The Springs of Adonis (now also known as the River Ibrahim) run through the Byblos region of Lebanon down through steep gorges to the Mediterranean. Iron ore deposits stain its waters red at times of flood. The cult of Adonis used to be celebrated in a temple close by. The beautiful youth Adonis, who was loved by the goddess Astarte, went out hunting despite her warnings and was gored to death by a boar. But after long supplications, Astarte succeeded in securing his release from the underworld for half the year. The rituals of Adonis, of resurrection and the return of spring, were observed in Greater Syria for millennia. It seems that even in medieval Islamic times the return of Adonis to this world was still being celebrated in remote villages. Legends concerning Adonis and other figures from pagan Syrian lore were to figure largely in the quasi-mystical rhetoric of Syrian nationalism in the 1940s and ’50s.
The poet ‘Ali Ahmad Sa’id, who was later to assume the pen-name Adonis, was born in 1930 and grew up in the Latakia region of Syria in a remote little village called Qasibin, some 150 miles to the north of the ancient cultic center of the rites of Adonis. The area around Qasibin was and mostly still is agricultural, impoverished, largely illiterate and remote from centers of urban civilization. Until he was 12, the boy who was to grow up to become a globe-trotting poet on the Nobel short list never saw a car or a radio. Reflecting on his origins inIdentité Inachevée (“Unrealized Identity”), a collection of interviews, Adonis remarks that he never had a childhood, since from an early age he was put to work in the fields. But in the evenings his father recited poetry, much of it mystical, and kept the boy at work memorizing this poetry. In the daytime, in the hills, the boy began to compose poetry of his own.
Then one day he heard that Shukri al-Quwatli, who in 1947 had become the first president of Syria after it gained its independence from France, was visiting a town in the Latakia region to perform an official ceremony of some sort. The boy, determined to impress the president with his poetry, walked miles over the hills but arrived late at the official function. Nevertheless, he successfully begged to be allowed to read his poem to the president. When the boy had finished, the president, impressed, asked him what he would like as a reward. “I want an education,” the boy replied. Thereafter he went to school in Latakia, where he began to sign his poems under the name Adonis, and then to university in Damascus, where he produced a thesis on Sufi mysticism. In Damascus he became involved with Antun Sa’ada and his Syrian National Party. This party put Syria and its legends and history before pan-Arabism or Islamism. The charismatic Sa’ada put forward quasi-fascistic arguments for the future destiny of a Greater Syria (so great that it was to include Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus and even Iraq, which was to be redesignated Eastern Syria). After a failed attempt at a coup in Lebanon, Sa’ada was executed in 1949. In 1956 Adonis himself ran afoul of the Syrian government and went into exile in Beirut, where a year later he founded the magazine Shi’r (“Poetry”) with the Syro-Lebanese poet Yusuf al-Khal, another former follower of Sa’ada. In the 1980s, the civil war in Lebanon would in turn drive him into a second exile, in Paris. It is not surprising that the theme of exile pervades his poetry.
Once he had moved to Beirut, Adonis abandoned the cause of a Greater Syria and turned instead to pan-Arabism. But from then on, conventional politics ceased to play such a large part in his thoughts. At university in Damascus, he had discovered the Surrealists and the French literary ancestors of the Surrealists. This in turn led him back to the Arab poetical heritage. As Adonis noted in his brilliant Introduction to Arab Poetics (originally published in 1985 and available in an English translation), it