How Emirati 'nabati' poetry has kept pace with the changing times

From animation to calligraphy to hip hop, vernacular poetry has cemented its place in 21st-century popular culture

Mohammed Saeed Harib, speaking at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2022 in Dubai, created Freej in 2006. Pawan Singh / The National
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Emirati “nabati” (vernacular) poetry was for many years initially spoken among a close-knit group and disseminated widely by word of mouth across the Arabian Peninsula by scholars and poets alike. However, with the arrival of newspapers in the early 20th century and advent of technology such as the radio and television in the mid-20th century, a wider audience gained access to this ancient art form that relies on a strong command of the Arabic language as well as quick-witted creativity and passion.

In 1978, only a few years after the formation of union, one of the most popular Emirati soaps, Eshhafan, was created and starred Emirati poet Sultan Al Sha'er. The TV show is about a stingy man who goes out of his way to save money (in one episode, he opts to buy a sick donkey because it would "eat less than a healthy one"). Decades later, many clips from Eshhafan are still shared today in the form of memes as a commentary on everyday occurrences.

Nabati poetry continued to gain traction in the 21st century with a younger generation of Emiratis. In 2006, Mohammed Harib launched the hit Emirati animation Freej, which revolves around four middle-aged women who contend with the fast-paced developments in the UAE. In the seventh episode of the fourth series, Umm Khammas, the liveliest of the group, plagiarises the poetry of Umm Saeed, who is the most eloquent of the four friends. To punish her for stealing her work, Umm Saeed arranges for a poet to give her an unbalanced poem that she presents at a recital and she is booed by the crowd. She finally admits that she plagiarised the poems and the friends rejoice.

Today nabati poetry continues to find its way into new mediums

A further development that occurred in 2006 was the launch by Abu Dhabi Culture of the Million’s Poet, arguably the world's most successful poetry competition. The competition, each series of which cost Dh70 million ($19 million) to produce, drew poets from across the Arab world, with a significant portion from the Arabian Peninsula. In-person attendance exceeded 1,000, with a TV audience estimated at 17 million (the show even spurred the creation of a dedicated magazine and TV channel for reruns).

As the 21st century progressed, the influence of Emirati nabati poetry continued to grow and this time not only across countries and generations but also the mediums involved. One example is that of Ahmed Bu Sneeda (1855–1920) who was born in Heera, a district in Sharjah overlooking the Arabian Gulf. Bu Sneeda's family were immigrants who originally hailed from Al Zubeir in Iraq. In addition to being a poet Bu Sneeda worked as a calligrapher who taught art at his store in Al Mareija in Sharjah, as well as a scribe who accompanied then Sharjah Ruler Saqr bin Khaled Al Qasimi. Among his most famous poems is Ya Habibi Keef Mamsakom? (How are you faring my darling?) about an ageing man who admonishes his former lover for abandoning him. The poem goes on to state: "Had my legs been able to carry me I would have visited you even if you were in the Empty Quarter." The poem, although originally revived in an oud rendition by Emirati singer Mehad Hamad in the late 1970s, found its way back into popular culture through the spray cans of French-Tunisian artist eL Seed who reproduced it over nine floors on the facade of one of Sharjah's modern architecture landmarks.

Another unlikely story is that of historian and educator Abdullah Al Mutawa (1874-1958) who was also born in Heera in Sharjah. Al Mutawa's poem Reedh Ya at-Taarish (Wait, O Messenger) was revived by Kuwaiti preacher and nasheed artist Mishari Alafasy. The song whose lyrics roughly translate to "Wait, O Weary Messenger, pen a salute on a letter. Even if the darkness followed you, you must accomplish your mission". The song goes on to implore the listener to be patient and not rush into judging matters. In 2020, it was sampled by Palestinian hip hop artist Jude Heib in a song called Casino about a young man whose life is disrupted after meeting a woman.

Today nabati poetry continues to find its way into new mediums. In November 2022, a Google Doodle was created by artist Reem Al Mazrouei to celebrate Al Ain-born Ousha Al Suwaidi (1920-2018), one of the greatest nabati poets of the 20th century and a woman who succeeded in what was long seen as a male dominated art form. Al Suwaidi's poetry was the inspiration behind Rawdha Al Ketbi's mixed media calligraphic works that also quote the UAE's Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Dubai-based artist Latifa Saeed referenced in her signature sand medium the works of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, in her works as well as the poetry of Sharjah-born Ali Rahma Al Shamsi (1930-2006) whose poem Itha Marrait Sowb Al Dar Al Awwal (If I passed by my old home), which is about a man who laments the passage of time and the changes that ensued. Whether it is animation, calligraphy or hip hop, Emirati vernacular poetry has today cemented its place in 21st-century popular culture.

Published: December 18, 2022, 12:24 PM
Updated: December 27, 2022, 9:10 AM