. Since he quit the party in 1960.

He helped in editing the cultural supplement of El-Thawra newspaper ( The Revolution newspaper) but pro government writers clashed with his agenda and forced him to flee the country.[7]

Adonis is married to known literary critic Khalida Said née Saleh خالدة سعيد in 1956[8] They have two daughters: Arwad, who is director of the House of World Cultures in Paris; and Ninar, an artist who moves between Paris and Beirut.


The name Adonis was not given to Said by Antun Saadeh, the leader of the radical Pan-Syrian, Syrian Social Nationalist Party, as some believe. Rather, at age 17 he picked it himself after being rejected by a number of magazines under his real name, to "alert napping editors to his precocious talent and his pre-Islamic, pan-Mediterranean muses".[5] In 1955, Said was imprisoned for six months for being a member of that party.

Beirut / Paris[edit]

Following his release from prison in 1956, he settled in Beirut, Lebanon, where in 1957 he and the Syro-Lebanese poet Yusuf al-Khal founded the magazine Majallat Shi'r ("Poetry Magazine") that met with strong criticism as they published experimental poetry.[9] Majallat Shi’r ceased publication in 1964, and Adunis did not rejoin the Shi’r editors when they resumed publication in 1967. In Lebanon, his intense nationalistic feelings, reflecting pan-Arabism focused on the Arab peoples as a nation, found their outlet in the Beiruti newspaper Lisan al-Hal and eventually in his founding of another literary periodical in 1968 titled Mawaqif, in which he again published experimental poetry.[10]

Adunis's poems continued to express the poet's nationalistic views combined with his mystical outlook. With his use of Sufi terms (the technical meanings of which were implied rather than explicit), Adunis became a leading exponent of the Neo-Sufi trend in modern Arabic poetry. This trend took hold in the 1970s.[11]

Adunis received a scholarship to study in Paris from 1960-1961. From 1970 to 1985 he was professor of Arabic literature at the Lebanese University. In 1976, he was a visiting professor at the University of Damascus. In 1980, he emigrated to Paris to escape the Lebanese Civil War. In 1980-1981, he was professor of Arabic at the Sorbonne in Paris.

On 27 January 1995, after Syrian pressure, it was announced in Damascus that he had been expelled from the Arab Writers Union.[12]

In August 2011, Adunis called in an interview in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Rai for the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down because of his role in the Syrian civil war.[13] He has also called upon the opposition to shun violence and engage in dialogue with the regime.[14]


Adunis is a pioneer of modern Arabic poetry. He is often seen as a rebel, an iconoclast who follows his own rules. "Arabic poetry is not the monolith this dominant critical view suggests, but is pluralistic, sometimes to the point of self-contradiction."[15] Adunis's work has been analysed and illuminated by the pre-eminent Arab critic Kamal Abu-Deeb, with whom he edited the journal Mawakif in Beirut in the 1970s.

Some Arab poets are more popular than Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish the Palestinian poet, for instance, but none are more admired. A pioneer of the prose poem, he has played a role in Arab modernism comparable to T. S. Eliot's in English-language poetry.[16] The literary and cultural critic Edward Said professor of Columbia University calls him today's most daring and provocative Arab poet. The poet Samuel Hazo, who translated Adonis's collection The Pages of Day and Night, said, There is Arabic poetry before Adonis, and there is Arabic poetry after Adonis.

Experimental in style and prophetic in tone, Adonis's poetry combines the formal innovations of modernism with the mystical imagery of classical Arabic poetry. He has evoked the anguish of exile, the spiritual desolation of the Arab world, the intoxicating experiences of madness and erotic bliss, the existential dance of self and the other. But what defines his work, above all, is the force of creative destruction, which burns through everything he writes. We will die if we do not create gods/We will die if we do not kill them, he once wrote, echoing his favorite poet, Nietzsche.

Adonis has translated into Arabic poems by T. S. Eliot and the complete poetical works of Saint-John Perse and has published an anthology of Arabic poetry. His poetry and criticism have been credited with "far-reaching influence on the development of Arab poetry,"including the creation of" a new poetic language and rhythms, deeply rooted in classical poetry but employed to convey the predicament and responses of contemporary Arab society."[17] According to Mirene Ghossein, "one of the main contributions of Adonis to contemporary Arabic poetry is liberty-a liberty with themes, a liberty with words themselves through the uniqueness of poetic vision."[18] Selections of his work have been translated into English, Spanish, French, German, and other languages.

