Next month's literature festival in Dubai will see the launch of an anthology of Emirati poetry translated into English. The 10 poems record the way of life now lost in the Arabian peninsula, with themes from romantic love in a conservative culture to the fear of a ruler without enough to feed his tribe. Hamida Ghafour talks to the poet behind the project. "By Allah, if I were not afraid of gloating About you and me, If I hadn't kept my love secret In the bottom of my heart, I would have cried so loud That everyone could remember me For ever."
Perhaps he met his beloved on a soft dune, lit by the bright stars of the night sky and away from the prying eyes of others, where they would whisper their devotion. And then maybe later, when he was alone, he composed the poem, The Lover, immortalising the lucky woman. She is long gone and her name was known only to the poet Salim bin Mohammed al Jamri.
But the words she inspired remain today and the poem is part of an anthology of 19th and 20th century Emirati poetry that is to be launched at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on March 10. Looking Back With Love: Poems From Dubai is a selection of work chosen by the Dubai-born poet Khalid al Budoor. It offers fleeting yet intimate glimpses of life in the desert and long ago, when the Bedouin struggled to survive in the empty expanses of the Arabian peninsula.
The poets are well known to Emiratis, but until now they were, for the most part, inaccessible to English-speaking audiences because of the language barrier. To address that, Fadhil al Azzawi, a well-known Iraqi writer living in Germany, adapted and translated the poems into English. It is illustrated with photographs by Paul Thuysbaert, a chronicler of Arabian culture. "The anthology gives a look back to some aspects of living in old Dubai," says al Budoor. "I chose 10 poems that represent 10 different elements of the environment. The poets took certain elements - the bird, the dress of a lover, the rain, the boat, the falcon, the camel - and used it in their poetry to deliver their messages and their wisdom."
Some of the poets, such as Ahmed bin Khalifa al Hamili, were writing just as oil was discovered in the area, as the country was being transformed by the influx of expatriates and the construction of major roads. In doing so, the poets, all of them now dead, achieved something special: they recorded a now-vanished way of life in all its simplicity and hardship, a way of life that is unknown to the younger generation of Emiratis.
One example of this is the poem by Butti bin Suhail bin Maktoum bin Butti, who was Sheikh of Dubai in the early 20th century. The emirate was extremely poor and he writes about how his tribe had insufficient food to survive. The Sheikh rose at dawn one morning, before everyone else, to pray. In a quiet moment between completing his prayers and having breakfast, he unburdened his anxiety to God in a composition.
"O Lord, bestow your divine grace on your folk! We humbly beseech you. Please! May good luck follow this unease." "The poem is a prayer," al Budoor explains. "He would say, 'Please God, I pray to you please help us. Only you will bring us help and a better life'. One of his questions is, 'What is life if what I get from my life won't get me food?'" The reader is given a brief glimpse of the anxiety of a ruler who bore the burden of taking care of his people. "But most of the poets are average, I mean average social class. They worked in the sea. They were traders or fishermen. But all of them are the best of the best poets."
They would compose the words in their heads as they cast nets from a fishing boat, or during a brief break while out diving for pearls. Many were passed on by word of mouth because of the strong oral culture of the Bedouin. One of the interesting aspects of the anthology is how the poems reveal the notion of romantic love in a conservative culture that values privacy. Al Badoor explains: "The poets would not have looked only for her beauty, but they will look for a good heart and for a companion. It is not right to say this society abused women. OK, he can marry four wives and he will look for a young girl. That happens, but all of the good poets respected women. This is what it reveals."
Al Budoor says he chose the poems by examining a variety of sources. "Most of them are published in different Arabic anthologies. It is not very good because for some of those poets, their poems are lost. Maybe two of them had published collections. For some poets, others collected their poems and published it for them." For al Budoor, who has written three volumes of his own poetry since his work was first published in 1980, love of the word was instilled at a young age by his family. Some of the authors in Looking Back With Love, such as al Jamri, influenced his own writing.
