Sa'id, Ali Ahmad (1930–)

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Sa'id, Ali Ahmad

A noted Syrian modernist poet and essayist, Ali Ahmad Sa'id is arguably the greatest living Arab poet of the early twenty-first century.


Sa'id (known by the pseudonym Adonis) was born in January 1930 in the village of al-Qasabin near the Syrian seaport of Latakia. His family was Alawite, a sect of Shi'ite Islam, and lived in relative poverty in a village with no electricity. At the age of fourteen a great opportunity came his way in 1947 when Syria was celebrating the recently won independence and the newly elected president Shukri al-Quwwatli, who was touring the country. He stopped in the nearby town of Jabla and heard the young Sa'id recite a poem he had written. Sa'id impressed the president, and the poem won him a scholarship to continue his studies in a big city, Latakia.

During Sa'id's time in Latakia he became more politically conscious and was influenced by a Lebanese writer and politician, Antun Sa'aada, the founder of the pan-Syrian political party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). Sa'aada's writings greatly influenced a whole generation of young Syrians, and certainly left his imprint on Adonis, a pseudonym Sa'id adopted early on in his life and that has remained with him.

Sa'id soon moved to study at Damascus University around 1950. At the university he studied both literature and philosophy, graduating in 1954. He early on raised serious and controversial questions about old-fashioned Arabic literary conventions. He also raised equally controversial questions about the dire social and political realities in his country, Syria. Later he joined the Syrian army, and during his service his political activism with the SSNP landed him in prison. He sought exile in Beirut, Lebanon, after his release in 1956.

He quickly took to life in Lebanon, and became a naturalized citizen. He also moved away from the SSNP and pan-Syrianism. Sa'id found in Lebanon a nurturing environment for his poetic aspirations. He also got involved in the publishing of literary magazines, especially the seminal modernist poetry publication Sh'ir that he established in 1957 with the well-known poet Yusuf al-Khal. Sh'ir was a great forum for young poets who experimented with new forms of writing. In 1968 Sa'id founded the influential, avant-garde journal Mawaqif, which became widely circulated throughout the Arab world. Mawaqif focused on discussing experimental poetry. It proved to be a pivotal venue for aspiring writers who were attempting to break away from the rigid forms of poetry writing that had dominated for centuries.

He early on became an ardent believer that Arab societies had to undergo radical changes if they wished to catch up with the challenges of the twentieth century, and that they needed this change to be able to make their rightful contributions, as they had done so well during the past golden age in medieval times. He firmly believed that this was achievable if Arab heritage was revisited in its positive aspects.

In addition to his prolific poetry, Sa'id is credited for creating a new poetic language, new rhythms that distinguish themselves by being deeply rooted in the Arab classical tradition, while at the same time speaking of the contemporary predicaments within society. He is also credited for reviving and modifying an Arab classical form of the short poem (qit'a), experimented with widening the scope of the qasida (a pre-Islamic poetic form), and cemented the use of the so-called prose poem.

Sa'id has unabashedly criticized his countrymen for their shortcomings. His famous poem "A Mirror for Beirut" ("Mira'at li Beirut"), written in 1967, was celebrated throughout the Arab world. In 1982 when Beirut was under siege, he wrote a long poem that poignantly delineated the dilemma of the Arabs, titled "The Desert" ("Al-Sahara'").


Early in his twenties, Sa'id had created a persona and named it Mihyar the Damascene, who embodied his revolutionary vision and creative impulses. In 1961, he published Aghani Mihyar al-Dimasqhi (The Songs of Mihyar the Damascene), a landmark in modern Arabic poetry He spoke in it of "madness, the intimate friend as well as the ecstasy of madness." Sa'id's madness is by no means insanity, or the triumph of chaos over order. He uses madness more as an intellectual position, a position of rejection. His concept of madness is akin to the power to create a new language to bestow new meanings unto old identities.

Sa'id dedicated all his energies to unmask the oppression of the religious cultures and the corrupt sociopolitical institutions within the Arab world. He bemoaned the state of backwardness, the conditions of poverty, illiteracy, and the scourge of colonialism. Central among all these was the nakba (Arabic: disaster) of the loss of Palestine and the consequences of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. His poetry is marked by the history of defeats and disasters afflicting the Arab world in the second half of the twentieth century. Similar to most Arab poets, Sa'id has been deeply marked by these historical catastrophes and his poetry resonates with a sense of angst, which is a leitmotif of modern Arabic poetry.

Because of this, Sa'id has become the twentieth-century Arab theorist par excellence, in addition to being a leading poet. He has been often compared to the great T. S. Eliot, whose work has profoundly influenced a whole generation of Arab poets, and who, as Sa'id was with Arabic poetry, was the great theoretician of English poetry throughout the twentieth century in addition to being one of the most innovative poets of the Anglo-Saxon world.


