In the autumn of 1961 a delegation of poets arrived in Rome for a conference called “The Arab Writer and the Modern World.” It was sponsored by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the international arts organization that would be unmasked, five years later, as a façade for American intelligence as it waged war against the Soviets on the battlefield of culture. From London came Stephen Spender, from Paris John Hunt, a novelist covertly employed as a CIA officer. The Italian titan Ignazio Silone had invited the participants with a letter explaining they were to discuss Arabic literature’s “awakening to modern life” and “its aspiration to communion” with what Goethe called Weltliteratur. It was to be a purely literary meeting of minds, Silone noted, free from politics. Among the emissaries of Arabic letters, unaware of the source of funding, were two Syrian poets from Beirut, Yusuf al-Khal and a young man who went by the name Adonis, cofounders of the avant-garde quarterly magazine Shi‘r (Poetry).
“If we would live, we must connect,” al-Khal passionately declared in his remarks at the conference. The poet argued that Arabic literature must break the chains of tradition preventing it from reaching the wider world, and transcend its parochialism—views with which Adonis concurred. Seeking liberation from old authorities and hierarchies, the Beiruti poets drew inspiration from European and American writers such as T.S. Eliot, Saint-John Perse, and Ezra Pound, whom al-Khal imagined in a poem as Christ. They looked to a countercanon of medieval Muslim nonconformists, such as the heretic mystic al-Hallaj or the dissident poet al-Ma‘arri, as well as to a literature more archaic than classical Arabic, that of Mesopotamian mythology.
Robyn Creswell’s City of Beginnings is the story of how Arabic made it new. Beirut has been overlooked in classic histories of modernism, yet Creswell, a professor of comparative literature at Yale, translator, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, has remedied this with eloquence and erudition in his study of how a group of exiles, iconoclasts, and émigrés—al-Khal, Adonis, and the Lebanese poet Unsi al-Hajj foremost among them—radically transformed Arabic poetry. In addition to abandoning traditional forms, the Beiruti modernists sought to purify poetry of the politics that kept it mired in its own time and place. At a moment when intellectuals across the Middle East were divided along nationalist, Pan-Arabist, monarchist, and Marxist lines, Shi‘r was avowedly nonpartisan, and talk of politics was discouraged at the magazine’s weekly literary salons. The question of what it meant to write poetry without politics, and how one might achieve this in a fractured city on the verge of civil war, is threaded throughout Creswell’s impressive book.
This study also speaks to the asymmetries, still with us, of the midcentury modernist project and its quest to create a world literature. Encountering Europe’s literary powerbrokers in Rome, the Beiruti poets were surprised to find their ideas met with reproach. In his response to Adonis, Spender chastised him for his “complete disregard for the ancient heritage of Arabic poetry,” finding his “demolition of poetic traditions” too “extremist,” according to the Arabic transcript of the conference. Although Spender criticized British poets for provincialism in dwelling too much on their own pleasant isles, non-European poets were expected to retain “local color,” Creswell writes, if they desired to participate in the circuits of world literature. The Beiruti poets sought to escape the confinements of region. Yet their European interlocutors, fearing the kind of standardized, monolithic culture they attributed to their Soviet antagonists, demanded that nonwhite writers preserve and perform their ethnic distinctiveness, to write in culturally “authentic” modes. By refusing to conform to entrenched rules of how the poet should engage with identity, ideology, and heritage, the Shi‘r group challenged the burgeoning international literary culture.
The Arabic word al-hadatha can mean either “modernity” or “modernism,” and derives from hadutha, “to be new.” The Beiruti poets were confident, Creswell writes, in their sense of what modernism was. It wasn’t to be found in the silhouettes of sleek cars and revving engines, where Marinetti saw it, or in “the latest feats in civic engineering” that awed Hart Crane. The rising city of Beirut, its architecture and crowds, is largely absent from the poetry of Shi‘r. Instead, the poets were looking out to sea. Their poems trace itineraries from ruined desert landscapes, covered with an Orientalist dusting of sand and sleep, to open waters of adventure, encounter, and exchange. “And by day we go down to the ports of safety,/to the boats with sails unfurled for travel,” writes al-Khal in his Pound-saturated trilogy “The Call of the Sea,” much of which was serialized in Shi‘r in 1957. It was a journey that, for al-Khal and Adonis, was autobiographical, a migration from Syrian mountains to the Lebanese coast but also a voyage away from political engagement and toward what Creswell calls “a heroized notion of cultural struggle.”