"The main sources available to me were my father's library and there was the general library in Deira when I was young. My father used to take me from time to time to his small store and I used to go from that place to the public library. It was built in the early 1960s." After studying at United Arab Emirates University, he went on to the US where he earned an MA in scriptwriting from Ohio University.
His favourite poem in the anthology is by al Hamili, who writes about missing his loved ones who travelled to Al Ain oasis by camel to escape the summer heat while he stays behind by the sea to fish. "The way he wrote about it, he was like a photographer. He really drew, painted scenes of Dubai and of the oasis like nobody did. The others are great, but this is a favourite of my heart."
"Under the shadows of the valley
And in the blowing breeze
I spent my time near my fishnet
And let my ship lay at anchor
I sat there and sang my songs
Like a nightingale."
An evening of readings and music will mark the official launch of Looking Back With Love: Poems From Dubai, attended by Khaled al Budoor, Fadhil al Azzawi and Paul Thuysbaert, takes place on March 10, at 7pm at the Emirates Literature Festival, InterContinental Hotel Event Centre, Dubai Festival City.
O POSTMAN, CARRY MY WORDS TO MY LOVED ONES!
Mohammed bin Thani bin Qutami
Sky of Ajman reminded me of my homeland
And filled my heart with grief and sorrows
Shivered with cold in my bones,
My rags failed to keep me warm.
Remembering my loved ones who were left behind,
I found myself alone and lost
in another land.
I left my heart there with them,
Distances separated us.
Oh my God, let the dark clouds
Cover up their camps
Wherever they set up their tents,
Let the rain fall down in torrents
And fill the valleys with water.
O homeland of my loved ones,
I greet you in every grain of sand,
I greet you with every blowing wind.
Days passed and passed and passed
And we drowned more and more
Days followed by nights.
After arrival came sudden departure.
We left a place,
Its love always flowed in our veins.
We left behind
Their love would never die.
O postman, come ride on your camel!
Oh, begin your journey again!
Let your camel cross all this desert!
O postman, your camel walks slowly once
And once flies
Like a hawk following its prey in the sky!
O postman, God bless you!
Carry my greetings, please
To Sheikh of Sheikhs, Abu Suhail,
Tell him "You are the best of all
Among Bedouins and town dwellers!"
Tell him a friend, an old friend, loyal and loving
Complains to you about the blows of fate!
Worries filled my heart
And my eyes knew no sleep,
Since I found myself in this desert
Waiting for my bitter end,
But when I repeated to myself
Every now and then:
"Sky of Ajman reminded me of my homeland"
I knew they would come one day,
To bring me back to my loved ones.
THE LOVERS' BOAT Walad Mohammed bin Rashid al Matroushi O lovers' boat, go ahead, Take me away to the camp of Albu Flasa Neither in Muscat nor in Sur, Neither in Bombay nor in Madras I'll find what I have lost. I tell you, a young buxom lover has stolen my heart Oh, no one is so beautiful like her Alwasl is her name, the land where I have grown up And where my beloved has lived her life to the full; A young deer that kills me every day With Josef's charm upon her lips. Oh, I'll never deny my love Oh, I'll put her as a crown on my head.
A LOVER'S DRESS Khalfan bin Yad'uh The poet describes his agonies, seeing the wide open space turn narrow inside a small cabin of a ship, which is heading towards the sunset. He has been banished from his beloved and he talks about her dress moves in the wind. Oh, I felt I was stifling When they took me away from my love Down in a cabin of a hurrying ship in the sea Heading to the sunset. Oh, why should I care for pearl diving? Why should I care, if it was cold Or if I found myself lost In the deep waters So long as I have a lover Whose closeness is my reward? A lover perfect with no fault Struts in her dress Each time the breeze blows.
ON THE BEACH Husein bin Nasir al Lootah When the summer drew nearer My eyes filled with tears, alas! Standing on the beach With the breeze gently flowing from the sea Hearing the captain calling me to go aboard I saw them bring a camel for my girl to ride and go. "Oh, she went and let me weep "Oh, farewell my love!" Nothing, but the waves everywhere Oh God, what kind of life is that? I see no one and no one sees me My life here is bitterer than death.