“He was an extremely wise man,” muses the poet and artist Adonis as I question him about his latest exhibition of work. “That’s why the paint is swirling over the words; it shows he is lost in his thoughts.”
Adonis is describing the pre-Islamic Arabian poet Zuhayr, who wrote a poem in the sixth century describing a ruined house that he once inhabited and then a sudden rush of memory that enlivens the scene so vividly that the reader becomes enchanted.
Adonis has written the poem out by hand on a scroll of paper and then, using the poet’s personal qualities as inspiration, has painted on top of the work creating a new and contemporary interpretation of the text.
Zuhayr's ancient poem was one of the Muallaqat (The Suspended Odes) that were said to have been hung on the Kaaba in Mecca. There were seven poems that were most highly praised at that time and are still learnt and recited today.
The characters of the poets themselves have long since passed into legend and it is these fables that Adonis recounts during my visit to Salwa Zeidan Gallery in Abu Dhabi, where his work is showing.
“This man was a warrior and a revolutionary,” he continues, gesticulating towards a scroll; as well as bearing the words of the poem by Tarafa Ibn Al Abd, it is also covered with splashes of red and black, somehow revealing the tumultuous past of this tribesman who died at a young age.
But while Adonis is willing to impart his knowledge of the history of the poets, he is not forthcoming with theories nor is he willing to philosophise over the pieces that he finished only days before they were hung for this show.
“I don’t like to explain myself or my work. I would rather you make up your own mind,” he says.
The Muallaqat series are written out using different pens and inks, a decision that creates waves of movement and an aesthetic quality to the works that prevails even if the viewer is not able to read or comprehend literary Arabic.
The paint marks on top are abstract: part words, part patterns and part frenzied swirls, but they have been composed in a way that reveals a kind of poetry of their own.
“The painting is another poem,” Adonis agrees encouragingly. “Poetry is the amalgamation of structure, rhythm, voice and substance. It is much more than simply words.”
It is sentences like these, spoken in broken English, that merely hint at the creativity and intellect beneath. It is no wonder that this elderly man with sparkling eyes has earned the title “the greatest living Arab poet”.
Born in 1930 in rural Syria, Adonis, whose real name is Ali Ahmed Said, memorised and wrote poetry during his childhood. When he was 17, he recited one of his poems for the Syrian president Shukri Al Quwatli and was offered a series of scholarships to study writing and philosophy.
He adopted his pseudonym to give him more prominence but he received some rather unwanted attention for his highly charged political verses and was imprisoned for a year soon after.
Upon his release, Adonis moved to Beirut, where he published two books of experimental poetry and eventually took up a teaching post at the Lebanese University.
In the 1980s he fled to France to escape the civil war and started teaching at the Sorbonne University in Paris, the city where he still lives. He has been honoured many times and has won several international awards.
He has also been a perennial nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature – showing up year after year, but never winning – much to the chagrin of his followers and literary critics over the world.
He describes his exhibition in Abu Dhabi as “an homage from me to the great poetry of the past”, and by taking these ancient odes and refashioning them in a contemporary way, Adonis shows he is at great ease among his peers.
• Muallaqat runs until June 15 at Salwa Zeidan Gallery, Abu Dhabi. See www.salwazeidangallery.com for more information.
Anna Seaman is The National’s visual arts writer.