The mighty pen

Syrian poet, artist and calligrapher Adonis exhibits in Abu Dhabi Discuss this article

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Think of Adonis and you probably picture the Greek god, statuesque and proud. But to others, the name evokes a greater beauty in the work of the Syrian poet, artist and calligrapher.

This month, the Salwa Zeidan Gallery on Saadiyat Island welcomes a solo exhibition by the Syrian poet, writer and artist Ali Ahmad Said Esber, known by his pen name Adonis, or Adunis. The show, entitled ‘Muallaqat’, will feature 10 large-scale calligraphy drawings and is running from now until June 15.

Salwa Zeidan, the owner of the gallery, says, ‘This is a collection of Adonis’s latest work and this will be the first showing. We’re proud to host such a culturally significant figure and even prouder to be the first to show this work.’

Recognised globally as one of the most accomplished and important Arab poets, Adonis has written numerous books in Arabic, many of which have been translated to English. His writings have earned him several awards, including a Goethe award, a German literary prize given out every three years. Moreover, he has 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.

Born in 1930 in Syria, Adonis began studying poetry at a young age when his father encouraged him to memorise poetry while he worked on their farm. After being given the opportunity to recite one of his poems for the then Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli in 1947, he was offered a series of scholarships to study writing and philosophy.

At the age of 17, after suffering the rejection of his work from several different magazines, he decided to adopt the pen name Adonis to increase his chances of publication. A fiercely political writer, Adonis was a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist party – an affiliation that brought him a year in prison.

Upon his release, Adonis moved to Beirut in Lebanon, where, over the course of several years, he launched two publications focusing on experimental poetry, playing with unconventional structure and technique.

Continuing to move around, Adonis studied in Paris from 1960 to 1961, returned to Lebanon to teach at Lebanese University, then fled back to France to escape the Lebanese Civil War in 1980. He assumed a position as professor of Arabic at the Sorbonne from 1980 to 1981.

Today, he continues to enjoy a reputation throughout the world as a respected writer and poet, as well as an active philosopher and political thinker. In the series on display, he nods to his predecessors in this respect by portraying historic Arabic poetry on canvas as visual art.

The Muallaqat, also spelled Mu’allaqat, refers to a group of seven Arabic poems that date back to pre-Islamic times. The word itself means suspended odes, or hanging poems, referring to the fact that these poems were hung on display in Mecca.

The collection is said to have been compiled by Hammad Ar-Rawiya, an early eighth century Arab scholar. The original seven poems were composed by the poets Umroua Al Kais, Zuhair, Turfa, Hares Bin Halza, Amro Ibn Kultoon, Antarah Bin Chaddad and Labeed. These seven authors lived over a period of more than 100 years with the earliest, Umroua Al Kais, believed to have lived during the sixth century.

Over the centuries since their compilation, other notable Arabic writers have been included among them, but the general belief is that these are the seven original authors. In his homage to this collection, Adonis has also included the work of three prominent poets often attributed and appended to the Muallaqat: Obeid Ibn Al Abrass, Al Asha and Al Nabigha.

The poems vary in their subject matter, but mainly centre on everyday concerns of Bedouin life. For example, one poem is a detailed description of a camel, while some of the others offer tribal wisdom from ancient Arab chieftains. In this exhibition, Adonis uses his fluid calligraphy and graphics to bring to life the work of these ancient writers through the lens of a contemporary literary figure.
On display from now until June 15. Free. Open Sun-Thu 10am-7.30pm, Sat 2pm-8pm. Salwa Zeidan Gallery, The Collection at The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Saadiyat Island, (02 666 9656).

By Caroline McEneaney
Time Out Abu Dhabi,

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