You’re the author of over 50 books of poetry and criticism. Have you written everything you wanted?

It’s impossible, because words can never express everything. Everything that is not finite requires infinite forms of expression. I’m lucky that the world remains very rich with meaning, and you can always discover aspects of it you can recount. That’s how the world remains open, and that’s why one has always to oppose things that keep the world closed – religion and ideology – because they both tell you: ‘this is the truth’.

Adonis, Arab poet, critic and thinker.
Adonis, Arab poet, critic and thinker.
Photo: Torstein Blixfjord. Artwork: Untitled, 2011, mixed media on paper, by Adonis.

You recently announced you were retiring from poetry. Why?

I have not retired; I am expressing myself in different forms. For me, poetry is a very wide concept. It’s not simply about writing a poem – that’s not what poetry is. For me, poetry is existence itself expressed in different forms – words, calligraphy, music, love.

Has written poetry lost its power?

Creative writing requires creative reading. I find that generally in today’s world the standard of creative reading is weak. No-one reads creatively. There are two kinds of reading and two kinds of writing: the vertical and the horizontal. The vertical is based on asking questions, it deals with existence: what is my role here; what is the meaning of my existence? Poetry in that sense is a vertical process. Horizontal reading reflects the consumer culture; it’s based on the answer, on consuming, on passivity. For the horizontal concept of the world, quantity is more important. That’s why the most banal novelist will sell many more copies than the most important philosopher. I believe this to be one of the manifestations of the current crisis in civilization.

What are the consequences of this horizontal view?

We become machines. We no longer enjoy the sense of individual freedom. Even democracy is in crisis: the larger numbers are winning, but that doesn’t mean the most important policies are winning.

What is democracy to you?

To me, democracy is consciousness. It’s the true ability to choose. It’s culture. But unfortunately, this has been eroded, it does not exist. That’s why I have reservations about the type of democracy we live in.

You said once that fixed identities don’t exist. How can you support this idea in a world obsessed with identities – ethnic, national, religious?

I respect everybody’s feelings, beliefs and desires, but I believe that religious and ethnic identities are blind. One’s true identity is their humanity. It’s not that you belong to this land, or this nationality, or this group: you belong to a universal humanity. And when you belong to humanity, your identity is always open. There’s an old Arab saying: ‘All countries that have become my home, are my country.’ I think the fact that ethnic and religious identities are becoming more ingrained is part of the crisis of civilization.

Is it possible to overcome this crisis?

In the long term, I am optimistic, because humans were always capable of finding new ways, new solutions. But in the short term, I am very pessimistic. Our societies are being destroyed. The way our people are calling on foreign powers to come and liberate us from our oppressors only increases our dependency and shows our weaknesses.

What do you identify as the Arab world’s biggest problem?

Religion and the use and abuse of it both by internal forces and foreign powers. I am not against individual faith; my opposition is to the religious institution. Why should our education be religious? Why should poetry be religious? Why should relationships be governed by religion? I believe that Muslims must deepen their faith but also strive to live as one society, not against each other. The problem is that today, Islam is a religion with no culture; the culture has been eroded. Islam is now a series of slogans and rituals and very simplistic ideas, but it is no longer ingrained in its culture – it has lost its cultural depth.

Adonis was interviewed at London’s Mosaic Rooms. Giedre Steikunaite is a freelance writer