Nabati poetry has long been a feature of daily life in the Arabian Peninsula, dating back to the 16th century. Wendy Christie reports on its contemporary revival
Nabati poetry is making a comeback. The age-old verse is gaining popularity courtesy of government efforts to maintain its heritage - and a popular TV show for Nabati poetry which has rekindled interest among the new generation of Arabs.
Nabati poetry is often refered to as ‘the people’s poetry’ or ‘Bedouin poetry’ and is considered the richest form of popular literature seen to reflect the reality of everyday Arabian life. It has played an important part of history for hundreds - if not thousands - of years and in certain eras it is the only historical record passed down through generations.
A VIBRANT TRADITION
The origins of Nabati poetry are clouded with mystery, but there are several theories as to where the term came from. One theory is that it originated in a place called ‘Nabat’ - near Medina. Translated into English ‘Nabat’ means ‘to derive from’ or ‘to obtain the sense of one word from another word’. Another theory is that it could have came from the ancient Nabateans, a tribe who lived in Petra and other parts of north-western Arabia. Nonetheless, this very old Arabic verse has strong roots with the Gulf region.
The poetry is unique in style. It is written in the everyday language - in stark contrast to classical Arabic poetry. Nabati poets combine artistic flair with clear, colloquial language and tend to have first-hand experience of the subject matter.
One of the best-known early Nabati poets is Ibn Daher who lived in Ras Al Khaimah in the 16th century and whose work still influences the poetry today. HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, is generally regarded as one of the finest exponents of modern day Nabati poetry. There are recordings of him reciting some of his poems on his website (www.sheikhmohammed.co.ae). Sheikh Mohammed writes about many topics - including politics and love – providing glimpses into his philosophy of life:
BACK IN VOGUE
Sheikh Mohammed’s involvement in the prose has helped bring about its rise in popularity. Earlier this year, millions of viewers across the Arab world tuned in to watch Emirati poet Rashid Ahmed Al Rumaithi walk away with the AED 5 million ($1.3 million) prize money in the fifth season of Abu Dhabi’s reality TV show Million’s Poet.
“It’s like the American Idol of the Arab world,” observes Tala Al Ramahi, a local journalist.
“It’s a very important way to promote indigenous culture and to preserve local culture and heritage, especially in this time of globalisation when people feel that their own culture is under threat”.
“It’s the most famous genre of poetry in the Gulf,” explains Muhammad Ayish, a professor of communications at the University of Sharjah in the UAE. The opening of the Sharjah Centre for Popular Poetry and the Abu Dhabi Poetry Academy - a new facility offering Nabati poetry courses - have also helped attract young Arabs.
Nabati poetry has witnessed a renaissance and has become relevant to today’s society. It is no longer a thing of the past, but a contemporary art form embedded with tradition and culture, giving voice and humour to some of the regions most pressing social and political issues.