Arabic debate-poetry translated into English on its way into schools in Britain and the UAE

The British dialectologist Clive Holes and his wife Deidre - a consultant for the online teacher resource centre Hamilton Trust -are working to promote translated versions of oral poetry from the Gulf as primary school teaching material in the UK and UAE.

Deidre and Clive Holes have translated three debate poems into English. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Thousands of primary school pupils in the United Kingdom have been learning about the region’s pearling industry, the oil boom and the culture of coffee in the Arabian Gulf thanks to the efforts of a British couple.

Clive Holes, a dialectologist, and his wife, Deidre, have translated examples of the oral debate-poetry that was a popular form of expression for Bedouins in Arabia in the early part of the last century.

They painstakingly converted these Arabic “artistic texts” into English-language reading material for the Hamilton Trust – a UK-based online teachers’ resource centre.

And now they are starting work with teachers in the Emirates to integrate their adaptations into English courses and history lessons here.

As part of this effort, they will lead a workshop on November 5, exclusively for teachers, on the history of oral poetry and its use in the classroom at the Nabati Poetry Conference organised by the Dubai International Writers’ Centre.

Now retired, Holes taught English in Bahrain in the 1970s and was in the faculty at the Oriental Institute at Oxford. The co-author of The Nabati Poetry of the UAE, an anthology of Emirati verse with English translations, he began studying the dialogue poetry of the munathara (or debate) genre for an academic paper and decided to develop some of the poems for schools.

“Debate poetry are verbal battles, pitting two things or cultures against each other,” he says. “It has its roots in Iraq with some of the earliest poems found in the Sumerian language about 4,000 years ago. There are examples of such debates in the Gulf, too.”

The couple, who live in the UK, worked with the Hamilton Trust to create animated online versions and activity books featuring three long debate poems.

One of them, The Rat and Ship's Captain, adapted from a traditional Bahraini poem by Atiyaa Bin Ali, has been studied by about 300,000 children.

“It is meant be a funny poem, with the rat talking to a captain and arguing about whether the rat is guarding the ship or eating everything in it,” says Holmes. “It is based on the real life of the 1930s. The poems reflect real issues and discussions from that time.”

The Dispute of Coffee and Tea and the Debate of Pearl-diving and Oil-wells are also available on the trust's website.

Deidre, a consultant for the trust, says they wanted to spruce up the school curriculum.

“Schools use the same text over and over again and children lose interest in these topics,” she says. “The main aim is to give these children interesting literary material, teaching them about the use of language, how to debate and the pros and cons in an argument.”

The poems can also be used to teach creative writing.

“Clive’s translations use the same powerful language present in the original poems,” she says. These poems use a lot of idioms, strong verbs and punctuations which can be taught to children.”

At the same time it broadens the youngsters’ perspective on the Middle East.

“In the UK, the immediate thoughts associated with this part of the world are terrorism, oil and Islam,” she says. “Those are important discussions, but so is their history and culture.”

Holes says the lifestyle of the Bedouins and the fast-changing society of the 1930s shine through in the poems.

The poems and activities can be found on The Rat and Ship's Captain can be watched on YouTube.