Arabic modernism arose from the ashes, Creswell writes, of ardent nationalism. As teenagers, al-Khal and Ali Ahmad Said Esber, both from villages in northwestern Syria, joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a mytho-political movement founded in 1932 by the charismatic Greek Orthodox liberationist Antun Sa‘ada. It was Sa‘ada who first inspired them to look to a deep, mythic past, and to forge a place for Syrian literature on what al-Khal referred to as the “map of world literature.” Sa‘ada called for a greatly expanded Syrian nation—spanning the entire Fertile Crescent—and saw archaeological ruins as the bedrock upon which to stage a national rebirth. Levantine people, for Sa‘ada, were racially distinct from Arab-Muslims: they were descendants of the ancient Phoenicians, intrepid Mediterranean seafarers who built coastal cities such as Carthage, Byblos, and Tyre.* For Sa‘ada, cuneiform writings discovered in Latakia on Ugaritic clay tablets, containing the earliest known alphabet, proved that Syria was the true cradle of Western civilization—a primacy to which it needed to be restored. The tablets involved myths of an ancient Mesopotamian deity who dies and is resurrected each year, and who has gone by many names, including Tammuz. The Greeks, according to Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough, mistook his title for his name and called him “Adonis,” or Lord. In the mid-1940s, as a student and party member in Damascus, Esber, hailing from near where the tablets had been found, adopted his mythic nom de plume.
In 1955, after the SSNP assassinated an army officer, Adonis was caught in a mass arrest of party members and spent eleven months in prison. It was “a year of torture, a true hell,” the poet remembered, and left him repulsed by what he called “the nationalist wasteland.” It convinced him that while politics is a debased, endless struggle for power, in which only the names of the tyrants change, a true revolution must come about through culture. Fleeing Damascus, which appeared to him a desolate, fossilized world, Adonis moved to Beirut, which he called the “city of beginnings.” Al-Khal, the older poet, was already there, having followed a similar trajectory of disillusionment with Sa‘ada’s militancy. The distance from Damascus to Beirut is only about seventy miles, but in Adonis’s retellings it is as if he voyaged to the antipodes. Between Lebanese independence in 1943 and the outbreak of civil war in 1975, Beirut was in its belle époque, and its Western-aligned government seemed to interfere little in people’s lives and business dealings. Oil money flowed through Lebanese banks, shipments of gold arrived in the port, and the new, chic airport became the flight hub of the Middle East. Sun-seekers flocked to the beach clubs, while the street cafés of the Hamra neighborhood, home of the American University of Beirut, were zones of intellectual debate. In the winter of 1957 al-Khal and Adonis launched Shi‘r, which would publish forty-four issues over the next eleven years, in addition to numerous books under its own imprint. The death of a nationalist politics became the birth of a new poetics, as if to echo the myth of Tammuz.
In the pages of the little magazine, modernism emerged in translation, or, in al-Khal’s word, naql, which can mean an act of carrying, transportation, or transfer, as well as a change of residence. The poets often chose to translate maritime verses, transforming them on the level of the line, as Creswell demonstrates, giving them what he calls a “strange at-homeness in Beirut.” In al-Khal’s translation of “Night” by the California poet Robinson Jeffers, a bleak poem of human frailty on the Pacific coast turns in Arabic into “a parable of humanist fortitude set in a specifically Lebanese seascape.” In Shi‘r, modernism became an act of finding, even in the most remote texts, words that spoke deeply to the Beiruti poets’ sense of identity and history, making more local ideas of “heritage” seem limiting and impoverished. Alongside poems in translation, Shi‘r published original Arabic poetry, manifestos, critical essays, and dispatches by correspondents from Baghdad to Berlin.
While only Adonis would attain global fame, in City of Beginnings Creswell captures the intricate scene that formed around Shi‘r, with the magazine as a “nerve center” for many writers still woefully untranslated into English. These include the Iraqi free-verse poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, author of the exquisite “Hymn to Rain” and an ex-Communist who delivered a keynote for the congress in Rome. There were numerous writers besides Adonis who took inspiration from the resurrecting god, including al-Khal, who occasionally wrote in the voice of the god’s lover Ishtar, and Fu’ad Sulayman, who used Tammuz as his pen name. The Palestinian polymath Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, author of Tammuz in the City, would christen the poets the “Tammuzi” school.
