May 26, 2011 / 12:57 AM / in 9 years

Syrian poet Adonis wins Germany's Goethe prize

* Prestigious award for secular Syrian poet

* ‘Pagan poet’ is scathing critic of Arab rulers

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN, May 25 (Reuters) - Syrian poet Adonis, who has championed democracy and secular thought in the Middle East, was awarded Germany’s prestigious Goethe Prize on Wednesday.

“The selection committee considered Adonis the most important Arab poet of his generation and granted him the prize for his cosmopolitan (work) and contribution to international literature,” the German government said in a statement.

It said Adonis, who calls himself “the pagan poet” will receive the 50,000 euro ($70,320) prize, which is awarded every three years, at a ceremony in Frankfurt, Goethe’s home city, on Aug. 28.

The announcement came as an uprising against autocratic rule, inspired by the revolutions that toppled the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, is sweeping Adonis’ homeland Syria, despite a crackdown that has killed hundreds of civilians.

Adonis has refrained from openly criticising Syrian authorities during the uprising.

But he launched a scathing attack three weeks ago on all Arab rulers as “leaving behind nothing except breakdown, backwardness, retreat, bitterness and torture. They gathered power. They did not build a society. They turned their countries into a space of slogans without any cultural or human content.”

He said the uprising in Syria would test whether the Arab revolution would succeed in building “human civic life” that rises above religion.

Referring to fears that Arab uprisings might usher in Islamist rulers, he expressed scepticism that even “moderate Islam” would offer rights to non-Muslims.

Born as Ali Hamid Saeed Esber in 1930 in the mountain village of Qassabin overlooking the Mediterranean, Adonis hails from a long tradition of Arab poets who have acted as a force for modernity against strict interpretations of religious texts.

But even supporters find it hard to follow the intense imagery and complex verse that has been his hallmark.

He has little sympathy for theories that seek to mould the Middle East into a single Arab Islamic culture, marginalising ethnic minorities and diversity of thought.

A self-styled literary “revolutionary”, he broke away from traditional Arab poetry which from pre-Islamic times espoused simple forms and language to convey profound themes about politics, love, culture and philosophy.

“I think that I’m a wave, travelling, since the days of Gilgamesh (a Sumerian king who ruled more than 4,000 years ago), toward Beirut and the Arabs,” he wrote in “Hand of Poetry, Open the book of the Horizon”.

Adonis was educated in a French high school before graduating from Damascus University in the 1950s and moving to Beirut, the cultural heart of the Arab Middle East.

He left during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and moved to France, but he still visits Damascus.

Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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