“Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings”

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“Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings”

by Adunis


A poem set in the Arab world around September 1970; published in Arabic (as “Muqaddimah li-tarikh al-muluk al-twa’if”) in 1970, in English in 1992.


An elegy; the poem mourns the sudden passing of Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose death amplified a growing sense of frustration and despair among Arabs following their defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Events in History at the Time the Poem Takes Place

The Poem in Focus

For More Information

Considered by many to be the most influential Arabic poet of the late twentieth century, Adunis was born Ali Ahmad Said in 1930 in Qassabayn, a small village near the Syrian coastal town of Latakia. His early education was frequently interrupted because his poverty-stricken family needed him to work in the fields and it was difficult to reach the schools. But his father urged Ali to study, encouraging him to learn Quran recitation in a local religious school and to memorize classical Arabic poetry. In early adolescence, young Ali had an opportunity to recite one of his own poems before the first president of republican Syria, Shukri al-Quwatli, who was so impressed that he awarded the boy an advanced secondary education at government expense in one of the best schools in the country, where he received rigorous intellectual training in both French and Arabic. It was also a center of political activism. The young Ali affiliated himself there with one of the smaller, but extremely well-organized nationalist factions, the Syrian Social National Party (SSNP). It was during this time (probably 1947 or 1948), that he took the pen name “Adunis,” which is Arabic for the ancient Greek fertility spirit Adonis. An ancient center for worship of Adonis was in Lebanon, not too far from where the Arabic poet grew up. In taking the name, he was following the lead of SSNP members who aimed to show that many highly respected ideas and beliefs of the Greeks (long acclaimed, in the West, as the founders of their civilization) had actually originated farther east, in the “Syrian” lands. In 1949, the founder of the SSNP, Antun Saadah, was executed for a coup attempt against the Syrian government, which inspired Adunis to compose a series of poems embracing extensive meditations on the nature of heroism and leadership (including “Qalat al-Ard” [1949–1950; The Earth Said] and “Al-Ba th wa-al-Ramad” [1957; Resurrection and Ashes]). Within a decade, Adunis had begun to shift the object of his deliberations to another magnetic Arab leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who assumed power in Egypt in 1954. Over the next 15 years, Nasser became the foremost advocate for a revitalized vision of an all-embracing Arab nationalism transcending country boundaries. Adunis appears to have embraced a similar view at this time, as shown by his writing of two poems honoring Abd al-Rahman al-Dakhil, the founder of the Umayyad caliphate in Spain and a tenth-century hero of the Arab nationalist movement (“Ayyam al-Saqr” [Days of the Eagle]; “Tahawwulat al-Saqr” [Transformations of the Eagle]). These poems have been interpreted as important expressions of Adunis’s reaction to Nasser’s leadership in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings” laments Nasser’s untimely death by heart attack at age 52, crowning the phase of Adunis’s poetic career that preoccupies itself with defining political leadership and the nature of governance in the modern Arab world.

Events in History at the Time the Poem Takes Place

The assassination of Ali

Though set in 1970, “History of the Petty Kings” covers an immense sweep of human history, touching on three major periods of political crisis in the Arab world. Decisive in its development, these three periods are related in that each of them shaped views on the role of leadership and the exercise of power among the Arabs as a new society emerged and matured under the influence of Islam. The first crisis occurred in the years immediately following the Prophet Muhammad’s death. The second occurred in the tenth and eleventh centuries c.e., as the political structures that had allowed the caliphs to control the vast Islamic empire began to decay. The third crisis—at least for Adunis—emerges in modern times, as the powerful unifying message of Arab nationalism fails to be consistently translated into successful practice by Arab leaders.

In 632 c.e. the founder of the Islamic religion, Muhammad, died unexpectedly of natural causes. He had made no provisions for a successor and had no surviving male children to assume his now vacated position as leader of the Muslim community. This provoked a crisis among his followers. Through a combination of decisive action and persuasive power, Abu Bakr and Umar, two of Muhammad’s closest friends and companions, who shared his vision of Islam as a religious orientation and blueprint for living a moral life, resolved the crisis, at least for the time being. Abu Bakr was proclaimed the caliph (Arabic for “successor”) to Muhammad by an assembled group of leading Muslims. Soon he too died, whereupon Umar was chosen to assume the mantle of leadership.

