People’s poetry: Nabati style

Poetry is a rich and vibrant tradition across the Arab world and in recent times, the vernacular 'Nabati' poetry has taken on a whole new lease of life in social media. Vision explores

Throughout 15 centuries of history people across the Arab world have famously honed perfection across creative mediums, from sculpture to calligraphy, and music to poetry. The holy book, the Qur’an, is famously eloquent and poetry continues to be one of the most revered arts today.

The impactful ‘Nabati’ vernacular style is one form of the medium still popular in the Arabian Peninsula. This literary tradition has actually been part of the Arabian culture since the 16th century, referred to as both “people’s poetry” and “Bedouin poetry”.

Modern poets, who compose in the traditional Nabati poetic genres of boasting, praise, satire, elegy, advice and guidance, love and lyric, are following the rich literary tradition of their Bedouin forebears. In a recently published anthology ‘The Nabati Poetry of the United Arab Emirates’, one contemporary Emirati poet, wistful about the memories of simpler days, speaks to a shopping mall: "O mall, your smart and modern frame, attracts the girls in numbers vast."

It is culturally telling that several UAE royal family members are also well-regarded poets, carrying on a tradition that their nomadic ancestors excelled in. Given the medium’s popularity, it is no surprise that HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum featured Nabati verse on the official website he launched earlier this month to coincide with the anniversary of his inauguration as Crown Prince of Dubai. The emphasis he puts on poetry is not just because he is a well-regarded poet but because he wants to use the medium to encourage Emiratis to have creative encounters with their Arabic heritage.

Dubai, famously home to the ‘richest horse race in the world’ as well as an annual shopping festival glittering with large cash prizes, is well known for its innovative competitions. Poetry is no exception: this month, a particularly progressive Nabati contest launches through television programme ‘Al Bayt Nabati’ and the Twitter platform.

The engaging initiative, from the Sheikh Hamdan Mohammad Heritage Centre, is open to anyone writing in Arabic and is part of a wider drive to protect the nation's cultural heritage. “Al Bayt will be a weekly programme tailor-made to attract the poetic talents of the young GCC people,” comments Abdulla Hamdan bin Dalmouk, CEO of Hamdan bin Mohammed Heritage Centre. “Twitter is the only way to compete, ensuring the winner is nominated by their style and eloquence rather than the number of voters.”

Each week, for a period of 13 weeks, a cash prize of Dh100,000 (US$27,000) is being offered to aspiring poets producing the best Nabati verse in 140-characters or less. The winners from each episode will then compete for a final prize pot of Dh1 million (US$270,000). In the history of the Gulf, Nabati poetry has always been a common cultural tradition enjoyed by people of all walks of life. Through this competition, the ancient poetry takes on an appropriately witty modern twist.