Hekayah, The Story brings poets, singers and musicians together at NYUAD for National Day

With classical Arabic poetry programmed alongside Urdu folk song and hip-hop-infused English spoken word, the message from curators is clear – National Day is for everyone who calls the UAE home

Hekayah draws on the Arabian Peninsula’s oral storytelling traditions, also reflected in the UAE’s embrace of live open mics. Courtesy NYUAD
Hekayah draws on the Arabian Peninsula’s oral storytelling traditions, also reflected in the UAE’s embrace of live open mics. Courtesy NYUAD

The UAE’s bubbling cultural diversity will be celebrated and showcased at NYU Abu Dhabi on December 5, at what will probably prove this week’s most colourfully cosmopolitan celebration of National Day.

Poets, singers and musicians of 10 nationalities, performing in at least five languages, will share the stage for the third annual Hekayah event, subtitled The Story. With classical Arabic poetry programmed alongside Urdu folk song and hip-hop-infused English spoken word, the message from curators at the university’s trailblazing Arts Centre is clear – National Day is for everyone who calls the UAE home.

“This is probably the most alternative event in the UAE to represent National Day,” enthuses Ratish Chadla, the UAE-raised, Indian-born drummer whose Arabic fusion band Noon close the evening’s bill. “It’s very much a special, one-off event.”

Taking place under the stars at the university’s East Plaza courtyard, the free, open-air show promises a warm festival feel, with food trucks and a craft market dotting the fringes, and a mix of majlis and standard free seating. “We’re trying to celebrate the cosmopolitanism of the UAE,” says Shamma al Bastaki, one of Hekayah’s six curators.

“When you think of National Day, although it’s celebrated by everyone in the UAE, there’s a lot of focus on the local population itself. We’re really trying to paint a truer picture of the diversity of all the communities in the UAE. The fact that it’s hosted in NYUAD, which is probably one of the most diverse universities in the world, already sends a message that this is not going to be one of your typical events.”

Named after the Arabic term for “storytelling”, and recalling the regional tradition of passing tales verbally between generations, Hekayah’s guiding ethos is a celebration of tradition, community and heritage – of any origins, and in a myriad of different ways. For writers and poets, this means the freedom to present work in classical Arabic, colloquial English, or any other tongue in between. For musicians, the platform offers an invitation to utilise traditional instruments such as the oud and tabla, alongside the modern, international flavours of saxophone, bass guitar and even electronics.

“Heritage is an essential part of an individual,” says Ehrlich Ross Abuan, a Filipino poet who performs in English. “It is something that is passed on from one generation to another – it can be a value, belief, tradition and even a name.

“Without heritage, a person’s origin story is incomplete. I once believed that it is not necessary, but I was wrong. I realised accepting and celebrating your heritage gives you a sense of belonging-ness.”

Palestinian-American poet and self-defined “third-culture kid” Jennah Fakhouri, uses poetry to make sense of the UAE’s blur of communities in flux.

“My poetry enables me to discover the many facets of my identity and to come to terms with my own cultural differences,“ says the American University of Sharjah student. “It allows me to express the frustrations and the joys of belonging everywhere and nowhere.”

Al Bastaki goes further, suggesting that Hekayah’s diversity probes the very definition of heritage in the globalised, multicultural society of the contemporary UAE.

A 21-year-old student at NYUAD, two years ago al Bastaki attended the first Hekayah event as an audience member, and was blown away by the performances of her compatriots, such as Emirati spoken word leading light Afra Atiq. A year later, she attended the second event as a featured artist, performing both her own English translation of a poem by Souad al-Sabah, here renamed Veto on the Feminine Noon, and a redemptive, self-referential original piece, Poetry Stuck in My Windpipe, about her attempts to conquer a creative block – a battle won by the poem’s completion.

“Heritage doesn’t have to mean country or nationalism,” she adds. “It can mean different things to different people. For me, it meant being an Emirati woman on stage and going through my challenges; the same that anyone faces anywhere in the world: having writer’s block happens to everyone. [Facing] misogyny and pushing against it – that’s the global heritage I really push for.”

By performing both her work and a contemporary translation of al-Sabah’s Arabic verse, al Bastaki’s performance also served to highlight an emerging re-energisation of the Middle East’s longstanding poetic traditions, manifested in the UAE’s flourishing spoken word scene. Recent years have brought a multiplying audience and enthusiasm for open mic nights, such as the monthly Rooftop Rhythms, which celebrated its fifth anniversary earlier this year, but began attracting audiences numbering into the hundreds after moving to NYUAD’s campus hang-out the Marketplace in late-2015.

“Oral traditions and storytelling date back many centuries,” says Sara Al Souqi, an award-winning Palestinian-Canadian author and poet performing at this year’s Hekayah. “Through spoken word poetry, I often feel like I am keeping this tradition alive. I am inspired by ideas and concepts that I believe move us as individuals and collectively as a society.”


