The Nabati Poetry of the UAE: a remarkable anthology

This tome of Emirati verse with English translations gives expatriate readers an opportunity to better understand UAE culture through some of its most authentic voices.

Kuwait's Nasser Al Ajami recites his poem during the final episode of the talent show Million's Poet in Abu Dhabi in 2010. Marwan Naamani / AFP
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Poetry plays an important role in the daily reality of the Arab world. Far from being a thing of the past, it has extended its sway through television and the internet to reach audiences of millions. Mixed with traditional themes such as lovers' complaints, poetry gives voice to current social and political concerns, and charts striking shifts in people's sensibilities. It is an artist's blog for critique and satire, as well as for the affirmation of society's values.

For outsiders, language can be a barrier, but that obstacle has now been removed by Clive Holes and Said Salman Abu Athera in their anthology of Emirati verse with English translations. Its variety, based on judicious choice, allows us to get to know the UAE through its most authentic voices and, at the same time, the art of Arab poetry in the Gulf in its current guise.

As in the title, the word "nabati" is used to denote the poetry circulating among the population of the Arabian peninsula in general, unlike the poetry written according to the rules of literary Arabic, for which the Quran is the supreme example. According to some, nabati may stem from the ancient Nabataeans who lived in Petra and other parts of north-western Arabia. It is commonly translated as "vernacular, popular", but this may suggest that this type of poetry is the domain of uneducated, "backwards" segments of society, waiting to be eradicated by general progress towards modern standard Arabic. While purists may see it that way, the facts are otherwise.

Early examples of nabati poetry are given by the medieval historian Ibn Khaldun in Al Muqaddima (The Introduction), his renowned work first published in 1377. Nabati poetry, therefore, has a pedigree that reaches back hundreds of years and perhaps even more. As pointed out by the preeminent authority in this field, Dr Saad A Sowayan, in Nabati Poetry, the Oral Poetry of Arabia, his groundbreaking 1985 work, Bedouin poets composed verse remarkably similar in structure, theme, metre and rhyme to the odes by Imru'l Qays and other pre-Islamic poets. These qasida's set the classical standard for hundreds of years. Remarkably, until quite recently, verse composed by illiterate Bedouin masters of the art has remained close in spirit and language to these examples.

There is no struggle for life or death here. Over the centuries the nabati and the literary traditions followed parallel paths and intermingled, like two trains running side by side, close enough for passengers to step into a carriage on the other track and then back again. Ibn Li'bun (1790-1831), known in the Gulf as "Prince of the Nabati Poets", memorised the Quran and brilliantly employed the conceits of classical literature in his own work. He kept up a lively correspondence with other poets in Arabia. The popular tunes of the Gulf are ascribed to Ibn Li'bun. Nabati poetry has always been in vogue with all and sundry, from the refined, literate elite of the trading centres in the Gulf and cities like al-'Unayzah to the Bedouins roaming the Arabian interior. So-called "uncouth" Bedouin poets vie with urban literati for recognition as masters of the art. In that sense nabati poetry is extremely democratic - as democratic as the majlis or diwaniyya where anyone who knows the rules may achieve fame on account of his (or on the female side, her) eloquence. And there lies the importance of nabati poetry: it creates a common cultural space, where differences in formal education, tribal affiliation or social position are no impediment. Nabati poetry effortlessly arches over such barriers and makes them less forbidding in doing so. It celebrates what the Arabs of the region have in common. It affords each and every member of society an equal chance to gain respect by creating and performing poetry, or by enjoying and discussing its artistic merits and content with other members of the audience. Without nabati poetry Arab society in the Gulf would be less vibrant and welcoming. Perhaps that is why its detractors are mostly ignored. People vote with their feet, towards the majlis.