When Umar died, the office of caliph was given to someone with a more problematic background. Uthman had been an early follower of Muhammad, and there was no doubt about his own personal piety and adherence to the ideals of Islam. But he also belonged to the powerful Umayyad clan in Mecca, which included some very vocal opponents to Islam’s reformist message. So difficult had they made life for Muhammad that his followers sought refuge in Medina, a city that had offered protection to them in exchange for Muhammad’s arbitrating among its feuding tribal groups.

Uthman’s perceived favoritism toward his fellow Umayyads when he became caliph led eventually to his assassination at the hands of a group of disgruntled soldiers who may have had ties to Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. Ali had married Fatimah, one of Muhammad’s daughters, and they had two sons, Hasan and Husayn, who were the Prophet’s only living male descendants. Now that Uthman had died, many saw Ali as the natural choice for the position and he agreed to take office. A feud followed, prompted by the Umayyad clan’s belief that Ali had been somehow involved in Uthman’s death. Publicly the clan leader, Mu’awiyah, called for Ali’s removal if he did not find and punish the assassins, making demands that led to a virtual civil war. In the midst of this unrest, a disgruntled former supporter assassinated Ali, whereupon Mu’awiyah seized power for himself and the Umayyad clan. Ali’s followers were unable to muster sufficient military power to overthrow Mu awiyah, nor were Hasan and Husayn old enough to lead, so the Ali faction tacitly accepted the status quo. But Ali’s followers never accepted the legitimacy of Umayyad rule. They simply bided their time, looking forward to the time when Muhammad’s grandsons would assume power, either peacefully or through the military overthrow of the Umayyads.

Once in power, the Umayyad dynasty predictably moved in the direction of hereditary rule based on the support of a strong standing army. This trend was confirmed 19 years later when the Umayyads (now ruled by Mu‘awiyah’s son) killed Husayn, the last surviving male offspring of Ali, and massacred his men on the battlefield at Karbala (in contemporary Iraq). For the followers of Ali and his sons (later called “the Shf ah” or “Shf ites,” from the Arabic term “shfat Ali,” or “party of Ali”), these murders were damning evidence that the rulers of the Muslim community had lost any claim to legitimacy. In their view, the sort of divine guidance that had inspired the Prophet Muhammad (and was presumably passed on to Ali and his sons) had been lost.

Adunis, who was raised in a Shfite family, would have been intimately familiar with this interpretation of Islamic history and with Shfite aspirations to fill the world “with justice as it is now filled with injustice” (Hodgson, p. 374). But the human failings of subsequent rulers made it unsurprising that political oppression, civil war, and internecine strife became more the norm than the exception in Islamic history. Early in his poem Adunis indicts the forces of authority collectively—“They piled up, they rent apart the face of Ali”—for the way they seem to single out one helpless individual as a target for their violence (Adunis, “Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings,” lines 7–8).

Rise (and fall) of the petty kings

In 750 c.e., the Umayyads were overthrown by another clan, more closely related to Muhammad’s family, the Abbasids. Although the Abbasids practiced more tolerant, inclusive policies than their predecessors, they were unable to sustain central authority. Their imperial rule entered a lengthy period of decentralization and growing ineffectualness, during which governors became semi-independent rulers, diverting taxes to local needs rather than sending them to the Abbasids in Baghdad. In time, these local rulers stopped paying anything more than lip service to the caliph, even setting up dynasties of their own in opposition to Abbasid rule.

One of these local dynasties was established in al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) by Abd al-Rahman al-Dakhil, a descendant of the older Ummayad dynasty. In power in the eighth century, this Ummayad ruler governed the Iberian peninsula as a state independent of the central Islamic empire. Al-Andalus was a flourishing province in this period and its loss weakened the Abbasid position considerably.

Even more damaging was the rule of another independent dynasty, that of the Fatimids, who claimed descent from Fatimah (Muhammad’s daughter) through Husayn. By the late ninth century c.e. the Fatimids had welded together a rich North African and Levantine empire with its capital in Cairo. The loss of Egypt and its surroundings was particularly damaging to the Abbasids because this area was one of the richest sources of income in the world at that time.

In due course, these aspiring caliphates themselves lost power. By the early eleventh century c.e., many of their domains had been reduced to small principalities, consisting of just one city or fortress and its environs. The rulers of these small territories—especially in al-Andalus—became known as muluk al-tawa’if in Arabic, “the kings of the factions,” otherwise known as “the party (or sometimes “petty”) kings.” The disintegration was a slow, painful process. As the Fatimid dynasty grew weaker, army troops would seize first one member of the family, then another, temporarily elevating him to figurehead ruler, only to depose him weeks or even days later when another faction gained the upper hand.


