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Adonis' Warning to Intellectuals: Western & Arab
By Elie Chalala
In past wars and crises, Arab culture has become an issue, if not by inviting stereotypical characterizations, then in the debates and controversies among its most celebrated thinkers. During the war on Iraq, this was nowhere more apparent than in the Arab world, though still visible to a lesser extent in the United States, namely among Arab-American intellectuals and academics.
In the Arab world, two groups emerged on the eve of the war, the first opposed both to war and dictatorship, while the second opposed war but declined to address dictatorship, as this could be construed as implied support for the U.S. case against Iraq. These two positions in the Arab world would remain confined to academic and journalistic circles.
The same occurred in the U.S., although the discourse fell short of being as significant qualitatively and quantitatively as in the Arab world. It involved on one hand Kanan Makiyya, author of "Republic of Fear" and a figure in the Pentagon-sponsored Iraqi opposition coalition, and on the other, a long list of detractors who attacked him in print and online. Although Makiyya's support of the war took him as far as to describe the bombs falling on Baghdad as "music to his ears," in a series of war diaries written for the online edition of New Republic magazine, some of his opponents reached an opposite extreme by transforming a legitimate debate--against war and dictatorship vs. anti-war positions-- into a personal vendetta. Because this topic deserves attention and provides for lively debate, we are devoting sizable space to an important school of Arab intellectuals who have not been, as have some Arab-American intellectuals, willing to remain silent on dictatorship and the disaster it brought upon the Arab world and the Iraqi people.
Adonis writes, that it (Iraq) was transformed into a private "garden," where almost everything became privatized or personalized, including property, guards, the army, and even the "people." The land of Iraq "changed into prisons for citizens who viewed things differently than the regime, changed into weapons to destroy the nation and the nations of others, unleashed the hands of the state to kill whoever it wished, how it wished, and when it wished, destroying law, order, and the whole foundation of justice."
We are still waiting to read about "mass graves" in the discourse of some Arab-American intellectuals. Instead, we are reading and hearing more about the atrocities of dictatorship from voices within the Arab world. These voices are worthy of our attention, for they enrich Arab culture, primarily in its diversity. Poet and critic Abbas Beydoun, novelist Mahmoud Saeed, and author and art critic Shakir Luabi speak for themselves in this issue, and noted late Iraqi poet Abdul Wahab al-Bayyati speaks from the grave with his timeless poem, "The Dragon," translated for this issue.
Another important voice is Ali Ahmad Said, who writes under the pen name Adonis. He is perhaps the Arab world's most distinguished living creative literary figure. He makes no mistake that Saddam Hussein's regime was authoritarian and repressive, but wonders if Western intellectuals who support the war and who base their position on "fighting fascism and forms of totalitarianism" forget, or choose to forget, that "their position at the practical level is nothing except preaching a totalitarianism that transcends regionalism to globalism," according to a column titled "Sieges," which appeared in Al Hayat (April 3, 2003). War for Adonis is unquestionably "evil" in a non-religious sense. Unlike Kanan Makiyya, who is almost certain of war's results, Adonis has serious doubts, even when war is aimed at one of the most repressive dictators in the Arab world. He is afraid it may lead to the replacement of a "regional" or "partial" evil with a global one, or replacing a "limited danger" with an "unlimited one." These intellectuals end up bestowing "intellectual" and "cultural legitimacy" on evil, adopting a position that is "contrary to the principles of peace, progress, justice," a position that "encourages military invasion and creates a cultural atmosphere for continuous wars."
Western intellectuals' acceptance of war as a vision of the world or as a means of change is "a human tragedy," continues Adonis. "Wars destroy human accomplishments and destroy man from inside, emptying him of his humanistic meaning and viewing him as merely a thing of things, releasing instincts to practice killing for the sake of killing." These intellectuals "forget that this signals the end of man." In attempting to remove one criminal, the war is "visiting its hell upon the people of Iraq," with "only the innocents" being destroyed.
