Ali Ahmad Said, pen name Adonis, is perhaps the most creative living Arab literary critic, often discussed as a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1995, he made headlines in the Arab world not because of a book he wrote, although most of his books instantly become classics, but because he attended a conference in Spain that included Israeli intellectuals. Some zealot Arab intellectuals accused Adonis of advocating al tatbi , the normalization of cultural and economic relations with Israel . Consequently he was expelled from the Union of Arab Writers. The campaign against Adonis seems far from over, for his name was recently invoked in the controversy surrounding a series of events marking the 50 year commemoration of the loss of Palestine, “Fifty Years: Catastrophe and Resistance,” taking place in Beirut from April 8 to early July .
Those opposing one of these events, a panel on “Arab Jews: Exile and Roots,” claimed that the Jewish participants were chosen by Adonis, a claim denied by Elias Khoury, director of the main organizing and sponsoring institution, the Beirut Theater. Adonis is one of several Arab intellectuals who have lent their support to the panel. These attacks on the only event of its kind to be held in an Arab capital seem to have angered Adonis, prompting him to write an article in Al Hayat debunking the opposition, or as he calls them, the “pressure” group, pointing out how “moral and human terrorism followed intellectual terrorism.”
Adonis apparently was not surprised by the attacks seeing them as part of a larger problem: “The immoralism of this ‘racist' tendency has precedents...This tendency does not reveal itself only in the relationship with ‘the Other'– that is the foreigner or the enemy–but also in the relationship with ‘the Other' inside Arab societies themselves. Our history abounds with instances like these.” Adonis cites the Iran-Iraq war during which such “racist” literature was produced, and also the Lebanese Civil War, where individuals were “kidnapped” or “targeted” on the basis of their “identities” as stated on their official identification cards. Listing instances like these is “shameful indeed, and even humiliating both intellectually and in human terms.”
Racism in day-to-day Arab life is easily recognizable, according to Adonis. But such recognition is contingent on the individual's readiness to “be honest with himself and the truth,” and to be willing “to violate the consensus” by thinking of that which should not be thought of, according to those preaching prohibitions against discussing the defects in Arab societies. When the need arises for such criticism, they maintain that the discussion should be confined “to those fighting us, lest we tarnish our image before the “Others,” especially when we are at a critical period facing vicious enemies.” According to the logic of these preachers, “by merely concealing illness...good health will be realized, enabling us to overcome the enemy.”
Adonis counters that “Our ‘traditions' and ‘customs' stipulate that we do not differentiate between the individual and his ideas. If we hated his ideas we hated his person, regardless of who he is; and if we hated the person, we hated his ideas irrespective of what they are. We raise no objection, and perhaps support the elimination of the person in the same way we annihilate his ideas. Should we give examples of such incidents when our history abounds with them, reoccurring over and over again on the stage of our Arab life, in one form or another?”
Adonis’s implicit focus is on the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which he briefly joined in his youth, debunking the contradictions between this party's ideological claims and actual practice. It is contradictory and tragic, writes Adonis, when the “pressure” is applied by groups who attribute to themselves principles like “secularism, civilization, respect for man as human being, the emphasis on human dignity, the values of truth and justice.” Although Adonis does not refer to the SSNP by name, these slogans are associated more with this party than others. (Two other groups reportedly participated in the campaign against the panel, a Palestinian faction led by Sabri al-Bana, known as Abu Nidal, and the Permanent Conference Against Cultural Zionist Invasion).
Even if one leaves aside the violation of the laws of the Arab countries in which the Jewish panel participants hold citizenship–laws which guarantee their rights and freedom of movement and expression–the architects of this “pressure”do not even stop for one moment to think, Adonis notes, apparently unaware of the paradox of their position. “They present the struggle with Israel at a religious rather than a national level. By this they hide the intellectual nationalist component of the struggle whereby the question is presented in its entirety within the framework of religious conflicts, becoming a continuation of the Christian-Jewish conflict Europe experienced and for which we paid a price.” Adonis finds this “logic” alarming since it makes Zionism acceptable, bestowing on it legitimacy and credibility. “When we decline to recognize the citizenship held by every Jew and the country to which he belongs by birth, and insist on associating him with Israel , wouldn't this lead us to consider every Jew an Israeli? Does this not support Zionism, which we resist...and which is based on these ideas that make up its theoretical core?”
When viewed from a cultural perspective, the racist logic invoked in opposing a dialogue with Arab-Jewish intellectuals amounts to what Adonis calls “a hateful combination between cultural and political activities: man is not evaluated as human but as someone ‘belonging.' Or the human is not evaluated except by a political criteria; refusing to look into our lives, our country as wholly both human and intellectual, as a constant movement toward the better and the more noble. But instead, we look at our societies as sites of political and material interests, in terms of immediate politics–which is an arena of war. Thus passions control minds, showing in practice the presence of everything savage and concealing everything human.” Adonis eloquently protests that the Arabs “frequently respond to catastrophes by raising extremist slogans, making fiery speeches, leveling accusations, and blaming ‘the Other' for the whole responsibility, without analysis, research or questions.”
The Lebanese Civil War offers the best example of what Adonis is referring to. In today's Lebanon, those who attempt to study the war–its causes, consequences, and what can be done to avert its reoccurrence–risk a lot, the least of which is the accusation of opening past wounds. “The Lebanese-Lebanese war,” a term used by Adonis, witnessed “the collapse of basic foundations, values and slogans.” Since the architects of the racist thinking view the Lebanese civil war as the deed of the other, particularly the Jews, they have no problem in watching the war's players “washing their hands and embracing” with its conclusion. A war which claimed more than 150,000 lives becomes simply a “slight fault,” as if “ nothing had happened. No need for analysis or study, no questions that deepen consciousness...If individuals or institutions adopt a critical and reflective position toward Al Nakba , they stand accused merely for participating in criticism, and are accused even as in truth they reject Zionist ideology, refusing its ‘identity.' It is those who applied the ‘pressure' that confirm for the Arab-Jewish intellectuals that Zionism is the fate of every Jew: an inescapable fate!”
To Adonis, “ our Achilles'heel is not outside us as much as it is within us.” His concluding remarks pose a thought-provoking question: “What is the difference between the position of the Serbian militias which ostracize the Muslim and annihilate him for being Muslim, and this ‘position' which ostracizes the Jew for being Jewish?...Why are we then surprised, and consequently protest, when the Arab is ostracized by Western and racist official agencies merely for being Arab?”
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 4, no. 23 (Spring 1998)
Copyright © by Al Jadid (1998)