Creswell commendably situates Adonis as one among many, but readers may wish we learned more about the women writers who were also a part of the Shi‘r scene. We meet in passing Khalida Sa‘id, who was among the magazine’s most prominent literary critics, was married to Adonis, and also had a militant past in the SSNP. We encounter the acclaimed Iraqi poet Nazik al-Mala’ika, an early Shi‘r contributor, but as a commentator rather than a figure in her own right. The poet-scholar Salma Khadra Jayyusi appears in an endnote. The Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan, who was in the inaugural issue of Shi‘r, is absent from the book, as is the Lebanese luminary Layla Baalbaki, author of the controversial feminist short story collection Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon, and whose first novel was published by Shi‘r after it was rejected everywhere else.
In the autumn 1958 issue of Shi‘r, the twenty-eight-year-old Adonis published “Only Despair,” considered by many to be the first Arabic prose poem, shattering the structures of classical meter codified by the philologist al-Farahidi 1,100 years earlier. In Arabic, the same word, bahr, is used for both “sea” and “meter.” Adonis would call the new form of the prose poem, or qasidat al-nathr, “our ark and our flood.” Like the Biblical cataclysm, the prose poem drowned traditional forms while also preserving and transforming them.
Since its enshrinement in the eighth century, Arabic poetry had largely stayed within classical configurations. Lines of verse were, like Old English poetry, made of two equal halves with a caesura in the middle, creating a particular rhythm and music that defined poetry itself. In the late 1940s free verse pioneers such as al-Mala’ika and al-Sayyab began to break away from the caesura, yet still wrote in metered lines, preserving the evocative music, or tarab, that could strike deep emotions in listeners. Responding to the invention of the Arabic prose poem, al-Mala’ika called it a “strange and heretical innovation,” and asked whether the apostates were perhaps “ignorant of the limits of poetry.” Fiercely attacked, the Beiruti modernists looked to the international authority of figures such as Perse, Pound, and Eliot to sanction their new, blasphemous form.
“Only Despair” would be revised and renamed “Elegy for the Present Days” in Adonis’s landmark 1961 collection, Songs of Mihyar the Damascene, recently reissued by New Directions in a new English translation by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and Ivan Eubanks. While critics writing in Shi‘r hailed the collection as a liberation from the shackles of both meter and the state, it was derided by Marxist and nationalist critics for what they called its elitist, solipsistic posturing, and by traditionalists for not qualifying as “poetry” at all. The first prose poem, like many works by Adonis, retraces a journey of exile, from the ruins of a country left for dead:
The wind is against us and the ash of war covers the earth…. In what salt rivers will we wash this story, stale with the smell of old maids and widows back from the hajj, our history stained with the sweat of dervishes’ loins, its springtime a feast for locusts?… My country is a woman in heat, a bridge of lusts. Mercenaries cross her, applauded by the massing sands…. So we go, chests bared to the sea. Old laments sleep under our tongues and our words have no heirs.
Although Adonis had turned away from politics in quest of a nonpartisan poetics, the political was never quite repressed in his lines. In 1958, the same year “Only Despair” was written, the Syrian Ba’athist party, fearing a Communist takeover, brokered an agreement with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser to form the United Arab Republic, a move bitterly resented by the SSNP. Adonis viewed the union with disgust. His earliest version of the prose poem likened Egyptians to Mongols, “men of the sand,” avaricious invaders “pissing on the welcome mat.” The Syrians abandon their violated nation for the sea, boarding ships bound for an unknown harbor. Creswell shows how Adonis’s later revisions to the poem removed such overt references, as if to wash the politics away. Yet polemic remains visible in the fabric of the first Arabic prose poem, which still has passages verging on the Islamophobic (the sweaty dervish loins) and misogynistic (the smell of old maids, the woman in heat), and is soaked with scorn.
