What It’s Like to Work for Adonis

It’s Nobel Day, which means that, around the world, curiosity-seekers such as myself will be glued to their computers at 1 p.m. CET.

With “Arab Spring” chatter in the air, it becomes perhaps more likely but certainly less pleasant to think about an Arab or Arabic-writing author taking the literary prize of prizes. It’s both fortunate and unfortunate that we can’t return to 1988, when Naguib Mahfouz was chosen from an Arab shortlist of Mahfouz, Yusuf Idris, Tayeb Salih, and Adonis—to worldwide surprise.

If the Nobel Prize committee wanted to surprise us now, they certainly couldn’t choose Adonis, who has topped the gossip charts for weeks now. Even readers who’ve never glanced at one of his poems know his name and basic biography.

Other Arab names are circulating: Zakaria Tamer, Assia Djebar, Ibrahim al-Koni, Elias Khoury, Samih al-Qasim, Hanan al-Shaykh, Leila Aboulela, Alaa al-Aswany, Tahar Ben Jelloun. (No Bensalem Himmich? And why no Sonallah Ibrahim? Am I the only Sonallah Ibrahim partisan here?) But Adonis remains the top of the charts, by virtue of—well, by virtue of, politics aside, deserving the thing.

I still don’t really think he’ll get it, although there’s no pinning down the politics of The Committee. But just in case, I enjoyed re-reading Samuel Shimon’s “autobiographical novel” An Iraqi in Paris, for the parts where the titular Iraqi works for a famous Arab poet who he pseudonymizes as “Adams.”

It was a sunny day and many young people were sitting in the open space in front of the Centre Pompidou. I was walking along oblivious to everything when I bumped into the poet Adams. He was wearing a grey trilby and carrying his pipe and some French newspapers. I was delighted to see him. Immediately he said, ‘Let’s walk a little around this lovely place!’ But he stopped suddenly and turned to me, ‘When I met you just now you were looking so sad.’

‘I wasn’t sad, I was miles away in a very melancholy story that I had just finished reading in the Centre Pompidou.’

‘A story by whom?’

‘Scott Fitzgerald. It’s a story called “Babylon Revisited.” I read it twice.’

Adams stood for a while, thoguhtful. ‘A beautiful title,’ he remarked, adding, ‘It is a great thing when someone reads a literary text and interacts with it.’

Adams had decided to live in France permanently and was giving some lectures at the College of France. The French newspapers were writing that he was a strong candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature that year (and he was to remain on the list of nominees for several years more).

‘What part of Paris do you live in?’ he asked me.

‘In all of Paris!’ I said, laughing. I was without a houes after being decieved by a friend, I explained, and told him the old story of the studio in Rue de Babylone.

Adams shook his head and said, ‘Didn’t I tell you when I met you the first time that you’ll never get anything from Arabs except headaches?’ After a moment’s silence, he wasked me, ‘Do you have a profession?’

‘I can type — and in Arabic, of course.’

‘Excellent!’ he declared, and busied himself with filling his pipe and lighting it. ‘I’m looking for someone to type up the manuscript of my new book, which is huge. Let’s go up to my apartment and talk about it.

As we began to discuss the typing of his work, he said he couldn’t pay me more than eight francs per page. He suggested giving me an advance of 2,000 francs so that I could go to a hotel ‘at least for two weeks.’

‘Isn’t that a reasonable solution?’

‘Very reasonable. I will never forget this good turn.’

‘Don’t think about it You’re a good person.’

We arranged to meet the next day at the same place so that I could take the manuscript, and from that day we became friends. Over the following years I was to type many of his books and he was to help me financially — even without me having to type anything.

Of course, the picture he paints of “Adams” isn’t always this glowing:

“True, Faiza was beautiful, but I was still struck by the fact that all my friends asked me this question. Whenever any of them saw me with her, it was ‘Have you fucked her?’ Even our great poet Adams asked me, maybe two or three times – ‘Do you fuck that lovely girl?'”


  1. I’d just read aloud Adonis’ “Beginnings of the Body, Ends of the Sea” with my wife the other night, so this morning we’re both sitting around the breakfast table grumpily disappointed with the Swedes. Still, his not getting an award doesn’t change the quality of the literature. That’s a great passage above; I’ll look up the Shimon book. And you have my full support for your Sonallah Ibrahim partisanship; I’m still on a mission to get “Amrikanli” into English, so that at the very least (10 years after it was written) my fellow San Franciscans can be aware that there’s a great Arabic novel about THEM.

    1. Well, I won’t be like the Philip Roth partisans who say, “If not X, then no one!” I don’t know Transtromer’s work, and I’m sure it’s lovely. (And it was quite funny to hear the roar come out of the Swedes when the committee announced for T.T.)

      I’m afraid Sonallah’s going to need some international prize in order to get more of his work in English. In the way that Khoury was suddenly “discovered” in 2006, which got his works, even his older ones, into English. Otherwise everyone’s looking for the new, new, new.

  2. Tranströmer is bloody awesome.

    1. Okay, but the downside is, how do I make an umlaut on this keyboard?

  3. press the o and then hit the keyboard with your head twice? then shout: um, laut? 😉 (i just cheat and either copy from word or from google. i do that for motörhead, too.)

  4. Sweden calling here. No need to worry: the members of the Swedish Academy don’t focus very much (or at all) on what’s available in English. And Sonallah is well represented in French translation, so no doubt they know what he’s about. And over here, I’ve heard his name mentioned during the last weeks as a possible Arabic award winner, along with Himmich, al-Koni and Salim Barakat (and of course mr. We-All-Know-Who).

    1. Yes, Richard has done an excellent job of making Sonallah available in French. Too bad (for English readers, not The Committee) there isn’t a parallel translator making him available in English.

      I’m glad Sonallah’s name was in the mix…even if I didn’t hear it in English-language or Arabic-language press.

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