There’s a new craze about an old tradition in the United Arab Emirates – Nabati poetry. This is a very old Arabic form of poetry with roots in ancient Bedouin culture. A form of oral history, Nabati poems recount battles, rehearse humiliations, pass along advice, describe nature, and recount the details of daily life. It’s apparently meant to be quite loose, sing-songy, simple, direct and spontaneous. It’s the poetry of the people, expressing common concerns, and every-man themes. In order to write a Nabati poem properly, you have to have experienced your subject. Lived it, breathed it, been stepped on by it. It’s the very gritty realism of the art form that is its whole point.
Apparently, Sheikh Mohammed, the Vice President of the UAE, is a prolific Nabati poet himself. He even has a website where he posts his poems (and their English translations).
There’s a television show in Abu Dahbi called Million’s Poet, now in its fourth sesaon, which sounds like the UAE-equivalent of American Idol. On the show, people recite their own Nabati verse, and the winners (voted on by millions via cell phones) earn big cash prizes. It’s created quite a buzz. People are talking about it, internet chat rooms are loaded with debates about the poems, and millions of people are participating. Interestingly, for the first time the winner’s circle of Million’s Poet included a woman this year. Ayda al Jahani, 39, a mother of six and history teacher from the Saudi city of Medina, came in fourth place.
In this interesting blend of east-meets-west, I am particularly intrigued by the spur behind these Nabati poems – the idea of beautiful and arresting poetry coming out of the details of everyday life. The notion that you have to experience the subject of your poem in order to write it – that an earthy rendition of the lessons of the past can offer us a clearer understanding of the present.