In the poem, we meet for the first time Adonis’s late-modernist antihero Mihyar, the protagonist of the 1961 collection. “A dark man, rising from the sea, full of the panther’s bliss, he teaches refusal,” the poet announces. Though he may take his name from Mihyar al-Daylami, an eleventh-century Zoroastrian poet who converted to Shiism, the inscrutable Mihyar is the mask of many men: Odysseus, Orpheus, the eighth-century poet Abu Nuwas, the Sufi mystic al-Hallaj, Zarathustra (the panther, satiated with blood, as in Nietzsche). A “figure of extreme solitude,” Mihyar hides under the waves like a seashell. He is antipolitics personified: Mihyar wages no battles and performs no deeds. “There he is, advancing under the ruins/in a climate of new letters,” the poet narrates, “For he is the knight of strange words.” His power is his literary autonomy. Mihyar is a universal, abstract figure, but he is also a product of his age. In another poem, as the “New Noah” who refuses God’s commands, he resurrects the drowned unbelievers as he pilots a rogue ark. He represents “a heroically secular, dynamic, and individualized notion of the human—a kind of Cold War Übermensch,” Creswell writes. Songs of Mihyar exalts freedom over any communal bonds, yet the mood is not triumphant but melancholic, while refusing to acknowledge what has been lost. “Nothing binds us together, and everything divides us,” the poet writes in “Psalm.”
If Adonis was arguably the first in Arabic to experiment with the prose poem, it was Unsi al-Hajj’s collection Lan (Will Not), published by Shi‘r in 1960 and still untranslated into English, that pushed the group’s ideas to their radical extreme. “Destruction and destruction and destruction,” the young poet urged in his preface, figuring himself as a poète maudit, unafraid to test the limits of the sexual, surreal, and obscene. Al-Hajj spoke not of the shimmering expanses of the sea but of entrapment, not of rebirth but of cancer, a solitary death from within, as the signal afflictions of the modern age. Embracing the prose poem as an act of illiteracy and aphasia, al-Hajj challenged his fellow modernists, Creswell writes, to answer the question “of how and what the poet may communicate when he has no community.” In “The Bubble of Origin, or the Heretical Poem,” the solitary poet converses in a toilet stall with a sperm named Charlotte, in what Creswell reads as an allegory for the genesis of the prose poem itself. “Verily verily I say I say unto you unto you,” the seed chatters in a Biblical cadence, cursing the poet so that he will “not be created again.” The poem blasphemes against the act of literary creation, casting it as purely self-pleasuring. Charlotte bears a French name and is a rather “literary” sperm, parodying Shi‘r’s infatuation with European letters. “Unsi is the purest among us,” Adonis declared.
In its covert deployment of the heroic individualism of the avant-garde to lure intellectuals across the globe away from communism, the Congress for Cultural Freedom possessed an arsenal of prestigious little magazines, from Encounter, edited by Spender, Irving Kristol, and Frank Kermode in London, to Quest in India, to Nigeria’s Black Orpheus and Uganda’s Transition. (The CCF also contributed funding to The Paris Review, where Creswell would later serve as poetry editor.) Across the magazines, content was often translated and published simultaneously in different languages, creating for the first time a networked, global experience of “world literature,” and helping bring international fame to a set of writers, from Gabriel García Márquez to Chinua Achebe. When in 1961 al-Khal and Adonis were invited to Rome for the summit, it turned out to be an audition of sorts. John Hunt, the director of the CCF office in Paris, asked al-Khal to arrive in Rome a few days early. The CIA spy was eager to launch an Arabic CCF magazine—in a letter unearthed by Creswell, Hunt referred to the prospective journal as “a prop,” a way of “maintaining our presence” in the region—and identified al-Khal as a potential publisher.
The Shi‘r poets had clear affinities with the CCF’s ideals of artistic freedom and autonomy. Yet in private talks in Rome, and in the heated exchange with Spender, irreconcilable differences became apparent as to what they imagined world literature to be. While Spender reproached them for ignoring their own heritage, Hunt worried that al-Khal, a Greek Orthodox Christian, and Adonis, an Alawite, would be seen as illegitimate representatives of a Sunni Muslim majority. Deeming them too radical and isolated—Shi‘r was banned in Iraq and the UAR—Hunt appointed the Palestinian poet Tawfiq Sayigh to serve as editor for the new CCF publication, Hiwar (Dialogue). In his five-year stint, Sayigh nevertheless frequently published Shi‘r poets, among them al-Hajj, Salma Khadra Jayyusi, and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, in addition to serializing Tayeb Salih’s masterpiece Season of Migration to the North.
