The falcon rap-offs

The poetry duel is a vital part of being a falconer. Now these lyrical battles are being played out on social media

The falconer and Nabadi poet Salem Al Dhabari at home in Abu Dhabi with his hunting falcons. Ravindranath K / The National
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For some, poetry is a quiet, solitary pursuit. But for the falconer, it is the weapon of choice in lyrical battles when they compliment or challenge each other’s bird.

The “rap-off” season reaches its peak in the cool winter months when the falcon takes flight.

Observers are also welcome to join the exchange and a third poet may act as a mediator to cool heated responses.

Oral Bedouin poetry, known as Nabati, has a centuries-long tradition of falcon celebration but these days, the falconer’s audience is no longer limited to people around desert campfires.

Instead, poets turn verse into Instagram commentary, posting couplets alongside photos of falcons or bloodied prey. Instagram’s interactive platform makes it a fitting public space for the most popular part of a falconer’s repertoire: the poetry duel.

Salem Al Dhabari, a breeder from Abu Dhabi, offers a sample and cautions about his casual English translation. “I was thinking to try to translate but we won’t get the perfect meanings,” he says.

He translates two verses: “Your falcon is a diesel engine / My falcon is a jet engine / Your falcon is a child’s slingshot / My falcon is a missile.”

“Previously the Nabati poem doesn’t have engines or jets and all these words,” says Al Dhabari, who is 35 and owns falcon shops in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Kuwait. “It’s always describing nature but nowadays, because of technology, the way of life has changed.”

Instagram may seem an unexpected Nabati evolution but Bedouin lifestyle is about making the most of available resources. Technology is nothing new to hunter poets.

Take the walkie-talkie, which is far more integral to the falcon poet’s toolbox than paper or pen. When hunting season begins in a few weeks, falconers will not only pack their raptors, falcon-friendly armrest pillows and boxes of live pigeons for bait, they will carry walkie-talkies to broadcast stanzas as they rove over dunes in search of game.

As convoys full of friends and falcons bump along, they transmit challenges from one car to another. “So all the guys in the other cars they are listening and some are laughing, some are supporting, some are against,” says Al Dhabari, who Instagrams under the name Bo Khalid.

Each exchange is two lines of equal metre, a head and tail that must rhyme with subsequent verses. A typical duel may be eight or nine exchanges. In extreme cases, it lasts days.

Now men don’t only duel while they dune bash. They are at home in elegant majlises, in Khalifa City and Al Ain and Shakhbout City, scrolling through poetry on their mobile phones. If falcon poetry 2.0 was the walkie-talkie, then ­Instagram is falcon poetry 3.0.

Poet celebrities, made famous by reality TV programmes such as Prince of Poets and Million's Poet, are in on the game. After all, a section of Million's Poet is dedicated to the duel and when poets are on the hunt, the falcon is the muse.

On Al Dhabari's Instagram page, the 2012 second-place winner of Million's Poet, Ahmed Al Mansouri, set a recitation to a slide show of falcon images featuring falcons on ladders, men in the desert, falcons with prey, falcons with their owners and owners with prey. It describes a land's beauty after fresh rain.

Falcon Nabati is not limited to challenges. “Some poems are like a compliment to my falcon, talking about its achievements during the hunting,” says Al Dhabari, who owns 13 falcons.

“Some are to encourage my friends who really failed or didn’t achieve.”

One of his most popular posts is an elegy for his falcon Hamarain, who died in the summer.

His most recent eulogy was for his gyr-saker Jabbar, a beauty contest winner at last month’s Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition.

It roughly translates as: “It is the darkness that I see in your feather / To people it may appear dark / But the way I see you, even if you are black it’s a bright star / I can see in your eyes that despite the beauty that you possess, you will be a brave hunter.”

Al Dhabari is currently composing his response to a thank-you poem he received from a buyer at Adihex.

Responses are posted on the same thread. In an online world, this public medium makes ­Nabati an essential skill among the ­modern Bedouin community. A failure to reply is not just bad manners, it’s cause for a bad ­reputation.

“It’s a bad thing when someone is talking to you and you’re not answering him,” says Al Dhabari.

“If any guy writes poetry and mentions my name, it’s like: ‘Al Dhabari, I’m complaining to you and you have to answer.’ It’s both the poetry community and the falconry community so it’s a very bad image if you don’t answer.”