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On Adonis’s “Concerto Al-Quds”

Read Khaled Mattawa’s translation of Adonis’s “Afflictions” here.

The only trip that our poet Adonis took to Al-Quds/Jerusalem was in 1966 at the invitation of a small literary club. By then Adonis had been, for several years, publisher and editor of the pioneering literary review Sh’ir, which launched the second phase of modern Arabic poetry. Sh’ir promoted free verse, individualism, classicism, and fresh poetic diction. Adonis’s poetry at the time, as represented in the highly acclaimed Aghani Mihyar al-Dimashqi (The Songs of Mihyar of Damascus), was a prime example of this new poetry that the poet himself advocated. I imagine that the Jerusalemites, living at the time under the rule of the conservative Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and who invited Adonis, were excited to encounter a champion of modernity in their quaint, tense, and divided city.

Adonis made the trip by car. He would have had to drive east to Damascus, then south toward Amman, and then west from there toward the Allenby Bridge to the West Bank and Jerusalem. A distance of about 300 miles that would take about six hours to complete.

It is hard to fathom this trip now, given all that had transpired in the half century since then—not least of which is the fact that the state of Israel occupied the whole of the West Bank in 1967, declaring Al-Quds/Jerusalem as its capital a decade later and launching a slow but persistent campaign to dislodge the Palestinian Jerusalemites from their native city and encircling the eastern side of the city with huge illegal settlements to effectively annex the city and much of the West Bank.

This aspect of the recent history of Al-Quds/Jerusalem is only one of the preoccupations of this book-length poem. The story, or the theme, Adonis explores is that of intolerance, and more specifically the intolerance that radiates from the monotheistic traditions that locate Al-Quds/Jerusalem as their focal point. Those who worship a single god soon deem it as the only god worth worshipping and eventually declare themselves a chosen people. The greater the devotion or fanaticism to this single god, the greater the intolerance of others who think or believe differently. This intolerance becomes a superiority complex that allows for war, genocide, and slavery. While history offers periods when monotheist intolerance let up and worshippers learned to live with the other, it is full of eras when the self-righteousness ignited long cycles of violence. We live in such an age when the language of holy conquest as expressed by a modern Islamist movement (ISIS) helps put into practice the commandments of the Book of Leviticus. Much has changed, and little has changed; one monotheist violence spurs another into a cycle of endless horror whose epicenter is Al-Quds/Jerusalem.

Undermining the authority of the discourses of intolerance has long been a preoccupation of Adonis. His poetry—echoing, channeling, championing, and updating the imaginative lyricism of Sufi poets—pointed  to a rich vein of thought and spirituality in the Arab-Islamic tradition that could serve as a model for inspiration. His cultural and social criticism, especially his seminal work Al-Thabit wa al-Mutahawil (The Fixed and the Changing, 1973) offered a reading of Arab history and culture where the forces of fixity and the forces of change combated, with conservatism often holding sway. One can say that Adonis’s poetic and cultural project has been to spur an era of change, of everlasting change that liberates the people of the region. At the center of it is learning to accept the other, especially the other (the imaginative and revolutionary force) in oneself.

Adonis’s criticism of Arab culture and its fixation on rigidity is not without criticism of the powerful Western forces that have dominated the region’s history and have reinforced and often promoted this intransigence for their own benefit. Once he began to travel widely, and once he settled in France, a greater sense of the impact these forces have had on his region begins to appear in Adonis’s poetry. His poem “Grave for New York,” written in the early 1970s, says this of the great city:

New York,
woman, statue of woman
she holds in one hand a rag that the scraps we call history had named freedom
and with her other hand she chokes a child named Earth.

In Adonis’s long poem “Desire Moving Through Maps of Matter,” written in mid 1980s, Paris is site of ruins, a

         feast of disaster
         history spiced by cooks who garnish plagues.
and where
                  Time’s ovaries have turned to rot.
                  Machines cook humans in a purple soup . . .

Satirically, the poet advises Western poets to become like the ancient Arab bards and to learn

how to weep among ruins, to write on sand
and learn how to bind balm and poison
to solve
what cannot be solved.

But like the Arab bards himself, Adonis in Paris, emboldened by discoveries, gathers up his courage and states:

I touch a light that lurches
like a plough and
I discover how a poet remains an infant
though he is as old as the horizon.
That’s why I do not hesitate to say: “I and the Other
are I.”

He is also resolved to reshape the world by refashioning his own ideas:

         I must, must . . .
make my own morals, turn my death into a poem that inaugurates my life.

These last two lines echo to me Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” where the poet in the prime of middle age resolves to make a poem that ushers in a new era of awareness and commitment to life. Adonis, it should be noted, was gathering such resolve after the ruins of the 1967 war that resulted in the occupation of Al-Quds/Jerusalem by Israel, and after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, barbarically bombing the city where the poet was living at the time.

In revisiting Al-Quds as a poetic encounter almost a half century after actually visiting in 1966, Adonis, who had launched a magazine titled Al-Akhar (The Other) in 2010 around the time he started writing this book, takes on the city and its ancient patriarchs, mainly Job and Ezekiel. “Where do you end, and where is your other, O Book of Job?” he addresses the sacred text and its patriarch. And turning to Ezekiel, who foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent rise of the land of Israel, the poet asks the seer about the fate of his people. “And we, the concubine’s children,[1] what must we do when the earth itself is a concubine in the grip of divine prophecies?” What will happen to us, he wants to know. He goes on to report to Ezekiel on the wretched condition of the world, seeking to know why it is so, and why men have sought the world’s destruction in order to fulfill his prophecies.

The prophets do not answer the poet. But in seeking them and in reporting their silence, the poet presents how the patriarchs of our world continue to marginalize, exploit, and destroy the Other. The oneness of God and the oneness of “truth” clearly do not acknowledge the oneness of humanity. In fact, those who fall outside the fold of “truth” lose the right of being human.

As such, Concerto Al-Quds is both cultural and historical criticism as well as poetry. Perhaps it is cultural and historical criticism that could only be stated in poetry, or partly in poetry. It’s arguable that this poem draws its form and energy from the holy texts it is contesting, mixing prose and verse deliberately and surprisingly, and shifting tones and registers. In that, it is attempting also to fulfill the concerto part of its title. Concerto refers to “sacred works for voices and orchestra” (Wikipedia). According to Wikipedia, the etymology of the word concerto

seems to have originated from the conjunction of the two Latin words conserere(meaning to tie, to join, to weave) and certamen (competition, fight): the idea is thatthe two parts in a concerto, the soloist and the orchestra or concert band, alternateepisodes of opposition, cooperation, and independence in the creation of the music flow.

We see these oppositions in Concerto Al-Quds between the poet’s regard for the prophets and his opposition to their intolerant and violent beliefs. He hears clearly the poet’s condemnation of Al-Quds for her violent legacy, as well as his pleas to prompt it to be a force of virtue in the world. And whereas the religions of Al-Quds/Jerusalem condemn earthly life, the poet celebrates the earth and proselytizes that it be healed and treated with kindness and care.

The book is also a concerto of names, or rather deeds and testimonies, preserving the names of Al-Quds and keeping alive the other that still exists in it. While it’s possible that he visited all the places mentioned in the poem on his one visit to Al-Quds/Jerusalem, Adonis must have researched the city’s history quite thoroughly, and especially its maps, pausing on so many locations and meditating on how they have fared in recent history. He notes the tunneling of Jerusalem that is meant to unearth an earlier history so that the inclusive history of Al-Quds is expunged. “What is above the tunnel is mine, and what is around it, before it, and after it, all mine!” says a speaker in the poem. The poet also notes “the demographic balance” being imposed on the city, where natives of Al-Quds are forced to leave and the right newcomers are helped to take their place.

The failure of Al-Quds/Jerusalem to accept its Other has global consequences. The city now radiates its intolerance like an infection. But Adonis’s condemnation of Al-Quds is also a love song, a plea. If the city can accept its Other, it can be a beacon to the world, a place where difference, not oneness, is apprehended and celebrated.

[1] The reference here is to Hagar, wife or concubine of Ibrahim (Abraham), and mother of Ismail (Ishmail). The Arabs and Muslims consider themselves descendants of Ismail, hence they are the concubine’s children.

Khaled Mattawa currently teaches in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan. He is the author of four books of poetry and a critical study of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Mattawa has coedited two anthologies of Arab American literature and translated many volumes of contemporary Arabic poetry. His awards include the Academy of American Poets Fellowship Prize, the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He is the current editor of Michigan Quarterly Review.