Pilgrims to the holy land spent relatively large amounts of money on their journeys and were thus a lucrative source of income to the local population, Therefore, the Fatimid caliphs had traditionally acted to protect the Christians travelling through their territories. One result of the disintegration of central authority was that the parties of Christian pilgrims coming from Europe to the Holy Land were left defenseless against Muslim marauders, The situation was used as justification for Christian knights from Europe to mount the First Crusade, an invasion of Arabic lands that was intent on capturing Jerusalem and controlling the surrounding territory. The weakness of the local petty kings, especially their inability to unite so they could drive out the European armies, has been widely seen as dooming the region to nearly a century of foreign rule by the Crusaders, Not until in the 1170s, did a leader by the name of Saladin (more precisely, “Salah al-Din”) unite the focal lords sufficiently to retake Jerusalem. Under Saladin’s rule, the peace and prosperity of the Fatimid state at its height was at least partly reconstituted, only to be lost again in the decades following his death.

In Spain, the rise of many small, relatively peaceful kingdoms was in some ways beneficial, especially to the local intellectual and cultural life, for it led to friendly competition among the relatively prosperous and well-educated rulers to distribute patronage among their subjects. But the disintegration of central authority made the Muslim territories in Spain vulnerable to invasions by Christian rulers, who deposed its last Muslim ruler (in Granada) in 1492. Ferdinand and Isabella (known as the Catholic Monarchs) expelled the Jews in 1492, forced the Muslims to convert or leave in 1502, and then expelled the Muslim converts in 1609.

Among the Arabs, the view became widespread that if the Islamic world had been united at this time, and its leaders had all been as selfless and dedicated to the general welfare as Saladin, the Christians would never have dared attack Muslim territory in the first place. As in the era of Ali’s as- sassination and the rise of the Umayyads, the era of the petty kings exposed the dangers of Arab/Muslim disunity.

Arab nationalism and the rise of Nasser

Beginning in the 1300s, the Arabic-speaking territories of the old Abbasid empire were increasingly ruled over by outsiders. First these lands were gradually conquered by the Ottoman Turks, who controlled them for about 500 years (c. 1350–1918). The Ottomans saw themselves as fellow Muslims and did not discriminate against their Arab subjects the way future overlords would. But in retrospect Arab intellectuals have seen the centuries of Ottoman rule as a period of foreign, essentially colonial, occupation that led to backwardness and stagnation. There followed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a period of European colonial rule, especially British and French rule. In with the colonizers came modern forms of technology, industry, government, and education, but for the sake of the colonizers first, only secondarily for the Arab peoples. Finally, the colonial administrations (including the occupying armies) were expected to pay for themselves by levying local taxes on the colonized Arabs, who, much like the colonized Americans, then protested against “taxation without representation.”

Throughout this period the Arabs retained a sense of mutual ties and group identification, fostered by a common language, history, and allegiance to the broadest ethical, moral, and social values of Islam as a monotheistic religion and a source of tolerant cultural attitudes. They were values that non-Muslims too could embrace. Encouragement for the sense of mutual Arab identity, which would eventually coalesce into the movement known as “Arab nationalism,” came from political leaders who made pan-Arabism a cornerstone of the struggle for independence from foreign rule.

The enthusiasm generated by Arab nationalism rose and fell over the decades. Calling most immediately for throwing off foreign rule, it competed with other movements such as pan-lslamism and Pharaonism in Egypt. In the 1950s, however, Arab nationalism received a new lease on life from Gamal Abdel Nasser in the wake of his successful revolution in Egypt. Nasser had been one the first generation of native Egyptians who were allowed to rise to officer rank in the Egyptian army. Before that, most of the command positions had been held either by Englishmen or members of the old Turko-Circassian elite who had ruled Egypt under the Ottomans. Possibly as early as 1938, while on his first garrison posting after graduation from the Military Academy, Nasser became involved with a secret group of army conspirators, the Free Officers, who sought to overthrow the corrupt and decrepit monarchy and expel the British army from Egypt. In 1952 the Free Officers seized power in a bloodless coup that abolished the monarchy. The peacefulness of the coup was spearheaded by Nasser, who prevailed against the arguments of his fellow conspirators that King Faruq should be tried and executed. The royal family was, instead, allowed to depart unmolested for exile in Italy. For the first years of Free Officer rule, Nasser stayed in the background but then in 1956 he was elected President (having run unopposed).

