Rubayye'a bin Yaqout is a national treasure. Thought to be well into his 80s, if not older, he has had two strokes that have confined him to a wheelchair and largely robbed him of the power of speech - a particularly cruel blow for a poet. And not just any poet. According to the Sharjah Centre for Popular Poetry, which officially opened last month, in Mr Yaqout it has identified one of the country's last surviving traditional Nabati poets.
Born not long after the end of the First World War, Mr Yaqout lives in Ajman with his family. His poems, and the words of now dead poets that only he can recall, can be found in no books. Nabati poetry, above all else a spoken form, was rarely written down and, besides, Mr Yaqout is illiterate. Now, says Rashid Sharar, the head of the centre, with the help of Mr Yaqout's sons "we're spending our time with him in Ajman, compiling his poetry in writing".
Nabati poetry uses the local, everyday dialect, as opposed to classical or modern standard Arabic and, as such, it is the voice of the people. The genre is not unique to the UAE, but a tradition across the Arabian peninsula, where for centuries Bedouin tribes had few literates in their midst and passed their stories and heritage from generation to generation via this rich, memorised oral tradition.
"It's the language of the street," says Mr Sharar. "Rulers who want to know what's on the minds of people listen to Nabati, or popular, poetry." The first known references to Nabati poetry date back to the days of Harun al Rashid, the fifth and most famous Abbasid Caliph, who lived from 763 to 809. During his reign, Arabic science, philosophy, literature and poetry flourished. In European history, he is known for having sent a gift of a clock to Charlemagne with a returning Frankish mission that had come seeking Rashid's friendship. It is said that Charlemagne's court was so impressed with the clock, which moved and made noises on the hour, that they thought it was magical.
Rashid Sharar, the director of the Sharjah Centre for Popular Poetry, says the poet has always had a special place in Arab culture. Randi Sokoloff / The National
According to Mr Sharar, in the 10th century the Banu Hilal tribe decided to withdraw into Yemen and the Sinai desert from the Arabian Peninsula to preserve its dialect of Arabic and it was this retreat, led by Sheikh Abu Zaid al Hilali, widely credited with being the first Nabati poet, that gave birth to the form. The word Nabati comes from the Arabic verb "to derive", a reference to its derivation from classical Arabic.
The centre has embarked on an ambitious programme to commemorate this essentially oral tradition to print.
"It's never been written anywhere," says Mr Sharar. "It is these poems that we're trying to find and preserve." This is a process that, by the very nature of the oral form, relies entirely and literally on word of mouth.
Despite the difficulties, the work is mining a rich seam. The centre hopes soon to begin publishing a magazine and up to four anthologies of poems a year, while a series of lectures and poetry readings is planned. Eventually, there are even plans to translate the poetry into other languages, including English and French.
Because the popular poetry requires no education or training, only a predilection for telling stories in prose, the genre is an essential element in preserving and passing on the history and traditions of society.
This, says Mr Sharar, is especially important for Arab cultures that, unlike those in the West, did not develop a strong drama tradition until modern times, but always had their poetry.
When historians study a period, they seek clues to the details of ordinary lives in contemporary literature and drama. Poetry, whether classical or Nabati, is the literature of the Arab world, and the vital work of the centre is to preserve the UAE's examples while it still can.
"We want to find, compile and preserve popular poetry so as to implant our heritage and tradition into the minds of the new generations," says Mr Sharar.
"This is especially important at a time when our habits and traditions are increasingly mixed with others'. The same goes for our dialects, too. There are Emiratis who come from Oman, Yemen, Iran, Mauritania, India, Palestine, Syria. They came here and are now Emirati. It is through our poetry that our traditions and heritage become clear."
In the entrance to the centre hang the portraits of a dozen or so Emirati poets, now dead, who preserved and contributed to the cultural tradition with their own unique takes on the genre. Among them is Rashid bin Tannaf, known for injecting his poems with humour, and Salim al Deeb, once the most famous pearl merchant in what is now the UAE.
Portraits of renowned poets on display at the Sharjah Centre for Popular Poetry. Jeff Topping / The National
Mr Sharar, a poet who for the past 25 years has hosted various heritage and poetry programmes on Dubai television, was chosen for his post by Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, the Ruler of Sharjah. He had also been selected from a list of Emirati poets by a committee at the Ministry of Culture to contribute a poem commemorating National Day in the anthology In Our Songs, now available free of charge at public libraries.