In 1966, when the CCF’s true nature was exposed, al-Hajj, “purest among us,” expressed the shock and dismay that many in Beirut felt on learning they had been implicated in “an odious American plot.” “The American intelligence service! Could we, all those who wrote in Hiwar, be writing for the CIA?” al-Hajj asked incredulously. Those who had disavowed political commitment had been unwittingly taking sides all along. What the poets ventured toward—a place on the map of world literature—was never a neutral, free zone, but an uneven space that maintained Euro-American hegemony. Yet at the same time, Beirut’s avant-garde literary scene had somehow become, as the scholar Elizabeth Holt recently wrote, “a site of global power contestation so critical it had attracted the attention of an imperially minded American security apparatus.” “And suddenly I felt important!” al-Hajj remembered, capturing the absurdity with characteristic humor as he imagined his eccentric friends as double agents and the frail Badr Shakir al-Sayyab as Iraq’s James Bond. “And I asked myself: Was the CIA really endowed with intelligence to this degree?”
As if in response to Spender and Arab critics such as al-Mala’ika, in the mid-1960s Adonis began to read more deeply in the canon of classical Arabic poetry and put out his own, three-volume anthology. He decided to do a doctorate, and in 1973 he published his research in The Fixed and the Dynamic, a four-volume study of Islamic history, literature, and theology. In his plunge into turath, or Arabic literary heritage, Adonis located the true origins of European modernity in the eighth- and ninth-century Arab past, far away from the tainted present. He argued that Sufi mystics were like the first secularists, the egalitarian sect of the Qarmatians like early Marxists, and the poet Abu Tamman the first modernist, while the physician al-Razi and the alchemist Jabir bin Hayyan anticipated modern science. Finding what he thought were the true roots of modernism in the medieval, Arab-Islamic past, Adonis wrested it away from the European gatekeepers who believed they had the sole authority to define it.
Today Adonis is included in the Nobel Prize betting odds at Ladbrokes each year. Although the Congress for Cultural Freedom was eventually shut down following the revelation of its funding, in many ways the continued success of the idea of world literature has validated and perpetuated its project. Much like a government bureau, world literature still operates with budgets and quotas, allotting limited resources and attention to writers in Arabic. Of the many-voiced Shi‘r group, only Adonis would gain a podium from which to speak to the world. In a 1970 poem he paraded a list of institutions where he was invited—Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the United Nations—ever pushing the limits of what qualifies as poetry.
From Paris, where he now lives, the eighty-nine-year-old Adonis has infuriated many with his pronouncements, particularly on Islam and the Syrian civil war. While City of Beginnings centers on the 1950s and 1960s, in an epilogue that catches us up on the next forty years of Adonis’s politics, Creswell must wade into clouded waters. Adonis is viewed by many as Islamophobic, elitist, and deeply out of touch. In a 1969 editorial, he wrote that since the Arab public “can neither read nor write and is stuffed with parochial religious and cultural traditions that contradict the revolution,” the poet “cannot be led by the people, but must go on ahead of them.” This attitude has continued. To explain present crises, Adonis tends to look to the medieval Islamic past and to essentializing traits of the “Arab mind,” rather than contemporary realities of imperialism and global injustice. In 2011, as the Assad regime violently suppressed the protests in Syria, Adonis refused to declare his solidarity with the majority Sunni demonstrators; a belated editorial criticizing Bashar al-Assad, published after thousands had been murdered, seemed to echo official propaganda, referring to Assad incorrectly as the “elected president.” Critics were dismayed that the great Syrian poet hailed as revolutionary wouldn’t support the revolution. Creswell argues that Adonis’s apparent contradictions can be explained by old principles that never left him, “including his skepticism toward all forms of political involvement, a fierce repudiation of leftism,” and his insistence on cultural autonomy, even as history proves that to be a mirage.
In trying to separate poetry from politics, and safeguard the purity of their art from this fallen, temporal realm, Adonis and other Beiruti modernists sought to render their strange words timeless and universal. Yet the ending of City of Beginnings leaves us with the sense that Adonis’s heroics have aged uneasily, with over 500,000 Syrians dead and twelve million displaced. It is impossible to exalt disengagement when the sea of the mythical Phoenicians has become a basin of political tragedy. While the poetic innovations of the Shi‘r group will live on, the ideology that moved them seems obsolete today, a relic of a particular and fleeting midcentury moment. The question—as, bizarrely, the CIA once understood—is not so much how to protect poetry from the vicissitudes of the world, but how poetry can help protect us.
It would hardly have mattered that, as the scholar Josephine Quinn has recently demonstrated, the Phoenicians as a “race” were an invention of modern imaginations. Myths tell us more about people’s visions of the future than about their pasts. ↩