After his election, Nasser articulated a pair of twin goals: first, he sought freedom and independence for all Arabs, Egyptian and non-Egyptian, and second, he called for reform of Egyptian society founded on a policy of “Arab Socialism.” Entailed in the policy, said Nasser, are land reforms, nationalization of key establishments, and redistribution of wealth but with provisions for individual investment and profit and with recognition of the import of the Islamic religion in Egypt. To attain freedom from foreign rule for all Arabs, Nasser supported the liberation struggles of revolutionary groups in the region, most notably those on the behalf of the Algerian Arabs and the Palestinian Arabs.

Nasser achieved some notable successes during his 14 years of rule—land reform, nationalization of the Suez Canal, construction of the Aswan High Dam, an anticorruption campaign, reforms in education, women’s rights, and Egyptianization of the government bureaucracy and economy. But true democratic rule was never implemented. Revolutionary Egypt became an increasingly authoritarian state, in which censorship, jailing of the regime’s opponents, and the imposition of martial law were common occurrences.

Nasser meanwhile had setbacks. In 1962 he entangled Egypt’s troops in an indecisive civil war in Yemen, and in 1967 he lost a war to Israel, in which the West Bank (of the Jordan river) and Gaza Strip were occupied by the Israeli army. Another setback followed in the summer of 1970, when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and associated groups, which had sought refuge in Jordan after the 1967 defeat, attacked the monarchy of Jordan’s King Hussein, deeming him insufficiently supportive of their aspirations to wage guerrilla warfare against Israel from his territory. The ensuing conflict threatened to turn into a civil war and, on September 27, 1970, in the midst of negotiations to resolve the conflict, Nasser suffered a fatal heart attack and died.

Nasser, Hussein, and the Palestinians

The growing Arab infighting after the defeat in 1967 and the resulting sense of impotence in the face of foreign aggression, clearly had parallels to what happened in the days of the petty kings. The sense of history repeating itself was heightened when Nasser died, for he had compared himself—and had often been compared by others—to the legendary Saladin. Nasser, like Saladin, seemed able to unite the Arabs by the sheer force of his personality when he first emerged. He had given them hope and confident optimism. His sudden death, coupled with a growing awareness of the failure of reforms associated with him, led to concerns about the future of Nasser’s legacy, expressed by a number of Egyptians, including Adunis in his “Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings.” The concern escalated now that the Palestinian cause was threatened by forces within the Arab world, and Nasser had identified himself closely with it. He had been instrumental in creating the PLO, the umbrella organization whose members would in the 1990s, establish institutions for state governance on the West Bank and in Gaza under the leadership of Yasir Arafat.

King Hussein of Jordan was another key player in the unfolding drama of Palestinian national aspirations. After World War I, under the auspices of the League of Nations, the victorious Allied nations had set up “mandates” in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Transjordan (the first two under French control; the last three under British control). When Transjordan (today’s Jordan) became a mandate in 1920, it was a country of few resources, inhabited mostly by nomadic Bedouin tribes. Its composition would change radically in 1948, however, after the Palestine mandate was partitioned into Jewish and Arab states. The Transjordan mandate subsequently became a refuge for Palestinian Arabs, who fled the war and postwar upheavals in their homeland. After the war only two of its areas remained under Arab control: the west bank of the Jordan river (Transjordan occupied the East Bank) and a small coastal area around the city of Gaza known as the Gaza Strip. These two areas were to be the nucleus of a future Palestinian state. Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip; Jordan, of the West Bank. The population in Jordan had meanwhile been transformed; it now consisted mainly of Arab refugees from the former British mandate of Palestine, and it became King Hussein’s job to mediate between them and the original Bedouin inhabitants. It was a precarious balancing act, and the difficulty of it increased after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, in which the Jordanians lost control of the West Bank to Israel and a second exodus of refugees streamed into Jordan.

