The pearl merchant who treated words like pearls
On 4 January of this millennium the UAE lost one of its most prominent sons, Sultan Al Owais – poet, businessman, and philanthropist. Dr Shihab M Ghanem pays tribute.
Although I had heard of Sultan Al Owais earlier, it was only in 1978, when the first edition of his book of verse was published that I became interested to meet him. Soon after I was introduced to him by the poet Hamad Bushihab who had written the introduction of the book of verse, and whose office at that time was in the same building as Sultan's offices. I liked the man's modesty, politeness, clarity of thinking and poetic talent and we immediately became friends.
Sultan Al Owais was born in the village of Al Hirah in Sharjah in 1925 to a cultured well-to-do family who produced several poets such as Salem Al Owais (1887-1959). Sultan was also closely related to Sheikh Saqr Al-Qasimi (1925-1993) an ex-ruler of Sharjah and a prominent UAE poet. Sultan, together with his friends Sheikh Saqr and Khalfan Musabah (1923-1946) are referred to by writers about 20th Century poetry in the UAE as the Hirah Group. Like Salem Al Owais, they wrote in standard Arabic and not in the vernacular form. But whereas Salem belonged to the classical school, they, especially Sultan and Khalfan, were influenced by the romantics and modernists.
Sultan's father Ali Al Owais was a pearl merchant and Sultan as a young man would accompany him on business trips to places like India where he spent several years. Sultan developed a business acumen and soon became one of the most successful businessmen in the UAE, chairing a national bank and developing various businesses, both in trade and industry. He also continued to collect pearls and eventually had one of the largest collections in the world which he donated a few years ago to his bank to remain in a showcase.
Meanwhile his love for poetry never subsided. It continued throughout his life. Through his relative Sheikh Saqr he began to meet poets and writers in Lebanon such as Fouad Al-Khashen, Ahmed Abu Sad and Badi Shabli who published his first poem in his magazine Alwurood in Beirut in 1970.
Sultan stated once in an interview that he started writing at the age of 20 but considered himself a poet only after writing the poem entitled A Rose. When I informed him that I was working on an anthology of translations of UAE poetry he selected that particular poem which I translated and included in my book Pearls and Shells. The poem is an example of his meditative poetry, although he is better known for his sensuous love poems. He did, however, write some poems about the struggle of his country and the Arab nation:
O rose! whose petals are touched by the dew
Which perfumes souls and hearts
You are in this world an enigma,
Your behaviour remains a mystery,
For you encase your life in the walls of your bud,
As though your fragrance is not well-loved.
And when you are about to bid life farewell
Only then do you offer the gift of your scent.
Is bestowing your fragrance upon this world
A duty that you have to perform?
Does it convey your happiness that withering seems near?
For you have always wished to escape from this life.
I have been loth to pluck you from the hedgerow,
But if plucking is a must, let it be performed with love.
Sultan became one of the most prominent philanthropists in the history of the UAE, donating hundreds of millions of Dirhams for the construction of several projects such as the Baraha Hospital in Dubai, the main mosque at Dhayd, several dams in the Northern Emirates and various schools and hospitals in the UAE and other Arab countries.
In 1988 he established the bi-annual Al-Owais prize for culture managed by the UAE Writers Association in four fields namely poetry, literary criticism, novels (or plays/short stories) and futuristic studies. In 1994 an independent foundation, carrying his name was established for managing the prize and the finance for the prize was arranged such as to ensure its continuity after his death. Later he added a fifth prize for achievement. Each of the five prizes is worth one hundred thousand dollars. Over the past decade the prizes were received by well-known poets, writers and intellectuals from various countries in the Arab world. No UAE citizen has been awarded the prize so far.
Al Owais also established an annual prize for UAE citizens for the encouragement of research and innovation under the control of the Dubai based Cultural and Scientific Association. I was myself honoured to receive one of these prizes from him last year.
Sultan Al Owais himself received many awards, the most important being the award by HH Sheikh Zayed of the Federal Medal that is given normally only to Rulers of the Emirates. He was also honoured in 1987 by the UAE Writers Association and was selected as the Personality of the Year as part of Sheikh Hamdan's prize for Excellence in Educational Performance for his contribution to education during the last prize-giving ceremony. The Arab League also honoured him recently for his poetry and support of culture.
There are several editions of his book of verse, each new edition containing his new poems in addition to the old ones. He was not prolific. His last and largest edition contains about eighty poems most of which are quite short but well polished. He chose his words carefully as if he was selecting pearls. After all he started as a pearl merchant!
Whenever he presented a copy of his book of verse to a poet he would improvise a line of verse as a dedication. He once gave me a copy of his book and wrote on the first page in verse:
"I present you with my poetry. My poetry is my feelings. Perhaps you will therefore find my words acceptable".
When I told him that I was planning to produce a new volume of translations of UAE poetry he suggested that I consider including his poem Rio de Janeiro, which was one of his favourite poems. It is typical of his poetry which often is descriptive and sensuous:
Rio de Janeiro
You are the city of love, O! Rio
And its no wonder that love abides where joy is abundant.
Your plains, your hills, your people
Wake up and sleep to your smile.
Each day you show them forms of beauty
Full of pleasure in different hues.
You are unique in this earth,
Like a fragment from paradise
Brought down and inadvertently left there.
Though the tribulations of life are fatal,
In you I found compensation from life
For the eye sees nothing but what pleases,
From the Palace of Saad to the approaching swarm of nymphs.
Ah! For a gracefully shaped nymph
As though God ordained: Be beauty itself!
And she became beautiful beyond description.
She asked me: Are you in love?
I replied: Love is my resort,
For it I sing, and in it I seek refuge.
And she approached
With a swinging gait
And you could see the urge for passion in the dalliance
With a naked breast
Inconsiderate of a stunned man, almost fainting.
And she stretched on the sand a voluptuous body
Flirting with the sun
Until I thought it would not move
O sea! O sea!
This is the pearl of the land
Have you in the cradles of your shells a pearl to match?
And now that I am far from her
My heart is on fire
Like a mother who parts with her child
And tears flow profusely.