In Greek Mythology, Adonis has a complex role. As god of beauty and desire, he also presides over the life-death-rebirth cycle, over the promise and peril of eternal youthfulness, over vegetation and fertility, and has been one of the most studied, oft-debated of the gods, the allusions linked to him at once fascinating and layered.
That explains a lot about why Ali Ahmad Said Esber, with a mix of prescience and precociousness, gave himself the pen name Adonis at age 17, to alert publishers to his talent and to what he calls his ‘pre-Islamic, pan-Mediterranean muses’. And he has more than lived up to his chosen nom-de-plume, exerting, to quote The Guardian, “a seismic influence on Arab poetry comparable to T S Eliot’s in the Anglophone world.”
Widely called the greatest living poet of the Arab world, Adonis is among the legends of 21st century literature, a writer nominated virtually every year since 1988 for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
He has also, in the process, lived a life possibly even more compelling than his mythical namesake. Born in Latakia in northern Syria to an Alwawite family, he worked with his father in the fields from an early age, but the physical work wasn’t at the cost of challenging the mind. His father had him memorise poetry and recite it as they worked, and it wasn’t long before Adonis was composing his own.
In 1947 he had the opportunity to recite a poem for Syrian president Shukri Al-Kuwatli which led first to a scholarship to school, then to the Syrian University in Damascus where he studied philosophy. “I’d never seen a car, electricity or a telephone till I was 13. I always ask myself how I was transformed into this other person; it was almost miraculous,” he told The Guardian.
In the over 60 years since, Adonis founded literary magazines and received criticism for his experimental poetry, went to prison for his beliefs, then moved to Beirut where he spent much of his writing life before later relocating to France. He came to define and form much of the Neo-Sufi trend in modern Arabic poetry, and is seen as a rebel who forms his own rules, contending that “Arabic poetry is not the monolith this dominant critical view suggests but is pluralistic, sometimes to the point of self-contradiction.”
In the course of a breathtaking career he has taught Arabic literature in Beirut and at the Sorbonne in Paris, has written over 20 volumes of poetry in Arabic, and become the defining literary figure of a region where poetry is revered. He has won over 40 awards and laurels including poetry’s respected Goethe Prize in 2011 and the admiration of literary masters like V S Naipaul, who calls him a “master of our times”.
To try and encapsulate his career in arresting phrases is tempting but simplistic: this is a man who has seen much, experienced much, created much; work that is already acknowledged as being part of the classics, of literature that will shape generations to come.