In “Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings” Adunis frequently evokes the Palestinian people through a line of metaphoric reference: “Jaffa’s face is a child” (“Petty Kings,” lines 1, 6–7, 115, 159, 186–90, 277). Jaffa was the Arab town that before 1948 dominated the region around Tel Aviv, and has since been largely engulfed by the growth of this much more economically vital Jewish Israeli city, just as the Palestinian inhabitants of the land have been displaced by new settlers. Since the first Arab Israeli war, especially since many in the first wave of refugees came from the area surrounding Jaffa, it has become a metaphor for the lost land of Palestine. Associating it with a “child’s face” alludes to an idealized view of innocence that has been trampled upon and lost, an image seared into Arab consciousness by newspaper photographs and newsreel footage of frightened Arabs fleeing Palestine after the 1948 war.

The surface assertion of Jaffa’s innocence in the poem, however, conceals the very different role Palestinians had been playing on the stage of Arab politics shortly before it was written, a role that would have been in the forefront of every reader’s mind. The image of the Palestinians in the post 1967 period changed from the suffering face of a Jaffa child into the confident, sometimes bullying figure of the fedayee (meaning “one who sacrifices himself for others”), the Palestinian militiaman trained in guerrilla warfare. Some of these fedayeen conceived of traditional leaders (like King Hussein), who, however tentatively, had sought some sort of accommodation with Israel, as their enemies. Under the pressure of such attitudes, a civil war erupted in Jordan in September 1970 between the early Palestinian refugees (allied to Hussein and the Bedouins) and the later refugees and leadership of the PLO. That this destructive internal warfare erupted at such a critical moment, in the wake of the 1967 war, only increased the sense of political disarray. Small wonder, given these conditions, that Adunis seizes on a comparison to the time of petty kings in his poem.

The Poem in Focus

“This Text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”

“This Text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”


Adunis exploits the fact that black, white, green, and red have been important colors in Arabic culture, with political and religious as welf as natural significance. Black was the dynastic color of the Abbasids; white, the dynastic color of the Umayyads during their rule, Thus, to say that the All’s face was “white or black” indicates his transcendence of allegiances to particular political causes. Red, and especially green, have a broader set of associations. First, they relate to the fertility of the earth, which turns green when hallowed by the blood of sacrifice. Green was the color of the Prophet Muhammad, used for his ceremonial flags and for his descendant’s turbans. Red was the dynastic color of the Nasrids, the fast Muslim rulers on the Iberian Peninsula, who named their palace, the Alhambra (“the red one” in Arabic) in recognition of this fact

“This Text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”


Throughout “Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings,” Adunis makes extensive use of lore about the Arabic alphabet The letter shapes themselves are frequently used as metaphors for parts of the human body or natural phenomena. For example, in fine 120 (“dial is a frame that sorrow fractures…”) the success of the image depends on the reader’s knowledge that in Arabic the letter dal (>) looks like a person seated in the bent-nover pasture of old age. Elsewhere the poem refers to other branches of the science of letters—the significance given them in the Quran, the numerical significance attached to them by pre-lslamlc Arabs, and their connection with medieval medicine, which involved the recitation of words containing certain letters, and the mixing of potions, including words written in ink on paper and dissolved in water to produce a mixture to drink.

“This Text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”

Nasser and the poets

In the period immediately following his death, Nasser was eulogized in extravagant terms by both ordinary people and intellectuals. Some compared him to the Biblical and Quranic prophets, as did Nizar Qabbani in his famous poem “Qatalnaka” (We Killed You). Its opening lines directly address the dead Egyptian president: “We killed you, last of the prophets/We killed you/This is nothing new for us, assassinating holy men and Muhammad’s companions” (Qabbani, p. 3; trans. T. DeYoung). Such provocative lines associating contemporary conflicts and fighting among the Arabs with historical events like Ali’s assassination clearly laid the ground for later works such as Adunis’s poem.

Other writers, like the Egyptian literary critics Luwis Awad and Ghali Shukri, waxed more optimistic. Nasser’s death, they thought, would lead to a reassessment by the Arab people of the role his nationalist ideas had played in their lives, and a stronger commitment to those goals. They celebrated this “rebirth” of idealistic commitment by comparing Nasser to a wide range of religious figures, including those whose death led directly to the renewal/rejuvenation of the land (like the dying gods of ancient fertility myths) and less direct models such as Jesus, whose death on the cross inspired his followers to believe in the salvational promise of Christianity.