Iraq was not an obscure or perplexing situation. Its record lies open to whoever cares, a record that chills the spirit. Adonis has been one of a few Arab intellectuals who dared to clamor against Arab dictatorships, particularly in Iraq. His warnings to fellow Arab intellectuals are likely to get him into trouble, although not for the first time nor likely the last. In the same article, he warns Arab intellectuals not to be swayed by the "Arab street," which opposes war and volunteers to fight on the side of the Iraqi people, though probably "its great majority rejects Saddam and his regime." Arab intellectuals need not be influenced by what Adonis calls the "amazingly muddled thinking" which could "nullify the thinking process and the obsession with freedom." He urges them to recall the Arab political experiment in the second half of the last century, precisely the "'revolution'" of 1952 in Cairo and the "revolution" of 1958 in Baghdad. That he places revolution in quotation marks aims to question the popularized claim that these military coups are in fact revolutions. These intellectuals are also urged by Adonis to re-examine the experience of the "Arab street," to probe the old, deep and widespread "disease" which "plagues the Arab political body in its entirety."
Adonis attempts to explain why Baghdad fell easily to the invading forces. "A country is not a real country unless it embraces its children as they embrace it. And unless it defends them, they will not defend it: a nation that does not love its children is a nation that does not love." Although he does not mention Iraq by name, that nation is unmistakably implied.
Adonis challenges these intellectuals to ask themselves a simple question: "What did Saddam Hussein do throughout the past 30 years with the immense wealth of the Iraqi people...and what did he do to his people?" Adonis believes that Iraq's national wealth should have been invested to develop Iraq and improve the well-being of its citizens; Iraq should have been fully employed, poverty free, enjoying full literacy, without millions of its citizens being forced into exile. Adonis goes on to list a number of accomplishments Iraq could have enjoyed were it not for the Saddam Hussein regime.
But Iraq under Saddam Hussein descended into hell. Adonis writes, that it was transformed into a private "garden," where almost everything became privatized or personalized, including property, guards, the army, and even the "people." The land of Iraq "changed into prisons for citizens who viewed things differently than the regime, changed into weapons to destroy the nation and the nations of others, unleashed the hands of the state to kill whoever it wished, how it wished, and when it wished, destroying law, order, and the whole foundation of justice."
Under the title "Fading Nationalism and Green Terror" (Al Hayat, June 12, 2003), Adonis attempts to explain why Baghdad fell easily to the invading forces. "A country is not a real country unless it embraces its children as they embrace it. And unless it defends them, they will not defend it: a nation that does not love its children is a nation that does not love." Although he does not mention Iraq by name, that nation is unmistakably implied.
Though it is not the first time Adonis has gotten himself in trouble with fellow Arab intellectuals, especially the ardent nationalists, his relentless criticism of the Iraqi regime has unleashed new attacks upon him. Responding to these attacks, he published in Al Hayat (May 15, 2003) a text he wrote in 1969 during his only visit to Iraq. We conclude with these translated excerpts, which testify against those who accuse Adonis of inconsistency:
I think the time has come to say to Gilgamesh, that you deluded some of us into thinking that life in Baghdad had a secret we were still waiting for you to discover for us. Everything practically confirms that this life is nothing except continuous death. Look at how the tyrant's sword unsheathed, and how the throats are prepared to be slashed.
… Now, at this moment, I imagine that I see only two in Baghdad: Al-Halaj, crucified, and Al-Tawhidi, throwing his books into the waters of the Tigris.
…In the past, those who lived on its two banks were non-monotheistic people, but regardless, they were more humane and more creative than their grandchildren who are besieging you today.
I love this moment. I say: Baghdad--half of it is forest, the other half is desert.
And I love to ask my friend, whispering: What is the difference between Baghdad 1258 and 1969?
-The first was ravaged by the Tartars
-The second by its own children
-Baghdad is heaven!
-Man is heaven, not the place
…I saw how language transformed itself into a huge army of ferocious animals. And I was, until that moment of 1969, tired of distinguishing between people, devils, and gods when I looked at those in charge of state in Iraq. Perhaps because of this I felt perpetually cold in Baghdad, even when I was in the embrace of the sun.
This essay appears in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 9, Nos. 42/43 (Winter/Spring 2003)
Copyright (c) 2003 by Al Jadid