It's not a poem, but it could be verse

'Poeticians' evenings in Dubai combine heartfelt writing, usually but not always in poetry, with carefully rehearsed performances by the authors. The result is sincere emotion shared with an attentive audience.

People gather and listen to poems by the "Poeticians" - a group of Dubai poets who get together monthly for poetry/spoken word/slam readings - at their January gathering on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2011 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Charles Crowell for The National
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On location: 'Poeticians' evenings in Dubai combine heartfelt writing, usually but not always in poetry, with carefully rehearsed performances by the authors. The result is sincere emotion shared with an attentive audience. Megan Detrie reports, with pictures by Charles Crowell

Dubai // In a dim, smoky lounge at the City Max hotel in Barsha, some 50 people have gathered around a stage. They are here to listen to the Poeticians.

"This is not a poem. I cannot stress enough that this is not a poem," says Hind Shoufani. The short prose text she has written and is going to read, she means, is about more than poetry. It is about the revolution in Egypt.

Shoufani, a Palestinian filmmaker and poet, started running these English-language Poeticians evenings in Beirut in 2007. When she moved to Dubai in 2009, she decided they would work here, too.

On January 29, the fourth day of Egypt's turmoil, eight writers each performed a short stanza written for the Tahrir Square protesters.

Hala Ali, a Saudi Arabian "slam poet" and crowd favourite, finishes her performance defiantly proclaiming "Would Mubarak, Obama, please get off the stage?" The audience whistles and claps.

"That was very powerful for me," Ali says. "It was an interesting start of the year for the Arab world, and Hind called and said we're all going to collectively stand up and show solidarity.

"I was glued to the news, and Mubarak gave a speech and Obama gave a speech, and I had a lot of opinions on that. The more media gave attention to them, the less we saw of the people on the street."

Tarik Kaddoumi, an audience member, says the crowd at Poeticians is a far cry from the usual glitz of Dubai. "It's something any mind could be looking for and doesn't know it until you come here and think 'Where have you been?'"

Shoufani plays the role of ringmaster. With curly red hair and a penchant for self-deprecating jokes, she courts and cajoles audience and poets alike. After finishing a reading, she beckons the next performer, Jamal Iqbal, to the stage.

He opens his laptop on the podium and launches a slide show of photos of labourers from South Asia and South East Asia. Iqbal had spent some time at a labour camp outside Dubai, known to the 50,000 people living there as Sonapur.

"City of gold," he starts, for "them who named it their el Dorado …"

He speaks of two men at a scrap heap. They see the Burj Khalifa, the Burj al Arab and other landmark sights of Dubai. "Sightseeing from the dump," Iqbal says, as photos of labourers' lives flash on the screen.

People in the crowd listen intently, their drinks untouched, their cigarettes unlit. With each reading, the space feels more intimate.

"It benefits from being kept small," Shoufani says. A big space, she says, would mean "I can't walk up onstage with my cigarette, [make jokes] and point people out in the crowd."

For many of the performers, the welcoming environment has let them make new friends, or push themselves in ways they would not previously have done.

Ali, a long-time fan of the spoken word, read her first piece at an event in September. It dealt with "relationships … my stance as a Saudi woman, and how to contextualise that with my life in Dubai".

The writing itself is quick, she says, but the rehearsal takes far longer - typically a fortnight of standing in front of a mirror, practising her body language and finding the right rhythms and emphasis. "It was extremely personal to me and in a way very therapeutic," she says.

"It's a great forum," adds Faye Roberts, who is British but grew up in Dubai and hopes to perform this month. "There are not many places to go to create music or that have licence to speak, so it's fabulous."

The event's popularity has been growing, but Shoufani insists it will remain informal and underground. "Some of the things we say I would not go public with," she says. The works cover religion, politics, feminism and sex, and often include some off-colour language.

"It's totally amateur and I plan to keep it that way," she adds. She admits, however, that she has started filtering out poets whose work needs further revision or practice.

"It's heartening to see people who are involved in a variety of careers writing and expressing and becoming part of a community," she says. "And that's the spirit of the Poeticians."

The next Poeticians evening will be Saturday at 7.30pm at the City Max hotel in Al Barsha