A legacy of culture and science, shaped first by poetry

Folklore traditions and Nabati poetry were the favourable creative means for Emiratis in the past, and continue to be today.

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The United Arab Emirates is home to age-old customs derived from original Arab traditions. Native generosity and spirituality are among the laudable values of the nation's people. But poetry might be one of the Emirate's greatest contributions to history.

Emiratis have for generations used poetry to express their emotions and desires. Poetry has become an integral part of daily life. The older generation still passes poetry to younger members of society. And the development of poetry has contributed to the nation's oral traditions, music and linguistic art.

Why then is poetry in the UAE so misunderstood?

Bedouin folklore poetry, often called Nabati poetry, is shrouded in many mysteries. Some claim it is so named after the Nabati Arabs hailing from the Jordanian desert. Another assumption is that such poetry actually belongs to the Nabati people who used to live in southern Iraq; in the UAE, people simply assumed the name.

Mystery also surrounds the poetry's linguistic roots. The Bedouins of the UAE and the Gulf developed their poetry beyond the requirements of Arabic eloquence, which resulted in Nabati poetry. The Nabati poetry is the Bedouin poetry of the UAE and the Gulf, and is recited in Bedouin dialect, not in classical Arabic.

Yet whatever the origins, Nabati poetry is an art form that continues to inspire.

Among the most renowned Nabati poets in the UAE is Al Majidi Bin Dhaher, who died in 1623. His poetry recorded many regional events, as he lived in Ras Al Khaimah. He was known for writing improvised poetry and starting his poems with reference to himself, saying: "Al Fahim Al Majidi Bin Dhaher says" and then continuing his poem.

Other cultural products of the geographic diversity of the UAE include the aesthetic linguistic features of the UAE dialect, combining the dialects of three environments - desert, marine and mountain - and revealing impressive richness in many expressions and innumerable names of camels, horses, falcons, fishes, vessels, components of vessels, sea hazards, palm products and derivatives.

Poetry, of course, is not the UAE's only contribution to culture. Ahmed Bin Majid, born in 1421 in modern-day Ras Al Khaimah, made a great contribution to the science of navigation; he helped the Portuguese Vasco da Gama find his way from Africa to India in 1499. Indeed, Bin Majid surpassed other scientists in mapping, identifying star locations, wind movements, metrology and methods of navigation. His book on the principles of navigation is among his most important works.

And yet, it is the history of local poetry that best defines the nation's cultural legacy.

Folklore traditions and Nabati poetry were the favourable creative means for Emiratis in the past, and continue to be today. Modern literary and cultural works such as poems, stories, novels, press articles and literary criticism emerged in the second half of the 20th century, and then developed in quality and quantity as the nation was established 40 years ago.

At present, the UAE is rich in cultural and artistic activities, which are sponsored by various private, civil and governmental establishments. Painting, sculpture and applied arts have given rise to many young talents and are sponsored by many private exhibitions and galleries. Artistic and cultural establishments hold many individual and collective exhibitions for national artists, delegates and visitors.

As for theatre, local theatrical troupes make remarkable efforts and effective contributions to enrich the local art scene with performances. Such troupes also take part in local, Arab and world theatrical festivals.

But it was poetry, in all its various forms, that first set the stage.

Salem Humaid is an Emirati writer