Richard Melson

September 2006

Adonis Arab Poet

Ali Ahmad Said

Ali Ahmad Said Asbar

(Arabic: transliterated: alî ahmadi s-sacîdi l-'asbar or Ali Ahmad Sa'id)

(born 1930), also known by the pseudonym Adonis or Adunis,

is a Syrian-born poet and essayist who has made his career largely in Lebanon and France.

He has written more than twenty books in his native Arabic.

Early life, education, and start of career

Said was born in Al Qassabin, in Northern Syria. From an early age, he worked in the fields, but his father regularly had him memorize poetry, and he began to compose poems of his own. In 1947 he had the opportunity to recite a poem for Syrian president Shukri al-Kuwatli; 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.

The name Adonis was given to Said by Antun Saada, the leader of the Syrian National Party, a quasi-fascist party that advocated Syrian dominance over a wide swath of the Middle East. In 1955 Said was imprisoned for six months for being a member of the that party. Following his release from prison in 1956, he settled in Beirut, Lebanon, where in 1957 he and Syro-Lebanese poet Yusuf al-Khal founded the magazine Shi'r ("Poetry"). At this time, he abandoned Syrian nationalism in favor of pan-Arabism; he also became a less political writer.

Said received a scholarship to study in Paris from 1960-1961. From 1970 to 1985 he was professor of Arabic literature at the University of Lebanon. 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.


Said uses traditional Arab poetic styles to express modern views. Said proposes that poetry has two components -- song and function. A poet must be judged by the causes that he champions. The poet has two sides - the "I" and the "other". The poet must represent the group.

After a trip to New York in 1971,

Said wrote the poem, "The Funeral of New York" which 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.

New York is a woman
holding, according to history,

a rag called liberty with one hand
and strangling the earth with the other.

Said was considered to be a candidate for the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature,

but the award went to British playwright Harold Pinter.

Many of Said's supporters were critical of that choice.


Said has written over twenty books in his native Arabic.

A few of his poetry collections have been translated into English.


(The Complete Works, 3 volumes) (2000) ISBN 1-931243-29-8

Transpositions of selected poems of Adonis (Ali Ahmed Said)

(Pitt poetry series) ISBN 0-8229-3213-X

poems available online include:

Literary criticism and essays


External links


Syrian-Lebanese poet, literary critic, translator, and editor, a highly influential figure in Arabic poetry and literature today. Adonis combines in his work a deep knowledge classical Arabic poetry and revolutionary, modernist expression. Like a number of Middle Eastern writers, Adonis has explored the pain of exile - "I write in a language that exiles me," he once said.

"Being a poet means that I have already written but that I have actually written nothing. Poetry is an act without a beginning or an end. It is really a promise of a beginning, a perpetual beginning." (from 'Preface', 1992)

Adonis was born 'Ali Ahmad Sa'id in Al Qassabin, near the city of Latakia, in Syria. His father was a farmer and imam; he died in 1952. The village teacher taught Adonis to read and write, but he did not attend school, or saw a car or listen to a radio until he turned twelve. From his father, an influential figure in his life, he received a traditional Islamic education. In 1944 Adonis entered the French Lycée at Tartus, graduating in 1950. In the same year Adonis published his first collection of verse, Dalila. Adonis studied law and philosophy at the Syrian University in Damascus, and served two years in the army. Harassed for his political views, Adonis spent part of his service in jail. After leaving his native country in 1956, Adonis settled with his wife, the literary critic Khalida Sa'id, in Lebanon, becoming a Lebanese citizen. With his friend, Yusuf Al-Khal (1917-1987), he founded the poetry magazine Shi'ir, which introduced modernistic ideas into Arabic poetry. Its first issue was banned in several Arab countries. When rumors started to spread, that Shi'r was infiltrated by Syrian nationalist elements, it was temporarily suspended. The group around the magazine dissolved. Adonis broke his ties with Al-Khal, who started the review with another editorial board.

Aghani Mihyar al-Dimashqi (1961) was Adonis' first major work, in which references to the past become a vehicle for revolutionary notions. In 1964 Adonis edited an important anthology of Arabic poetry, Diwan ash-shiar al-arabi. With a vanguard of Arab writers, he started in 1968 to publish Mawakif, a journal which championed like Shi'ir the renovation of Arabic literary conventions, but in a more radical way.

Adonis adopted his pseudonym early in his career, crystallizing in the name the idea of spiritual renewal. Adonis is in Greek mythology a handsome young man, Aphrodite's lover; his story also includes the theme of resurrection. In 'Resurrection and Ashes' Adonis wrote: "O Phoenix, when fire is born in your beloved wing / What pen do you hold? / How do you replace your lost down? / Do you erase the dry error in its book? When ashes embrace you, what world do you feel?" The first collection of Adonis' verse in English, The Blood of Adonis, appeared in 1971. The edition was reissued with three new poems under the title Transformations of the Lover (1982). A Muslim intellectual and a world writer, Adonis has build bridges between Western influences and Arabic, Greek and biblical tradition. "The west is another name for the east," he once wrote.

Western materialism, which he rejects, is his target in 'A Grave for New York'. The poem was based on his visit in the city. Adonis addresses Walt Whitman, who becomes his guide as Virgil was Dante's guide through Hell: "I see letters to you flying in the air above the streets of Manhattan. Each letter is a carriage full of cats and dogs. The age of cats and dogs is the twenty-first century, and human beings will suffer extermination: This is the American Age."

Decades later, in 1998 Adonis confessed, that he finds himself "closer to Nietsche and Heidegger, to Rimbaud and Baudelaire, to Goethe and Rilke, than to many Arab writers, poets and intellectuals."

In 1970 Adonis was appointed professor of Arabic literature at the Lebanese University. Three years later Adonis earned a doctoral degree from the St Joseph University in Beirut. The subject of his thesis was "Permanence and Change in Arabic Thought and Literature." In 1975 the civil war in Lebanon broke out and in the 1980s the war escalated - the Israeli army moved on to Beirut, and the Syrians become entrenched. During this period, Adonis stayed mostly in Beirut. In 1980-81 he was a visiting lecturer at the university Censier Paris III. Adonis has also taught at, the Collège de France, Georgetown University, and the University of Geneva. After leaving the Lebanese University, Adonis moved in 1986 to Paris. In 2001, Adonis was awarded the Goethe Medal of the Goethe-Gesellschaft. His name has often been mentioned among the Nobel Prize candidates.

Although Adonis has critically examined problems of the Middle East, as a poet he has been more interested in experimentation, language, and freeing poetry from the traditional formalism, than to comment contemporary socio-political issues. The Arab poet according to Adonis has two sides, the I and the Other, the Western persona. In 'A Desire Moving Through the Maps of the Material' (1986-87) he wrote: "thus I no longer hesitate to say: / "the I and the other / are me," and time is but a basket / to collect poetry". Exile is not only the basic definition of the being of the Arab poet; the language itself is born in exile. The poet lives between two exiles, the internal one and the external one. And there are "many other forms of exile as well: censorship, interdiction, expulsion, imprisonment and murder." Adonis' views of the stagnation of the Arab culture and literature have aroused much controversy. His poems, which often have a deep mystical sense of history, has been characterized by his critics as abstract. Adonis has answered: "nothing clarifies me like this obscurity / Or perhaps it was: nothing obscures me like this clarity)".

For further reading: Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology, ed. by Salma Khadra Jayyusi (1987); World Authors 1975-1980, ed. by Vineta Colby (1985); Critical Introduction to Modern Arabic Poetry by M.A. Badawi (1975)

Selected works:

Arabic Poetry: Adonis

September 4, 2006