Arab poet Adonis’ body of work is inspired by passion

For the world-famous Arabian poet Adonis, love, womanhood and his wife still provide much to wax lyrical about when he puts pen to paper.

Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Esber, better known as Adonis, is in Abu Dhabi to take part in this evening’s ‘Reflections of Poetry and Music’ event at The Emirates Palace. Satish Kumar / The National
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For the world-famous Arabian poet Adonis, love, womanhood and his wife still provide much to wax lyrical about when he puts pen to paper.

In Greek mythology, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was the lover of Adonis, known for his good looks and for being both loving and beloved.

But in the case of the Arabian poet Adonis, who has earned his own legendary status as the Arab world’s greatest living writer of verse, his muse – and his Aphrodite – is his wife, Khalida.

“The most beautiful and sweetest thing in this world, is a woman,” says the 85-year old Syrian poet, whose real name is Ali Ahmad Said Esber.

Adonis, the poet, who holds Lebanese and French citizenship, performs at The Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi tonight.

He will recite his poetry alongside Iraqi oud master Naseer Shamma in an evening entitled Reflections of Poetry and Music as part of the Abu Dhabi Classics international concert season, presented by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.

“I will be reciting poems on the woman,” he says. “She is the pillar of society.

“If she is free and happy and loving and beloved – the society and its children are free, happy and loving. It starts and ends with a woman.

“I will talk about love and the woman. The words on the body of a woman and the relation we have with a woman’s body.”

Adonis is recognised as one of the greats of Arab literature, his work is studied at schools and universities in the Arab world and in translation at European universities.

He has been described by the literary theorist Edward Said as “today’s most provocative and daring Arab poet”.

Adonis has written thousands of lines of poetry, published more than eight collections of books that have been translated into dozen of languages.

They include Adonis: Selected Poems (2010), Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs (2008), If Only the Sea Could Sleep (2002), and The Blood of Adonis (1971), which won the International Poetry Forum’s Syria-Lebanon Award.

He has more than 25 awards under his belt, including the first International Nazim Hikmet Poetry Award (1995), and the Brussels Highest Award of the International Poem Biennial (1986).

In a career spanning six decades, Adonis has also been a perennial nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but never a winner, much to the chagrin of his followers and literary critics.

Adonis simply smiles when asked about the Nobel prize.

“It is all OK,” he says. “I just want people to enjoy, dream, forget all they know and to reflect when they read my work.”

It has been quite a journey for a man who was born to a poor family of farmers in Latakia’s Al Qassabin village and who had no formal schooling – learning poetry with help from his father.

“He was my best friend,” the poet says. “Truly.

“He believed in me – I always tell parents this, ‘be your child’s best friend, let them live, let them explore and just be’.”

The poet adopted the pen name Adonis at an early age – determined to succeed and supported by a family who nurtured his curiosity and thirst for knowledge.

“First thing we need to clarify is it is not a Greek Adonis I am named after, but a Lebanese one,” he says, explaining that Adonis is the Hellenised form of the Phoenician word “Adoni” meaning lord or great one.

The 12-year-old Ali had written a poem he wanted published. His father encouraged him to send the poem to as many newspapers as he wanted, even as far as Beirut.

“But they all rejected it,” he says. “I then remembered the legend of Adonis who went out hunting for a wild boar, but it was the boar that killed him. I felt like the newspapers were the wild boars stomping on me, trying to kill the love and beauty captured in my poem. So I resent the poem signed ‘Adonis’, and one of the local newspapers in Latakia accepted it and published it.

“They then sent a letter and asked to meet me. So I went and told my father, who said, ‘Go, you are a man now’.

“And so I went, alone in poor ragged clothes as I was just a poor peasant boy.

“I showed up at the newspaper and the editor who met me stood up in shock and said: ‘You are Adonis?’ ‘Yes’, I said.

“He then took me to the editor in chief, who also stood up and looked down at me and said: ‘You are Adonis?’ and for the second time I said: ‘Yes. It is me, I am Adonis’.”

One of Adonis’s greatest influence is the work of the 10th-century Arab poet Abu At-Tayyib Ahmad ibn Al Husayn Al Mutanabbi, known to the world as Al Mutanabbi, and who is said to have revolutionised Arab poetry.

“He gave the poet power, ruling power,” Adonis says. “Unfortunately, today, there is no role for a poet in an Arab world.

“It is sad that despite coming from among the world’s most famous poets and writers, Arabs today can be the most ignorant and most judgemental,” he says.

“A country without poetry is a country without a soul.”

When asked about Syria, Adonis shakes his head.

“Tragic. A senseless, pointless destruction of humanity and civilisation. Fighting violence with more violence just creates more violence.”

Holding up a white piece of paper, he says: “I see the Arab revolutions as one. On one side of the page, you have the revolutions, and on the other side, you have the regime. They are both on the same paper.”

As for his style, Adonis says he does not have a “specific” style, but that his writing is always evolving. He tends to use a more freestyle format, sometimes open ended, with themes on everything from childhood to death to hunger to thoughts and feelings.

He is, he says, like a tree that is “very well grounded but with branches that stretch wide and far, always seeking and curious to see and sense what is around and what the wind brings”.

No politics though. “I avoid nationalistic pieces,” he says. “The truth of politics is founded on the death of truth.”

As well as passion for prose, his other loves include dark chocolate and bitter Arabic coffee.

One of his latest projects includes his memoirs (which he will call the Horns of the Sun), as well as seminars inspired by a verse from the Quran: “God alters not what is in a people unless they alter what is in themselves,” [Ar-Rad/Thunder, Verse 11].

“The Arabs have it in them to be something greater than where they are now,” he says.

“They have the passion and the curiosity and the nosiness to know everything about everyone and everything. They just need to focus it in the right direction.

“They need to stop being consumers and start creating. It is in them, they just got too comfortable and too lazy to push themselves from within.

“We need to change within ourselves before we can change anything outside.

“I want us to revise how we look at ourselves, how we look at our past and reanalyse ourselves and our culture and its relation to the world.

“It is important to create a new picture for the Arabs, a more honest one and one we can build on again.”

If he could relive his life and do it all over again, what would he be?

“A simple farmer,” he says.

“I would work on my land, feel Mother Earth with my own hands each day, thanking nature for its many blessings. It is terrible what we have done to the planet.

“In the end, I am just a simple peasant at heart.”