Perhaps The Tempest’s “past as prologue” is not an unfair depiction of Syria’s turbulent present days, and its future days to come. In 1972, Syrian-born poet Ali Ahmad Said (known to the world by his penname “Adonis”) was already lamenting Syria’s fractured nature, and in his own way, seemed to be predicting today’s upheavals and heralding the dissolution of the Syrian Arab Republic. Through most of his poetic and political writings, Adonis called on his countrymen to renounce Arabism, celebrate their cultural and ethnic diversity, “bury the ignoble face of Arab history,” and lay to rest its dull heritage and rigid traditions. Even his penname, Adonis, borrowed from Phoenician and Greek mythology, was adopted as a challenge to Arabist pieties, as advocacy for death and renewal, and as a way of slaying all elements of a previous existence and engaging new, dynamic, regenerated identities. “The magic of Arab culture has ended [… and] I am puzzled, my country,” wrote Adonis in A Lull Between the Ashes and the Roses:
For, each time I see you, you will have donned a different form, / […] Are you a graveyard or a rose? / I see you as children, dragging / their entrails behind them, resigned, bowing obediently / before their shackles, wearing / for each crack of the whip a corresponding skin… […] You have killed me, you have killed my songs / Are you a bloodbath / or a revolution? / I am puzzled, my country, for each time I see you, you will have donned a different form… […] / … and I chant my own calamity, and I can no longer see myself save as a man on the fringes of history, teetering on a razor’s edge / I should hope to begin a new beginning, but where? From where? How shall I describe myself and in which of my languages must I speak? For, this [Arabic] language that suckles me, also cheats and betrays me / I shall embalm and purify her, and resurrect myself on the edge of a time that has passed, walking on the edge of a time that is yet to come.
This is the legacy of Arab nationalism in Syria; a legacy defined by despondency, servitude, suppression, and tragedy. Adonis spoke of his perplexity at the rigidity and narrowness of this sort of culture and history in modern Syria—and perhaps even at the ambiguities of the “Arab world” at large. He indicted the language, cultural assumptions, and political traditions of Arab nationalism. Adonis’s point of reference was the ruthless Baathist Syria of Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar al-Assad, the country’s current (embattled) dictator. And so, the funereal qualities of Adonis’s themes were reflections on the despair, hopelessness, and isolation engendered by an Arab nationalism depicted as a form of “cultural pollution”: a jingoistic ethos as it were, that rejected diversity, negated the “other,” and denied the legitimacy of the “other” in language, temperament, and social habits. Syria’s Arab nationalist political culture, claimed Adonis, was one “completely closed on itself,” incompatible with the country’s checkered history, and ill-disposed to the Middle East’s rich, textured layers of identities.
The irony of it all is that both Adonis and the Assads of Syria are shorn of the same minoritarian cloth. Both are children of the Levantine catacombs, issuing from the same hated, hunted, heretical Alawite community, victims of centuries of brute oppression and persecution by mainstream Sunni Islam—and more recently by way of Sunni Islam’s modern Arab nationalist incarnation. But while Adonis sought to remedy his minoritarian status by advocating for an expansive, spacious conception of identity—celebrating diversity as opposed to Arabist conformism—the Assads co-opted the dominant “Arab” identity of their former executioners, turning Arabism into their armor of minority self-rule and a shrine for their self-preservation.
Adonis was born in 1930, in the Alawite village of Qassabin. A secluded hamlet nestled between the Levantine port-city of Latakieh—the ancient Greco-Roman Laodicea—and the highest point in the Alawite Mountains, Qassabin was a natural extension of the nearby Lebanon mountain range. Like his Alawite birthplace, dangling on the edge of an ancient Phoenician promontory wading deep into the Mediterranean Sea, Adonis was the outcome of a conflation of geographic, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic elements; a mishmash of traditions and historical memories. Given this background, the intellectual and political trajectory of Adonis, eluding Arabism, was perhaps easy to foretell.
