LONDON // The poetry of the UAE reached into Britain's cultural heart this week when three Emiratis read and discussed their work at the South Bank Centre. Nujoom al Ghanem, Khalid al Budoor and Khulood al Mu'alla performed several poems in Arabic at an event that was part of the centre's annual London Literature Festival. It was the first time Emirati poetry had taken centre-stage in the British capital. Margaret Obank, the editor of the literary magazine Banipal, and a translator, read the poets' newly commissioned English translations.
"My poetry isn't written just for an Arab audience," said al Budoor after the performance. The researcher into Emirati culture and heritage has previously worked as a scriptwriter, presenter, producer and director for Radio Dubai, as well as publishing three volumes of poetry. "Poetry opens horizons," he said. "It gives hope and it also makes you know the world better. I want to communicate with people everywhere in the world."
Al Budoor gestured elegantly as he read a handful of his poems, starting with Unknown Bedouins, which touches on coffee grinders and television as well as the ghosts of desert tribesmen. He introduced the poem by telling the audience about the importance of Bedouins and the desert in his work. "The Gulf has seen dramatic change in the last 50 years - high-rise buildings from the desert," he said. "It is fascinating to see the past and the present at the same time."
Al Ghanem's poems are often about weighty themes - death, love, disillusionment - but she roots them in personal moments, packing them with vivid imagery. "I present one hand with no fingers, and the other has just been severed," she read. The film maker and poet's voice rose and fell as she spoke, her hand moving like the conductor of an orchestra. Al Mu'alla, the winner of the prestigious Buland al Haidari Award for Young Arab Poets in 2008, was just as passionate a performer, reading poems that mixed confessions of loneliness with humour. Like al Ghanem, she focused on delicate metaphors drawn from the world around her - sky, birds, water - to express wider themes.
"I live inside an egg, waiting for love," reads one poem. Al Mu'alla told the audience she had written a poem about London, and wished it had been translated "so you would know how much I love the city". The poets were invited to London after the event's organiser, Rachel Holmes, heard them at last year's Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. Wednesday's audience was a mix of curious Britons and expatriates from the Gulf region.
Among them was the Libyan-born, London-based writer and poet Ghazi Gheblawi. For him, and many others in the Arab world, poetry was the highest form of literature and the ultimate aspiration, he said. "Arabic is a poetic language," said Gheblawi. "The first thing that everyone from the Arab culture learns is poetry." Carol Davies, a teacher from London, was hearing Emirati poetry for the first time. "I found the Arabic beautiful to listen to," she said.
"I was impressed by how they gesticulated and the richness of the sound, and how sparse the poems were. I hadn't realised how subjective it was going to be, it wasn't so much storytelling as it was about impressions and emotion." Her friend, Sally Close, an administrator, was equally enthusiastic. "The mixture of old and new cultures really came through in the poetry," she said. "I'm going to have to find out more."