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As a trained special needs educator, Al Souqi’s trademark works explore issues of communication and self-expression by incorporating elements of the American Sign Language she uses professionally into her live routines – highlighting the underwritten visual component of spoken word performance.

Other languages to be represented onstage include English, Gujarati, Urdu and various forms of Arabic, including modern, classical and the Gulf’s distinct Nabati dialect. Known variously as the language of “the people’s poetry” and “Bedouin poetry”, the latter tongue is an entrenched part of the Arabian Peninsula’s oral storytelling traditions, which are often invoked when discussing the UAE’s recent embrace of live open mics.

“I don’t think it’s a linear evolution – Nabati poetry didn’t one day metamorphose into this new thing called spoken word,” says al Bastaki. “There’s always been a poetic impulse in the region, deep in the people from here, and also those who lived through the traditions of the UAE.

“What’s happening now is more like creating something new from something that already existed – all of these diverse voices drawing from the impulses and energy of poetic tradition in the region.”

As well as poetry, music will be represented by distinct artistic voices including Gujarati folk singer Hiralal Sangar, and Mohamed Morshed, who plays instrumental music he simply dubs “Emirati saxophone”. The evening will fittingly be closed by Noon, the world fusion act whose brand of “Oriental experimental” music perhaps best embodies Hekayah’s cosmopolitan ethos.

All long-term UAE residents, the Lebanese-Indian-Greek trio present Arabic maqam traditions in the guise of a jazz-rock trio – made up of oud, drums and electric bass – mixed with electronica fragments, while drawing variously on Indian, African and Latin rhythms.

“I really like the idea of the whole event in the first place, and the fact we’re part of it seems fitting,” says Chadla, the group’s 25-year-old co-founder. “We’re trying something eye-opening with traditional Arabic music, and I love the idea that we can show people that there’s more here [in the UAE] than meets the ear.

“It will be wonderful for people to be exposed to this music – and maybe even be inspired to do something similar themselves. People shouldn’t be afraid to try these kinds of things.”

Hekayah: the line-up


A key member of female Emirati poetry collective Untitled Chapters, which aims to bring together writers of all ages, Sharjah-born classical Arabic poet Amal is preparing her first poetry collection for publication, in between working in government communications.

Ehrlich Ross Abuan

A nurse based in Abu Dhabi, Filipino expat Ehrlich Ross Abuan began sharing his poetry at live open mics for the first time last year, and was quickly recognised by the NYUAD-hosted Rooftop Rhythms series as “Best Writer – 2017”. Performing primarily in English, he is currently a resident poet and writer for poetry platform Echoes Abu Dhabi.

Jennah Fakhouri

Sharjah-based American-Palestine student and self-defined “third-culture kid” Jennah Fakhouri uses poetry to explore issues of identity and to “give voice to the voiceless”, evocatively drawing stories from her Palestinian heritage.

Mahwash Rehman

Better known for documenting global affairs as an international freelance photographer – who last year published her first photojournalistic book Women In Green And Beyond, documenting Pakistan’s women’s cricket team – Mahwash Rehman uses verse to turn the focus on her own inner world.

Hiralal Sangar

Born into a family of folk singers, Gujarati vocalist Hiralal Sangar began singing from the age of eight, accompanying his father’s travelling troupe, and has now clocked up more than 750 performances, to a combined audience of more than 10,000 people, over the past 28 years.

Reem Almenhali

A psychology student at NYUAD, young Emirati talent Reem Almenhali explores storytelling, romance and introspection in Arabic verse.

Jorge Monterrosa

A popular force on the capital’s vibrant spoken word scene, American expatriate poet Jorge Monterrosa boasts a powerful, memorable voice, performing in English.

Mohamed Morshed

Billed as “the first Emirati saxophone player”, Mohamed Morshed studied in Egypt, where he was awarded a “musician of the year” accolade. Describing his distinctive brand of instrumental music simply as “Emirati saxophone”, he eschews the label jazz, preferring “cooler music” for hotter climes.

Nabiha Nahyan

Young Emirati poet Nabiha Nahyan’s work was shaped by her experience growing up in the culturally cosmopolitan Abu Dhabi, where she is currently working towards a childhood dream of publishing her first book.

Sara Al Souqi

Winner of Canada’s Edmonton Slam competition and a published author, Palestinian-Canadian spoken word artist Sara Al Souqi’s singular voice speaks from her life as a third generation of diaspora – while her signature works remarkably make use of American Sign Language.


Formed less than two years ago following a jam at a birthday party, the cosmopolitan oud, drums and electric bass trio Noon compellingly blur Arabic traditions with jazz improv, rock aesthetics and smatterings of electronica. Quickly established as among the UAE’s most original home-grown outfits, for Hekayah the group has conceived a special, seamless 20-minute musical suite.

Hekayah, The Story takes place at East Plaza, NYU Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat Island, from 7pm on December 5. For more information and to register for free tickets, visit www.nyuad-artscenter.org

Updated: December 3, 2017 08:04 PM


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