During the time that Nasser lived among us… he… built for us a well-furnished nest… if the phoenix—as the myth goes—has burned itself up and become ashes, the divine fire will raise up a new phoenix to build a new nest. Indeed the resurrection of Christian Savior Jesus, the rise of the pagan Egyptian god Osiris and the return of the Babylonian god Tammuz have all been symbols of the return of the spirit to the burned-up ashes, they have become symbols of that minority of men whose lives after their death are transformed into a myth.

(Shukri, p. 7; trans. T. DeYoung)


In the third section of the poem, allusion is made to Qays and Layla, characters from Arabic literature; “Call me Qays and call the earth Layla/in the name of Jaffa” (“Petty Kings,” lines 191–92), Qays was one of the most famous Arabic love poets. He was called Majnun (“crazy” in Arabic) because his unfulfilled love for his cousin Layla drove him mad {see the Turkish adaptation Leyla and Mejnun , also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times).Majnun wandered insane through the desert, befriending animals who protected him from harm, but eventually dying from exposure, lay la returned his love, but her father wed her to another, Adunis, it seems, uses Majnun to invoke the ideas of obsession (leading to madness) and self-sacrifice The poet may have gone mad in a world in which violence and destruction are the norm but his willingness—even though he is not called to put that willingness into action—to sacrifice himself and die on behalf of his beloved Layla (here likened to an “earth mother”) may ultimately make that death worthwhile.

But even more illuminating for Adunis’s poem is how Nasser’s role as the “prophet” of Arab nationalism devolves into a portrayal of him as the spokesman and “poet” of Arab nationalism. “Nasser converges with poetry in one thing,” explains the Egyptian poet Abd al-Muti Hijazi, “both of them address themselves to the nation. Nasser has up to now been the single Arab leader who was able to… speak to the Arab people as whole and rouse within them a response to his sense of their unity” (Hijazi, p. 5; trans. T. DeYoung).

Traditionally the poet was the spokesman for his tribe. His poems were the records of the tribe’s valorous deeds, their tribulations and sufferings, their responses to their environment in an age when few could read or write. Later the poet became spokesman for the ruler, governor, or whatever bureaucratic functionary happened to be his patron. With few exceptions, these patrons were not well-trained in the art of persuading people or publicly conveying their views. They needed a poet to serve as intermediary between themselves and their subordinates at court, or the populace at large, knowing full well that a fine poet could effectively sway a ruler’s subjects by the almost hypnotic power of his words.

Nor were poets simply tools for their employers. They could, and often did, use their talent to call attention to the failings of those for whom they worked. The most famous medieval Arab poet, al-Mutanabbi, wrote biting satires that weakened—though they alone may not have destroyed—the careers of several patrons who displeased him. Certainly he fatally diminished these patrons in the eyes of posterity.

This attitude toward the Arab poet as both political spokesman and society’s conscience continued into modern times. Gamal Abdel Nasser, at least in the perceptions of his contemporaries, was the first modern political leader who seriously challenged this ancient division of labor. Nasser’s command of oratory left the contemporary poets in a very ambivalent situation. They admired him greatly for his personal traits, even when they criticized his policies sometimes overtly, but more often covertly, because Nasser’s minions enforced censorship with a heavy hand, sometimes to the point of imprisonment. Several leading intellectuals, including the novelist and playwright Yusuf Idris, received harsh prison sentences because of their political views during Nasser’s rule. Two years before writing his poem, Adunis had disassociated Nasser from this censorship and retribution, tying it instead to lesser functionaries in the Egyptian government, a plausible conviction since Nasser had progressively bureaucratized the regime’s role in cultural activities. The power to censor was largely handed over to old-line establishment figures, who slowed revolutionary change while allowing Nasser to portray himself as standing above the fray.

Two years later Adunis’s assessment of the relationship between poet and political leader was far less confident and optimistic about how closely the two could work together. Like many contemporaries, Adunis’s approach to Nasser was mixed—full of profound respect and uneasiness borne of the recognition that he did not fit into conventional categories.

Sources and literary context

Like most twentieth-century Arab poets, Adunis was greatly influenced by modernist poetic movements originating in the English-speaking world and Europe. Anglo-American modernism, including poets like T. S. Eliot, had the strongest impact, but in Francophone areas (and Adunis was educated in a French-language school), French poets such as Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Louis Aragon, and St. John Perse were also enormously popular.

