A unique poetic voice falls silent
ABU DHABI // Ahmed Rashed Thani liked people to be punctual. When they were late for an appointment with him, he made sure they understood how precious his time was.
"I like to make use of every minute of the day, even if I am just sitting and contemplating a thought or two. I don't like to waste any second, and I especially don't like it when people waste it for others," Thani said.
But just as soon as the Emirati poet, researcher and author finished his rebuke for the four-minute delay to the interview, he broke into a smile.
"I am a poet. An artist. I am entitled to be moody and grumpy. It keeps people on their toes, which is good at keeping them a captivated audience," he said.
Behind the tired smile, Thani hid a long battle with chronic heart disease, which forced him to make frequent hospital visits. It was after one such visit, in October 2011, when he sat down to discuss his life's work and his views on the history of poetry in light of the 40th anniversary of the formation of the UAE.
"If you want to know what is the latest issue in a community, look at the poems being composed by its members," he urged.
He said his illness had been exacerbated by the loss of some his books and property to a house fire.
"You know, a fire can eat up all of your possessions, but it can't destroy what is kept inside your heart," he said. And, upon the mention of his heart, he patted it and said: "Oh, you always give me so much trouble."
Thani had suffered from a number of heart attacks in the years preceding the interview, but was happy to humour my attempts to convince him to give up smoking.
During the interview, he stubbed out his cigarette and joked: "OK. Just for you, I will live a bit longer and give breathing room for my heart to compose a new poem."
The heart troubles he spoke of were both literal and metaphorical.
"I have been on the brink of death many times, and that is when you are completely and truly alone," he said. "But it is OK, I always come out a different and stronger person."
On Monday, Thani's heart finally gave out and he died. Condolences poured in from those who knew him, worked with him, and those who simply enjoyed reading his work.
Hailed as "one of the fathers of Emirati poetry" and a "realist", Thani was born in Khor Fakkan, Sharjah, and was 48 when he died.
He started writing poetry in the early 1970s, commenting on every aspect of life with titles such as Blood of the Candle, Eye of the Laughing Seagull and Inside the Cage. He is most famed for his 1981 collection in colloquial Arabic that was later republished in 1990 entitled O! You Eat Dates ... You Collect Gold.
"I sit and write about whatever comes to mind. Not everything that I wrote had a special meaning, it just had to be written down," said Thani, who described himself as a "loner" and introvert despite his public profile.
Other collections include Drowning Verge, Morning Sits Next to Sea and Then Night Comes and Takes Me.
His poetry has been published in local and regional newspapers and magazines, with some poems translated into French and German. He also worked as a journalist and wrote plays and articles, particularly on heritage and oral history.
In the last 10 years of his life, he worked on documenting Emirati oral culture through a series of books, including Pebbles of Patience.
"He was creative, he would play around with styles and the most banal of objects became a source of inspiration," said Obeid bin Tarouq Al Nuaimi, the renowned Emirati poet. "He wrote about everything and he composed it in such a way that all Arabs could identify with and understand."
Some poets, such as Sheikha Al Mutairi, described him as "mysterious". "I felt he always kept something hidden from us in his poems," she said.
Sultan Al Omemi, the director of Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage's Poetry Academy, who met Thani in 2001 and worked with him, remembered the poet as being "dedicated" to his craft.
"He would spend a lot of his time researching and documenting oral literature and history, for the sake of preserving it for future generations," he said.
Mr Al Omemi, who is also a judge in this year's Million's Poet television show, described Thani's work as that of a "modern philosopher". "He tended to be nostalgic in his themes, always going back to his place of birth and his family," he said.
The Emirates Writers Union, which Thani helped to found, said the poet was "a very giving person, who never waited for anything in return". The union credited him for "modernising" Emirati poetry. Thani, who had four children, wrote an entire poem for his mother, who had passed away many years ago, and in almost every collection, there was some mention of the sea.
"The sea never leaves me. I hear it, I smell it and I feel it even if I am sitting in the middle of the desert," he said.
Besides his own personal battles, such as divorces and attempts to quit smoking, his biggest worry was the "loss of the Arabic language".
"So many of the new poets and poetesses don't even know basic Arabic grammar and have blatant mistakes in their poems," he said. "It is a shame that so many Arabs these days can recite for you lines from a music video but don't know a single line from the Arab world's greatest and oldest poems and proses."
Whoever sat with Thani always left with a memory of his throaty scratchy laugh.
One Twitter user tweeted: "I just met you once, but I can't forget that laugh of yours. It was so contagious and deep from the heart. Allah Yarhamak [have mercy upon you]."
Updated: February 22, 2012 04:00 AM