Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Middle East
     May 8, 2007
Page 1 of 2
Are the Arabs already extinct?
By Spengler

"We [Arabs] have become extinct," said Syrian poet Adonis in a March 11 Dubai television interview transcribed by the Israeli media monitor MEMRI, [1] but ignored by the mainstream Western media. The prognosis by Adonis, the only Arabic writer on the Nobel Prize short list, for the Arab prospect has become more bleak over the years, and his latest pronouncement has a Spenglerian finality.

"We have become extinct ... 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," he said.

Poets are given to hyperbole, to be sure, but Adonis (the pen-name of Ali Ahmad Said) makes a deeper point in his writings on Arabic poetry. He argues that Islam destroys the creative capacity of the Arabs, who in turn do not have the capacity to become modern. What he calls the "hell of daily life" is the subject of his poetry, of which a representative sample is available in English translation. [2]

Adonis devoted a long career to creating a literary modernism in Arabic rooted in medieval Arab poetry, leaving a long trail of enemies both among Islamists and secular Arab nationalists. He is reasonably well known in the West. The Arab-American scholar Fouad Ajami profiled him in the widely read Dream Palace of the Arabs, and Thomas Friedman gave him a brief mention in the January 27 New York Times. Evidently Western analysts do not quite know what to make of this most recent apocalyptic pronouncement and averted their eyes. It is easy, but misguided, to dismiss Adonis' doom-saying as an old man's exasperation, for Adonis sees the decisive issues with great clarity.

Nothing less than the transformation of Islam from a state religion to a personal religion is required for the Arabs to enter the modern world, Adonis told Dubai television:
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 re-examined in a new and accurate way, and unless religion becomes a personal and spiritual experience, which must be respected.
The trouble, he added, is that Arabs do not want to be free. Asked why Arabs glorify dictatorships, Adonis responded as follows:
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.
The fact that the Arab world's most distinguished man of letters has rejected the premise upon which US policy is founded - that traditional Islam and democracy are compatible - one would have expected from American critics a better response than silence. This is particularly true given how large Adonis looms in the Arab world, which translates only a fifth as many books per year as does Greece, with a 30th of the population. Arab writers of global stature are a tiny number, and their importance is disproportionately great.

I do not read Arabic, and have no idea whether Adonis' poetry merits the Nobel Prize (on earlier occasions I argued that a novelist from a Muslim country, Turkey's Orhan Pamuk, well deserved the 2006 award). But I doubt that anyone in the West will make sense of the spiritual condition of the Arab world without Adonis' assistance, and not because what he has to say is difficult: on the contrary, he has the courage to say the obvious: the Arabs do not want freedom because their lives are intolerable. Islam not only suppresses the possibility of poetic expression, Adonis argues, but with it the capacity of the individual to have a personality. It is an astonishing, terrifying, and absolute indictment of his culture.

As a poet, Adonis does not describe the spiritual state of the Arabs, but rather evokes it existentially. The available literature on Islam consists mainly of a useless exchange of Koranic citations that show, depending on whether one is Karen Armstrong or Robert Spencer, that Islam is loving or hateful, tolerant or bigoted, peaceful or warlike, or whatever one cares to show. It is all so pointless and sophomoric; anyone can quote the Koran, or for that matter the Bible, to show whatever one wants. With Adonis one gains access to the inside of the Arab experience of modernity. It is a terrible and frightening one, not recommended for the faint-hearted, but indispensable to anyone who wishes to get beyond the pointless sloganeering of the pundits.

"The Arab poet," he writes, "speaks ever of freedom and democracy as illusions. I say 'illusion' because life itself comes before freedom and democracy. How can I possibly talk about life when I am prevented from being myself, when I am not living, neither within myself nor for myself? [3]

"To be means to mean something," Adonis explains. "Meanings are only appreciated through words. I speak, therefore I am; my existence thus and then assumes meaning. It is through this distance and hope that the Arab poet attempts to speak, ie, to write, to begin."

Life is not possible without meaning, and meaning does not exist outside of culture, especially for a people defined not by political circumstances or territory but by language, namely the Arabs. In his essay "Poetry and Apoetical Culture", Adonis makes the remarkable claim that the nature of Koranic revelation destroys the possibility of poetry, and with it the possibility of life. Before Islam, the Arabic language was rooted in poetry; after the advent of Islam, poetic language became impossible.
When this divine Revelation came to take the place of poetic inspiration, it claimed to be the sole source of knowledge, and banished poetry and poets from their kingdom. Poetry was no longer the word of truth, as the pre-Islamic poets had claimed it was. Nevertheless ... Islam did not suppress poetry as a form and mode of expression. Rather, it nullified poetry's role and cognitive mission, endowing it with a new function: to celebrate and preach the truth introduced by the Koranic Revelation. Islam thus deprived poetry of its earliest characteristics - intuition and the power of revelation and made it into a media tool.

... Poetry in Arab society has languished and withered precisely insofar as it has placed itself at the service of religiosity, proselytism and political and ideological commitments. [4]
Adonis adds:
In part, this explains the dominance in the Arab mentality of what I call "pastism". In the context of this inquiry, pastism means the refusal and fear of the unusual. [5]
This is true, Adonis explains, because the Koran offers a

Continued 1 2 

Portrait of a jihadi leader (May 4, '07)

For whom the chopper lands (Jan 11, '05)

Suicide bombing: Theology of death (Oct 22, '04)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2007 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110