Tragedy, romance and poetry are no strangers to Mr Sharar. As an adult he has survived cancer and he navigated a childhood orphaned from the age of seven. He still serenades his wife with prose and composes when the mood takes him, as it did when a small bird stopped coming to his window sill, inspiring nostalgic verses.
A regular at Sheikh Sultan's court, Mr Sharar says the idea for the centre came directly from the Ruler, himself a scholar and an historian, who was anxious to see more attention paid to Emirati poetry. He first raised the topic a year ago from last Ramadan and in November Mr Sharar and a handful of support staff moved into a villa and transformed it into the headquarters of the Sharjah Centre for Popular Poetry. There are also plans to create another centre between Sharjah and Dubai, which will also be easily accessible to Ras Al Khaimah and the Eastern Region.
The poet has always had a special place in Arab culture, says Mr Sharar, being given the honorific "sha'er", or poet, before his or her name. Over the centuries rulers throughout the Arabian peninsula included poets as part of their court retinue; even outsiders passing through desert kingdoms knew they could go to a tribe's sheikh and compose in return for free lodging and, often, a sum of money or gifts to sustain them on their way.
"The traditional genre in such circumstance often involved praising the ruler, and the ruler in return would provide the travelling poet a sum of money and host him," says Mr Sharar.
"Sometimes a poet would criticise the ruler or relay a message or deliver the voice of a people in revolt. Whatever the status of society at the moment, the poet reflects the state of the people in his prose.
"Are they happy or rebellious? Well fed or hungry? At war or in a state of peace?
Even geography comes through a poem. Did the people who wrote live in the desert or in mountains? Was it coastal? Did they ride camels or horses or boats? The historical period also comes through. If the poet mentions Sheikh Zayed, then we know this poet was a contemporary of Sheikh Zayed."
In short, the poet is "the voice of the tribe, its chronicler and historian too". In times of war, he says, it was customary for the poet to deliver enthusiastic prose to get the warriors excited about the task ahead of them.
"The poet would teach a designated warrior certain poems to memorise, and the warrior would then shout it out to the other soldiers for the entirety of their journey. "When they returned home, the warriors would be reciting a different poem, this one describing their victory or defeat."
In the absence of written literature, the burden of capturing the very essence of Arabic culture from a certain time fell on the oral poets, whose remembered words offer snapshots of a lost world and the social elements of which it was composed - such traditions as hospitality, strong family ties, honour and pride, the very definition of a tribe.
"It's very important to preserve these traditions that we've had for centuries, especially now because the new generation is bombarded with foreign cultures and traditions," says Mr Sharar.
"We put strong emphasis on hospitality, family ties; we emphasise pride and dignity. All these characteristics are embedded in our poetry."
As the country changes and parents sometimes struggle to instil these traditions in their children, the task of preserving Nabati is, says Mr Sharar, more important now than ever.
"It's normal for a nation to move forward," he says. "But with advancement comes a loss, and that's what we're trying to preserve."
Extracts from the poems
Extract from the contemporary Nabati poem
Small bird on my window, by Rashid Sharar
I asked the window about my bird
He’s not sitting where he used to be
I used to find him with every new day
Greeting lovers with a song
The sound of his chanting awakened the roses
I’m now alone in my nostalgic love
I wish you’d humour me and return
so that my consciousness too will come back
Deprived of your voice I no longer know my role
The following extracts are from two poems more than 70 years old.
Fascinated by your spell, by Rashid al Khuder
Heavenly is your beauty;
Overwhelming is your glamour
My bleeding eyes are running with tears;
Reflecting your cheeks and henna
My heart is kindled with love,
While yours floods with snow
Beauty is envious of you;
Love celebrates your magnificence
Endless nights, by Salem bin Muhammad al Jamry
My beloved gives me the cold shoulder,
Making nights bitter and endless
Crawling time frame my sweetheart’s image,
Sadness and pain deprive me comfort and sleep.
Her bright face illuminates my nights,
With strokes of lightning and elusive happiness
Similar to a wild Oryx jumping out of the bush,
She startles my heart like a scared hunter