More than words: Afra Atiq and the legacy of Middle Eastern poetry

The first female Emirati spoken word poet tells Vision why, now more than ever, artists in the UAE have a profound responsibility to share their work

On the first Saturday of every month, in a community art space at the heart of Alserkal Avenue, dozens of locals come together for Dubai Poetry Slam, one of the emirate’s first open mic performance poetry nights.

Though spoken word in the UAE is still relatively new, Afra Atiq is already a veteran. Now a full-time PhD student and performer, Atiq is the first female Emirati spoken word poet, and dedicates her life to bearing her soul on stage. She has captivated audiences at Dubai Poetry Slam with poems that range from the personal to the political, a crowd favourite being a funny but all too harrowing piece about her relationship with food, how “you consume it, but ultimately, it consumes you.”

With her bold words and unique tone, Atiq has moved on from small venues to prestigious events, most recently taking the stage at the popular Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, as well as taking her poetry global, becoming the first Emirati to perform at New York’s legendary Nuyorican Poet’s Café.

Atiq’s success has mirrored the growth of the artform itself in the emirate. Though performance poetry was once a niche activity reserved for university intellectuals, slam poetry is now enjoyed by novice poets and aficionados alike. Spoken word events are cropping up all over the city – from Dubai Poetry Slam, to regular groups like Punch and Blank Space, all drawing dozens of regular visitors.

Afra Atiq performs at Dubai Poetry Slam

Though spoken word has been criticised as lazy and kitsch, with the prestigious poet Philip Larkin denouncing the form as too “easy”, Atiq proudly calls herself “a stage poet, not a page poet”.

“There’s something magical that happens on stage,” she says, explaining that the artform connects the listener to the poet in a profound way. This connection, she says, gives the poet “an enormous responsibility. Once you speak words, you can’t take them back.” Like any artform, performance poetry must “always have a message,” and poets are responsible for bringing people together, changing minds, and transforming society.

As a spoken word poet, Atiq believes that she is part of a “wider movement” of performance artists, who form a key part of the emirate’s rapidly growing art scene.

It would be easy to assume that Dubai is catching up to a US slam poetry phenomenon, where artists like Sarah Kay have garnered millions of views on YouTube, SoundCloud and TED, and open mic nights are ubiquitous.

“A lot of people would argue that spoken word is a Western, contemporary movement,” agrees Atiq. However, she notes, “if you look at the legacy of poetry, especially in the Emirates, in the Gulf, there’s a really proud tradition of recited poetry.”

Indeed, in Arabic tradition, oral tales are told by hakawati - or storytellers – who share epic stories, combining prose and poetry rich in metaphor to audiences gathered around the narrator. Though the tradition is still practiced by some communities in the region, hakawati largely disappeared with the development of broadcast media.

“It may not be called spoken word, but the elements are all there, and we do have that back-story,” says Atiq. “I don’t take that lightly.”

This rich spoken word heritage, says Atiq, gives Emirati poets a profound duty. Atiq has taken her poetry all over the Emirates, and around the world, because she has a message to share. “I have a social responsibility to my community, to my country, to my heritage, to put [my work] out there.”

In a socially and politically tumultuous time, artists always have responsibility, but those in the region must “bring out issues, to make people think, to do the artwork that really enriches and sparks debate and discussion,” says Atiq.

Spoken word isn’t “art for art’s sake,” she says, it has a purpose. And, for local artists, it is thrilling that this profoundly traditional medium is becoming revitalised.