Name: Al Ahmad Sa'id (known as Adonis)

Birth: 1930, al-Qasabin, Syria

Family: Wife, Khalida Sa'id

Nationality: Syrian, Lebanese citizenship (naturalized)

Education: BA (License), Philosophy, Damascus, Syria, 1954; Ph.D., Sorbonne, Paris, 1973


  • 1950: Publishes Dalila (his first collection of poetry)
  • 1956: Moves to Lebanon
  • 1957: Co-founds Shi'r magazine
  • 1960: Moves to study in Paris
  • 1961: Publishes Aghani mihyaral-Dimasqi (The Songs of Mihyar the Damascene)
  • 1968: Founds Mawaqif (journal)
  • 1970: Visiting professor of Arabic literature, Lebanese University
  • 1976: Visiting professor Damascus University
  • 1980: Professor of Arabic at the Sorbonne, Paris
  • 1985: Visiting professor at Georgetown University
  • 1986: Moves to Paris permanently
  • 2001: Awarded Goethe Medal

Sa'id's poetry is, however, not widely read by the masses within the Arab world, yet he is adored by the intelligentsia and read extensively in translation throughout the world. He has more than once been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature though, as of 2007, was never a finalist. He progressively writes a poetry that is less accessible to the average reader.

He has been compared to the Sufi (mystics) of the ninth and tenth centuries. His poems are microcosms that equate his vision of reality. All manifestations within his universe become themselves manifestations of an essential meaning. Two of the Sufi poets who have especially left their mark on his work are al-Niffari and al-Hallaj, the celebrated martyr of medieval fame. Sa'id has written poetry expressing his admiration and prophetic vision emulating these two great poets.

Modern Arab poets use symbolism extensively, and Sa'id is foremost among them. They have drawn heavily on Western (Greek and Christian) symbols. Sa'id is credited for having assimilated more prominently Sufi and Shi'ite symbolism in his writings, with their mythical, spiritual character, thus introducing a new element into the Arab culture.

Sa'id merges his political beliefs and philosophy of life with his vision of what modern Arabic poetry ought to achieve. He fundamentally believes in an all-encompassing revolution as the only means of destroying the old petrified structures. Unless this takes place then, he believes, all efforts to bring about the long yearned for change will fail. The decades of struggle that only culminated in the shameful Arab defeat in the 1967 War have been a tragic blow from which the Arabs have not yet recovered. Although Arabs often consider the 1973 War a victory, it is not so much a victory against the traditional enemy Israel, but rather a victory over themselves, their divisions, and their impotence.

Using subversive language, Sa'id continues to write revolutionary poetry. His controversial poem "A Grave for New York" (1971) has been both adulated and vilified. His equally vituperative language against his own people, the subtext being a hope that they wake from their torpor and take action, balances his harsh condemnation of the West. His dream remains an ardent wish to create a new world where peace and harmony will prevail.

Kamal Abu Deeb, a well-known critic, writes extensively about Sa'id. In an article oft-quoted, "The Perplexity of the All-Knowing" (1977), he writes:

"The oppression practiced by the religious culture, the sociopolitical institutions, the conditions of poverty, illiteracy and backwardness, the struggle against colonialism, class struggle, and the desperate search for national identity have not been the only realities which shaped the consciousness of Sa'id's generation… The confrontation with Israel, with defeats for the Arabs in 1948, 1956, and 1967, revealed the depth to which Arab society, political institutions and regimes have sunk: the poetry has embodied the bitterness, frustration and despair eating at the heart of Arab poets in these years. The Palestinian experience has radiated with a new poetic tone, a new symbolism, a new angst which forms a subterranean level of modern poetry."


In all his writings, Sa'id reveals his mastery of language and his power to structure a text as a master builder or architect. Some of his more recent poetry has lost the abstractness of his earlier work of the 1970s. He has displayed a new fondness for the poetry of place, in contrast to his poetry of time. In these texts places such as Cairo, Fez, Marrakech, or San'aa appear with their powerful material presence and distinctive realities.


No matter how many points of view there are on the veiling of Muslim women, it is possible to say that they are mere interpretations. For there is no categorical text mandating the veil, as religious fundamentalists would have us believe. There are only interpretations of traditions or proverbs, that have been handed down (mathu'rat).

In summary I am saying that the religious interpretation which calls for imposing the veil upon Muslim women living in a secular country which separates religion and politics and in which men and women are equal in rights and obligations shows a mentality that doesn't only veil women, but seeks to veil humanity, society and life too. It seeks to veil the mind.


Sa'id remains bold in his writings. His al-Kitab (The Book), invoking the name of the Holy Qur'an, has a complex structure of dividing the page into four sections of texts and margins, each representing a different aspect of Arab history and using a different voice, and centered on the persona of the great Arab poet al-Mutanabii. This spirit of daring has kept him in the forefront of the modernist movement and has allowed his poetry to remain an undisputed inspiration to the younger generations of poets.


Adonis. The Blood of Adonis: Transpositions of Selected Poems of Adonis. Translated by Samuel Hazo. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971.

Deeb, Kamal abu-. "The Perplexity of the All-Knowing," Mundus Artium 10 (1977): 178-179.

Khouri, Mounah Abdallah. An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

                                                Mona Mikhail