Poetry Works[edit]

The Songs of Mihyar the Damascene أغاني مهيار الدمشقي[edit]

His third book of poetry The Songs of Mihyar of Damascus (or the Damascene in different translation) marked a definitive disruption of existing poetics and a new direction in poetic language. In a sequence of 141 mostly short lyrics arranged in seven sections (the first six sections begin with ‘psalms’ and the final section is a series of seven short elegies) the poet transposes an icon of the early eleventh century, Mihyar of Daylam (in Iran), to contemporary Damascus in a series, or vortex, of non-narrative ‘fragments’ that place character deep “in the machinery of language”, and he wrenches lyric free of the ‘I’ while leaving individual choice intact. The whole book has been translated by Adnan Haydar and Michael Beard as Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs (BOA Editions, NY 2008) and thirty of the poems are also included in Mattawa’s Selected Poems. In a sense this book also is a single long poem and while each part stands on its own the separate poems can prove slippery to quote from when isolated. Haydar and Beard’s translations are richer, more expansive, Mattawa’s concise and more curt. Both work very well.

The former has, in triplet stanzas: “Mihyar is king, / a king whose dreams are palaces / meadows aflame. / Just today, words / heard complaints against him / from a voice that died. / Mihyar, a king. / He lives in the dominion of the wind / and rules in the land of secrets.”

Mattawa has “King Mihyar/a sovereign, dream is his palace and his gardens of fire./ A voice once complained against him to words/and died./King Mihyar/lives in the dominion of the wind/and rules over a land of secrets.”

Adonis is here marking out concerns that echo throughout his work and addressing sources of inspiration that are constant. The elegies of the final section – for Abu Nawas and al-Hallaj among others – foreshadow celebratory poems, to Abu Tammam and al- Ma‘arri, of thirty years later.

A Time Between Ashes and Roses وقتٌ بين الرّماد والورد[edit]

In 1970 Adonis published A Time Between Ashes and Roses as a volume consisting of two long poems ‘An Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings’ and ‘This Is My Name’ and in the 1972 edition augmented them with ‘A Grave For New York.’ These three astonishing poems, written out of the crises in Arabic society and culture following the disastrous 1967 Six-Day War and as a stunning cri de coeur against intellectual aridity, opened out a new path for contemporary poetry. The whole book, in its augmented 1972 edition has a complete English translation by Shawkat M. Toorawa as A Time Between Ashes and Roses (Syracuse University Press 2004) while Mattawa includes a translation of ‘This Is My Name’ in the Selected Poems. In ‘An Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings’ (itself echoing themes from the ‘petty times’ of Mihyar) Adonis fragments, brackets and slashes prose and verse lines and uses ‘etc.’ both to convey exaggeration and hubris and to embody the sense of despair. His language remains lyrical – recreation of the lyric in the face of turmoil being one of the poet’s great qualities:

“A child stammers, the face of Jaffa is a child / How can withered trees blossom ? /

Here the slashes (/) are an integral part of the poem’s language, there to embody as language how lives are cut short or interrupted. As the 28 sections of the poem draw to their end, the poet repeats the fragment “In a map that extends . . . etc.” and states the huge rifts between life and language in very exact fragments: “This language that suckles me, betrays me /” . . . “Here is the gazelle of history opening my entrails /” and, tellingly, “The beautiful storm has come but not the beautiful devastation.” But there are notes of hope. He emphasises that “I am not alone” and says:

“A time between ashes and roses is coming

When everything shall be extinguished

When everything shall begin.”

The Funeral of New York ~ Tombeau de New York[edit]

After a trip to New York in 1971, Adunis wrote the poem "The Funeral of New York", which is a violently anti-American long poem in which Walt Whitman the known American poet, as the champion of democracy, is taken to task, particularly in Section 9, which addresses Whitman directly.[19]

Adonis experienced such a fertile, ambiguous, and divided self when he was in New York during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. At that time, he asked himself "What is New York?" The Funeral of New York is his answer:

New York is a woman
holding, according to history,
a rag called liberty with one hand
and strangling the earth with the other.
New York
is damp asphalt
with a surface like a closed window

the poem opens:

Picture the earth as a pear
or breast.
Between such fruits and death
survives an engineering trick:
New York,
Call it a city on four legs
heading for murder
while the drowned already moan
in the distance.

Literary Criticism and Modernism Movement[edit]

Adunis, is often portrayed as entirely dismissive of the intellectual heritage of Arabic culture. Yet in al-Thābit wa-l-Mutaḥawwil (The Immutable and the Transformative), his emphasis on the plurality of Arabic heritage posits the richness of Arabic Islamic heritage and the deficiency of tradition as defined by imitation (taqlīd). He views culture as dynamic rather than immutable and transcendent, challenging the traditionalist homogenizing tendency within heritage. He defines this traditionalist thought as theocentric (by which individualism is suppressed), atavistic (locating the focal point of time in an absolute never-changing time of revelation), and as antagonist to modernity. He investigates how the traditionalist nucleus exported its logic and inner structures primarily from the realm of religion to other forms of cultural productions, namely literature. Traditionalist thought, according to Adunis,

influenced classical literary criticism by importing the logic of religious hermeneutics and pre-Islamic poetry, emphasizing these two sources as determining repertoires of pre-existent and binding meaning. Therefore, Adunis’ call for liberation from tradition is more specifically a call to be liberated from this structure of thought that imposes conformity and renders cultural heritage a vivid intoxicating presence and an unquestioned authority. The rejection of heritage that he is often accused of is in fact the rejection of the epistemological monopoly that traditionalist thought exercises within Arabic Islamic culture. His call for liberation from tradition is rather a call to be liberated from the postulation that the true trajectory of culture is not linear progress but a circular motion of revolving around a fixed cultural origin. As far as poetry is concerned, he advocates a new poetic experience that locates its cultural origin within its own creativity and affirms that meaning lies in the present and future of a poem rather than its past.

The Static and the Dynamic ~ Al-Thābit wa al-mutaḥawwil[1][edit]

Two particular concerns seemed to characterize much literary criticism in the Arabic-speaking world during the late 20th century: the definition of modernity and the issue of “particularity.”

Adunis devoted much attention to the question of “the modern” in Arabic literature and society. His most comprehensive exploration of the topic took the form of the four-volume study Al-Thābit wa al-mutaḥawwil (1974–78; “The Static and the Dynamic”), in which he surveys the entire Arabic literary tradition and concludes that, like the literary works themselves, attitudes to and analyses of them must be subject to a continuing process of reevaluation. Yet what he actually sees occurring within the critical domain is mostly static and unmoving. The second concern, that of particularity (khuṣūṣiyyah), is a telling reflection of the realization among writers and critics throughout the Arabic-speaking world that the region they inhabited was both vast and variegated (with Europe to the north and west as a living example). Debate over this issue, while acknowledging notions of some sense of Arab unity, revealed the need for each nation and region to investigate the cultural demands of the present in more local and particular terms. A deeper knowledge of the relationship between the local present and its own unique version of the past promises to furnish a sense of identity and particularity that, when combined with similar entities from other Arabic-speaking regions, will illustrate the immensely rich and diverse tradition of which 21st-century litterateurs are the heirs.


Adunis started making images using calligraphy, color and figurative gestures around the year 2002,[20] in 2012 A major tribute to Adunis, including an exhibition of his drawings and a series of literary events was organized in The Mosaic Rooms in West London.[21]

His works emanate with visual planes bursting with original handwritten poetry that recalls classical Arabic literature from various eras and civilizations. The great masters of the Arabic language Al-Ma’arri, Abu Tammam, and Waddah al-Yaman, all of whom are linked by their rebellious spirit, their penchant for refusal, and their compulsion for change, are revived in Adunis's words.

His exploration of writing, however, is executed through calligraphic forms that are treated pictorially such that they are abstracted; his letters are turned into ambiguous signs that could belong to any of a number of languages. Whether these marks, these writings, are legible or incomprehensible, they elucidate Adunis’s desire to break free of the rules of language, to find his own sensory means of communication through fine art. Adunis’s collages that combine layers of relief set up a space in contradiction with the smoothness of the written text that fills them; the two complete each other, though, in spite of their contrary appearance.

In 19 May 2014 Salwa Zeidan Gallery in Abu Dhabi, was home to another noted exhibition by Adunis: Muallaqat[22] (in reference to the original pre-Islamic era literary works Mu'allaqat, consisted of 10 calligraphy drawings of big format (150x50cm), where Adunis combines the poetic of text with the poetic of visual language, to create a world of intimate and wonderfully whimsical narratives. These Muallaqat are carrying names of the most influential Arab poets: Umroua Al Kais, Zuhair, Turfa, Hares Bin Halza, Amro Ibn Kultoom, Antara Bin Chaddad, Labeed, Obeid Ibn Al Abrass, Al Aasha and Al Nabegha.

Other Art Exhibitions[edit]

  • 2000: Berlin - Institute for Advanced Studies
  • 2000 : Paris - L`Institut du Monde Arabe
  • 2003: Paris - Area Gallery
  • 2007: Amman -Shuman`s Gallery (co-exhibition With Haydar)
  • 2008: Damascus - Atassy Gallery, exh. For 4 Poets-Painters (with works of Fateh Mudarress, Etel Adnan, Samir Sayegh)
  • 2008 : Paris - Le Louvre des Antiquaires : Calligraphies d`Orient. (Collectif)

Arab spring[edit]

After the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer instead of Adunis in the year of the Arab Spring, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy Peter Englund said it was not awarded based on politics, describing such a notion as “literature for dummies”.[23]

Adunis has helped to spread Tranströmer's fame in the Arab world, accompanying him on readings.[24]

Awards and honours[edit]

List of works[edit]

Adunis has written over twenty books in the Arabic language. Several of his poetry collections have been translated into English. Khaled Mattawa’s translation of Adonis: Selected Poems has been shortlisted for the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize.


Banipal Interview. No. 2, June, 1998. default.asp?action=article&ID=43

"Language, Culture, Reality." The View From Within: Writers and Critics on Contemporary Arabic Literature: A Selection from Alif Journal of Contemporary Poetics ed. Ferial J. Ghazoul and Barbara Harlow. The American University in Cairo Press, 1994.

Sufism and Surrealism. (trans. Judith Cumberbatch.) Saqi Books: London, 2005.

Transformations of the Lover. (trans. Samuel Hazo.) International Poetry Series, Volume 7. Ohio University Press: Athens, Ohio, 1982.

Victims of A Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry.(trans. Abdullah Al-Udhari.) Saqi Books: London, 1984. A Time Between Ashes and Roses (trans. Sharkat M. Toorawa)

Literary criticism and essays
  • “The Poet of Secrets and Roots, The Ḥallājian Adūnis” [Arabic]. Al-Ḍaw’ al-Mashriqī: Adūnis ka-mā Yarāhu Mufakkirūn wa-Shu‘arā’ ‘Ālamiyyūn [The Eastern Light: Adūnīs in the Eye of International Intellectuals and Poets] Damascus: Dār al-Ṭalī‘a, 2004: 177-179.
  • “‘Poète des secrets et des racines’: L’Adonis hallajien”. Adonis: un poète dans le monde d’aujourd’hui 1950-2000. Paris: Institut du monde arabe, 2000: 171-172.
  • Religion, Mysticism and Modern Arabic Literature. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006.
  • “A Study of ‘Elegy for al-Ḥallāj’ by Adūnīs”. Journal of Arabic Literature 25.2, 1994: 245-256.


  1. ^ a b c d "Encyclopedia Britannica- Al-Thābit wa al mutaḥawwil - Work by Adonis". 
  2. ^ a b "Griffin Poetry Prize 2011: International Shortlist". 
  3. ^ McGrath, Charles (17 October 2010). "A Revolutionary of Arabic Verse". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 October 2010. Every year around this time the name of the Syrian poet Adonis pops up in newspapers and in betting shops. Adonis (pronounced ah-doh-NEES), a pseudonym adopted by Ali Ahmad Said Esber in his teens as an attention getter, is a perennial favorite to win the Nobel Prize in Literature... as is the case with so many recent winners, most Americans have never heard of him. 
  4. ^ Pickering, Diego Gómez (11 November 2010). "Adonis speaks to Forward: The living legend of Arab poetry". Forward. Retrieved 11 November 2010. Last month, Adonis was robbed again of a Nobel Prize, after first being nominated in 1988. 
  5. ^ a b Jaggi, Maya (27 January 2012). "Adonis: a life in writing". The Guardian (Guardian Media Group). Retrieved 27 January 2012. ...each autumn is credibly tipped for the Nobel in literature... 
  6. ^ "Adonis". Lexicorient. 
  7. ^ "but pro government writers clashed with his agenda and forced him to flee the country". 
  8. ^ "Adonis: a life in writing". 
  9. ^ Moreh, Shmuel. Modern Arabic Poetry 1800-1970: The Development of its Forms and Themes under the Influence of Western Literature. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1976: 278-280; 285; 288.
  10. ^ Snir, Reuven. “Mysticism and Poetry in Arabic Literature”. Orientalia Suecana XLIII-XLIV (1994-5) 165-175. V. Sufi Terms in the Service of Social Values, 171-3.
  11. ^ Butt, Aviva. “Adunis, Mysticism and the Neo-Sufi Trend.” Poets from a War Torn World. SBPRA, 2012: 2-7.
  12. ^ Ibrahim, Youssef M. (7 March 1995). "Arabs Split on Cultural Ties to Israel". The New York Times. 
  13. ^ "Prominent Syrian poet Adunis calls on Assad to step down". Monsters and Critics. 6 August 2011. Retrieved 6 August 2011. 
  14. ^ "Constitution-building: The long march", The Economist, 13 July 2013.
  15. ^ An Introduction to Arab Poetics, p. 10
  16. ^ "An Arab Poet Who Dares to Differ". 
  17. ^ Abdullah al-Udhari, trans., Victims of a Map [bilingual selection of poems by Mahmud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, and Adonis] (London: Al Saqi, 1984), 87.
  18. ^ Mirene Ghossein, "Introduction," in Adonis, The Blood of Adonis> translated from the Arabic by Samuel Hazo (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971), xviii.
  19. ^ "Whitman and Lebanon 's Adonis- Roger Asselineau - Ed Folsom". 
  20. ^ "Syrian poet Adunis introduces his artworks - gallery - The Guardian Interview 2012". 
  21. ^ "A Tribute To Adunis- The mosaic rooms". 
  22. ^ "PRESS RELEASE: Salwa Zeidan Gallery to host solo exhibition for the greatest living poet of Arab world" (PDF). 
  23. ^ Kite, Lorien (6 October 2011). "Sweden’s ‘buzzard’ poet wins Nobel Prize". Financial Times. Retrieved 6 October 2011. Before Thursday’s announcement, there had also been much speculation that the committee would choose to honour the Syrian poet Adunis in a gesture towards the Arab spring. Englund dismissed the notion that there was a political dimension to the prize; such an approach, he said, was “literature for dummies”. 
  24. ^ "Adunis: Transtromer is deeply rooted in the land of poetry". Al-Ahram. 6 October 2011. Retrieved 6 October 2011. 
  25. ^ "Adonis, International Writer in Residence". 
  26. ^ "The Poetry Foundation - Adonis". 
  27. ^ "Republic of turkey ministry of culture and tourism". 
  28. ^ "Adonis: a life in writing, The Guardian Interview by Maya Jaggi". 
  29. ^ "Nonino Prize Winners". 
  30. ^ "Winner Cultural & Scientific Achievments Eighth Circle 2002-2003". 
  31. ^ "America Award in Literature". 
  32. ^ "Freedom of speech prize to Syrian-Lebanese poet Adonis". 
  33. ^ "Syrian poet Adonis wins Germany's Goethe prize". Reuters. 25 May 2011. Retrieved 25 May 2011. 
  34. ^ "Arab poet Adonis wins Asan award". The Hindu Online. April 7, 2015. Retrieved April 7, 2015. 
  • Irwin, Robert "An Arab Surrealist". The Nation, January 3, 2005, 23–24, 37–38.

External links[edit]

Articles and interviews