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East meets West

August 28, 2011

Syrian poet Adonis is the recipient of this year's Goethe Prize for "transposing Europe's modern achievements into the Arab world," the jury said.

Syrian poet Adonis
Adonis is considered a pioneer in Arab poetryImage: DPA

A profound sense of mourning and consternation about the loss of humanity marks Adonis' poem, "A Grave for New York," from 1971: "Like plants in glass gardens. Wretched, invisible creatures penetrate the texture of space like dust - spiral victims." He read the poem, which is part of his "A Time Between Ashes and Roses" collection, at Berlin's cultural festival, "Berliner Festspiele" in 2003.

Poet and writer Adonis was born Ali Ahmad Said Esber in Syria in 1930. He got his first taste of success with poetry as a teenager, when he recited a poem to then Syrian president Shukri al-Kuwatli. That recitation led to a series of scholarships, with the young man graduating from Damascus University with a philosophy degree in 1954. It wasn't until he took the pen name Adonis - after the mythological god of fertility - that his poetry began to be published.

Book covers of Adonis' works in German
Adonis' works have been widely translatedImage: Ammann Verlag

Following imprisonment due to political activities in Damascus, Adonis fled to Beirut in 1956. There, he married Khalida Said, who would later become one of the Arab world's most influential literary critics, and continued to write poetry. It was in Beirut that he also founded several periodicals that published experimental poetry.

Elegance and mysticism

Studying on scholarship in Paris in the 1960s, he later became professor of Arabic literature at the University of Lebanon. In 1980, fleeing the war in Lebanon, Adonis immigrated to France for good.

Considered a pioneer of modern Arabic poetry, his international breakthrough came with the publication of his book of poetry "Songs of Mihyar the Damascene" in 1961. Infusing his early poetry with Sufi mysticism, it is his elegant style that has won the hearts of poets around the world.

A view to the future

Having published over 30 books, he has forged new ground in poetry, with Moroccan writer and poet Taher Ben Jalloun calling Adonis "the most important living poet in modern Arab poetry" in French newspaper Le Monde in 1982.

Yet Adonis has remained an outspoken critic when it comes to politics, and his views have often been prophetic. In an interview with Deutsche Welle in 2001, he gave his estimation of the developments in the Arab world: "If the political situation in the Arab region does not change, if our leaders do not begin thinking about the people rather than how they can hold onto their power, then catastrophe will rain down in a way no one can begin to imagine."

Just like Goethe

Syrian poet Adonis in Teheran, 2005
In Teheran, 2005Image: DW

Adonis is an avowed laicist and believes that Arab culture and politics can develop only through the secularization of society. In an interview with German weekly Die Zeit in 2002, he said, "Arab culture is brilliant when religion does not dictate how things should be. Everything in Arab culture that is free of that is extraordinary."

He views the poetry in his books, newspaper articles and lectures as a cultural project of "civilizing" or educating that can contribute to the renewal of Arab culture.

Adonis now travels back and forth between Paris and Beirut. East and West encounter each other best in art and poetry, he believes - much like Germany's most famous poet, Goethe, who once wrote, "He who knows himself and others will also recognize: Orient and Occident are no longer separable."

The Goethe Prize is one of Germany's most prestigious literary prizes awarded every three years by the city of Frankfurt in honor of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's birthday on August 28. It is not restricted to writers. Past winners include Sigmund Freud (1930), Max Planck (1945), Walter Gropius (1961) and Pina Bausch (2008).

Author: Lina Hoffmann / als
Editor: Kate Bowen