But so was Hafez al-Assad born in 1930, in the confines of the same Alawite Mountains, to a family steeped in overt antipathies toward Arabism and Arab nationalism. Indeed, Hafez al-Assad’s father, Suleiman al-Assad, was among a number of Alawite notables who, until 1944, had feverishly lobbied the French Mandatory authorities against attaching the autonomous State of the Alawites (which the French had established in 1920) to a projected Syrian Republic. The Syrians were too ethnically fragmented to merit a single unitary state, argued the Alawites of the early twentieth century. In a June 1936 memorandum addressed to the cabinet of French Prime Minister Léon Blum, Suleiman al-Assad held that any future united Arab Syrian entity would put in place a regime dominated by fanaticism and intolerance toward non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities:
The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation. […To wit, the] good Jews contributed to the Arabs with civilization and peace, scattered gold, and established prosperity in Palestine without harming anyone or taking anything by force, yet the Muslims declared holy war against them and never hesitated in slaughtering their women and children […] [A united Syria] will only mean the enslavement of the Alawite people and the exposure of the minorities to the dangers of death and annihilation. [… The French] may think that it is possible to ensure the rights of the Alawites and the minorities by a treaty. We assure you that treaties have no value in relation to the Islamic mentality in Syria. […] The Alawite people […] appeal to the French government […] and request […] a guarantee of their freedom and independence within their small territory [in the State of the Alawites.]
Yet a mere four decades after the elder Assad’s pleas, on November 16, 1970, his air-force officer son, Hafez, seized power in Syria, claiming the country to Arabism, and ruling it under the auspices of a rigid Arab nationalist ideology for the next three decades. Today his son Bashar is counted among the rare remaining relics of Arab nationalism, and is considered to be one of the most committed champions of Arab causes and a bulwark of a united Arab Syria. But are the Assads really the tried and true dyed-in-the-wool Arab nationalists that they make themselves out to be? Or is their conversion to Arabism—a departure from time-honored communal traditions—a sleight of political expediency?
It should be noted that Hafez al-Assad’s and Adonis’s native “Syria” had not yet come into being in 1930, and in that sense they were both born in a country that, for all intents and purposes, did not exist, and would not exist for another two decades. And while Hafez might not have envisioned—nor allowed—the current upheavals in Syria, from the vantage point of his Parisian exile, Adonis is witnessing the undoing of a contrived “Syrian Arab Republic” of which he never became a citizen. By 1956 Adonis had left the newly founded Syrian Republic and gone into political exile—subsequently taking Lebanese citizenship—in an iconoclastic Beirut that was a notorious sanctuary and pulpit for Middle Eastern beatniks, heretics, and vagabonds. Lebanon, wrote Fouad Ajami, had always been at its heart a liberal Christian country, and in that sense it afforded an open battlefield where Middle Eastern scores were settled, and where heterodox ideas, libertine mentalities, and varied cultures came to collide, cavort, and bloom. But worldly Beirut would soon be consumed by its own promiscuity, and in 1980 Adonis would be torn from his adoptive city and driven into a second exile to the placid waters of the Left Bank of Paris—and from there to the lecterns and lecture halls of the Collège de France.
And so, for accuracy’s sake, one might say that Adonis was a native of the State of the Alawites, one of five new republics that the French had fashioned in 1920 out of the debris of the Ottoman Empire—the remaining four were the State of Aleppo, the State of Damascus, the State of the Druze Mountain, and the State of Greater Lebanon. Therefore, the precursor of today’s Syrian Arab Republic did not come into being until September 1936. It was granted independence from France in 1944, and became the “Syrian Arab Republic” in 1961; an improbable nation, stitched together out of ethnically and culturally disparate Ottoman vilayets (Provinces.) Over the course of four turbulent decades, the Assads managed to give this artificial state a patina of legitimacy. They built schools, dams, hospitals, a military (that was more like a Praetorian Guard), a third-rate economy, a rigid bureaucracy, an oppressive “security” and “intelligence” apparatus, and a merciless prison and penal system. The Assads also took pleasure in erecting imposing and ubiquitous statues of themselves. Yet they did precious little to forge a meaningful “Syrian” national identity, or combat their country’s intense regionalism, sectarian rivalries, and ethnic hostilities. Nevertheless, they maintained themselves and their Alawite community—a mere 10% of Syria’s population—in power, and kept their contrived polity from rending by fabricating external enemies, foiling internal threats, and putting up elaborate shows of Arab nationalist engagements and overwrought pieties to Arab causes.