In addition to direct influence from Western modernist writers, there was considerable interest in the kind of anthropological and comparative religion studies that helped inspire poems like Eliot’s The Waste Land.Like Eliot, Adunis and his contemporaries saw in the elaborate, historical researches of James Frazer in The Golden Bough and Jessie Weston in From Ritual to Romance fruitful models for re-examining and reinterpreting their own cultural heritage to emphasize its importance on the world stage and to introduce alternative interpretations of the past in the interest of preparing the way for rejuvenation and rebirth. This impulse was aided by Frazer’s examination of the persistence throughout Western history of images involving the dying and reborn gods of ancient fertility religions, with examples drawn from Arab rituals and customs. Part and parcel of this persistence, the language of Arab nationalism, with its emphasis on selfless devotion and sacrifice on behalf of others, can be seen in the portrayal of Nasser after his sudden death as prophet, poet, and mythically reborn god.

Literary context

“Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings” was first published the month following Nasser’s death in the Beirut literary journal Adunis edited himself, al-Mawaqif (Situations). Soon after, it was re-published in an anthology of poems commemorating Nasser (called Kitabat ala qabr Abd al-Nasir [Some Writings on Nasser’s Grave]. Produced in Lebanon, the anthology contained elegies by some of the most important young poets of the day (Adunis among them). These young poets mostly wrote in a style called al-shir al-hurr (sometimes translated as “free verse,” although it is not exactly identical to Western vers libre or free verse, because it still employs meter and rhyme). The style gave them far more autonomy than in the past, because it abandoned rigid rules of traditional Arab versification. There was meanwhile a parallel insistence on change in content: the freedom to treat new subject matter, to treat old subjects in new ways, to contradict entrenched political and cultural cliches, and to borrow from other world literatures that had not been heretofore accepted as legitimate influences on Arabic poetry. “Introduction to the Petty Kings” represented one of the most extreme examples of this trend.


[The poets] had been the guardians of the revolution. And some of them persisted in keeping their distance [from those in power] and continued to show their hostility both to the power of the state and to the [1952 Egyptian] revolution. But now that Nasser has passed away, the tears of the Arab poets for him have been released just as their songs about his victories flowed freely in earlier days.

(Hijazi, p, 10; trans. T. DeYoung)


In between the time “Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings” was first published in Adunis’s magazine and its appearance in the anthology, it was printed as one of two poems by Adunis in a set called Waqt bayn al-ramad wa-al-ward (A Time Between Ashes and Roses). The other poem, “Hadha huwa ismi” (This Is My Name), is understood to be an expression of Adunis’s reactions to the Arab defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The two poems (with the addition of a third, “Qabr min ajli Niyu Yurk” [A Grave Because of New York], the fruit of a trip Adunis made there) were reprinted in 1971 and again in 1972. It is from this last publication of “Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings” that most critics became familiar with the poem, and their reviews usually deal with it as part of the three-poem suite.

The three poems were recognized as very difficult works, especially “Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings.” It was felt that the challenge of decoding the many erudite and extremely technical references to a wide range of fields of knowledge would be beyond the resources of most readers, eliciting much the same reaction as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Ezra Pound’s Cantos.When confronted by these critical comments, Adunis himself is said to have quoted the reaction of the medieval Arab poet Abu Tammam, when a group of courtiers complained they could not make heads or tails of his poems and asked him to write more intelligibly: “Well, why don’t you make the effort to understand what I compose, instead?” (Adunis in Faddul, p. 297).

The exception to these somewhat bemused but nevertheless admiring assessments of “Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings” has come from diehard political supporters of Nasserism, who read the poem as an unequivocal attack on Nasser himself. Abbud Kanju dismisses it as a weak poem that tarnishes the image of those who struggle on behalf of Arabism and a poem that disparages the struggle itself (Kanju, p. 53). More judicious assessments by Ahmad Yusuf Dawud and Ali Ahmad Shar concur on the importance but also the difficulty of the poem. Perhaps most telling is a comment by the eminent critic Kamal Abu Deeb about the three-poem set: “[Adunis presents himself as] a rebel and force of destruction… but also a force of positive rejection with a tormenting love for his culture and country, he is certainly one of the greatest poets in the history of the language” (Abu Deeb, p. 36).

—Terri DeYoung

For More Information

Abu Deeb, Kamal. “The Perplexity of the All-Knowing: A Study of Adonis.” Mundus Artium 10, no. 1 (1977): 163–81.

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“Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings”

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“Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings”