American University of Beirut

President's Speech - Adonis

President Waterbury:

Adonis this nom de plume was adopted by a young Syrian boy from the village of Qassabiin when he was around 15 years old. He was already an aspiring poet, but his initial submissions, under his real name, Ali Ahmad Said, were rejected. So he adopted Adonis, a lyrical, adventurous evocation of the many civilizations that have made the Eastern Mediterranean what it is. The name, like the man, has endured. A practical bent led him to the study of law and philosophy at the University of Damascus. Political activism caused him eventually to leave Syria in 1956 and to seek refuge in Lebanon where he became a citizen. It was in Lebanon that his career as a renowned poet took off. With Yusuf al- Khal he launched the journal, Shi'r (Poetry) followed by the journal he single handedly edited, Mawaqif (Positions). In 1960 he published Aghani Mihyar al-Dimashqi (Songs of Mihyar, the Damascene) that marked with clat his forceful challenge to the norms and forms of classical Arabic poetry. His new poetry matured in the 1970s. He tried successfully to make us see with new eyes and hear with new ears. His impact on Arabic poetry has been compared to the impact of T.S. Eliot on English poetry. It is surreal, complex, sometimes obscure. He once wrote, It is not necessary to understand poetry in order to enjoy it. It seems to me that one could say the same of life itself. What Adonis has sought through his poetry is metaphysical understanding or, as he put it, an immediate apprehension of inner truth.

Adonis taught at the Lebanese University from 1970 to 1982. During that time, in 1973 to be precise, he completed his doctorat d'etat entitled The Static and Dynamic in Arab Culture at the Universite St. Joseph. He returned to Damascus University in 1976 as a visiting professor. He has been a frequent lecturer and visitor at the Sorbonne, the College de France, the University of Geneva, Princeton University, Georgetown University, and Dartmouth College. Adonis, in prose and poetry, grapples with our human identity in the face of the forces of globalization. He is no isolationist and welcomes what might be called good globalization, a growing and deepening exchange among cultures and civilizations that respect one another and seek understanding through exchange. The bad globalization he fears is one imposed by a global market culture that obliterates what is culturally unique.

In a speech at Dartmouth College a few years ago he stated: The truth is that identity is not in itself a barrier to openness and connectedness; to the contrary, it is a prerequisite for them. The more we maintain identity the larger the scope for openness and connectedness becomes and the more consolidated diversity becomes. In the absence of that, openness becomes capitulation, exchange becomes tutelage, and interaction becomes defeat. Adonis has spent his life wandering along and across frontiers. That kind of wandering disturbs and unsettles the less adventurous. Self discovery as an individual, or the change of entire societies, cannot take place in the absence of profound discomfort. One cannot help but think, hope, and pray that this painful moment in world history may be the catalyst to a metaphysical understanding, perhaps even the immediate grasp of inner truth. Please welcome Adonis to the podium.

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