Nabati poetry has created its own idiom and rules. Linguistically it is closer to the vernacular, but much of its vocabulary and imagery would be very familiar to a classical 6th-century Arab poet. Just as Ibn Li'bun has fatheredMillion's Poet, the popular TV show for nabati poetry, the latter is the digital age's version of the fair of "Ukaz: the tournament where the prize-winning poems according to legend were written in golden letters and suspended in the pre-Islamic Kaaba (and therefore are called mu'allaqat or the suspended ones)".

My Eye is on the Million is the title of one of the poems in the anthology presented by Clive Holes and Said Salman Abu Athera. It shows the humorous, jocular stroke that runs in much nabati poetry: the poet makes an impassioned plea to the judging panel to favour his verse. And what if he wins? He'll be "a man of leisure, read Bukhari every day". For the non-initiated: by reading the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed collected by Al-Bukhari one steeps oneself in the teachings of the Prophet with the ambition of emulating his example. So it is only one step from TheMillion's Poet show to the classics of Muslim culture.

The collection updates us too on responses to the transformation the Emirates have undergone. The result is rather surprising. The poets of the Emirates are not thrown off balance. On the contrary, they offer proof, once again, of Arab and Muslim culture's amazing resilience and capacity to absorb change. Without ever losing their core values, the poets sift through the materials handed to them by daily reality and reshape it. While the ancient poet sheds tears on the remains of the campsite deserted by the folk of his beloved, his Emirati colleague addresses a shopping mall: "O mall, your smart and modern frame, attracts the girls in numbers vast."

The greatest difference between the two is not the setting, but the latter's tongue-in-cheek quality and hints of ironic distance. The poet rues that he missed out on these malls. When he was a young man, the girls in Sharjah used to sleep under an old tree that was believed to guarantee them a suitable husband. This poem is a variation on the well-established theme of poetic complaints of old age, to which it gives a new twist.

If anything, the common thread in this collection is the ambivalence of feeling - admiration for the country's rulers, satisfaction with the comforts and opportunities they have brought, but also wistful memories of simpler days, and unease about newfangled customs and features. The poets often keep us guessing whether their reflections are meant to be taken serious or with a conniving wink, while other poems simply remodel conventional themes.

Clive Holes has previously written learned and entertaining studies about the genre of "dispute poems" in the Gulf. For instance, a debate on pearl-diving and oil wells, and a dispute of coffee and tea, with each side arguing why it is superior to the other. In this volume a poet mediates in the conflict between Ranjit and Bob, a British crane-driver who by accident hit the Indian worker's leg on the quayside.

Threats with police and courts fly, as well as insults about boozing Brits and snakelike Indians, until the poet persuades them to declare a truce. For his trouble the poet is praised by Ranjit and Bob as the wisest man they ever met.

Not all things foreign get such benign treatment. Woe to him who marries a "Buddhist woman", or any other foreign wife, who serve tasteless coffee and milky tea. Stick to your own kind is the poets' advice: "Do not expect a pearl-diver to be an expert cameleer". As shown here, the expression of the Emirates' dual nature, both maritime and desert, is one of the poems' enchanting features. Metaphors of shipwrecks occur side by side with camel-raiders returning empty-handed, or the eating of the colocynth apple - the ultimate experience of bitterness for as long as Arab poetry exists.

The English translations are a superb achievement in their own right. A self-avowed devotee of renditions in rhyme and metre that are truly "poetic", Clive Holes' verses run smoothly and make for an often exhilarating read. He has taken considerable freedoms with the original (some with a twinkle in the eye, like the expression "bed of nails" in relation to Indian women), yet stayed close to its meaning throughout. In many cases his verse can even be seen to have the edge. The original Arabic versions are included, as well as a CD with studio recordings of the poems, and short biographies of the poets. Each translated poem is preceded by explanatory notes. Abu Athera's research and Holes' finesse and perceptive introduction have resulted in a delightful compendium of today's cultural state of mind in the Emirates.

Marcel Kurpershoek is the author of Arabia of the Bedouins (in Arabic translation: al-Badawi Al-Akhir) and Studies on the Oral Poetry of Central Arabia. He is currently the Dutch ambassador in Warsaw.