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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Ancient Bedouin verse, the ‘people’s poetry’, has found a new audience

This ancient Bedouin verse has found a new audience thanks to a well-known television show but for academics, Nabati poetry is a cultural touchstone, writes Nick Leech
A Bedouin tent welcomes Arab farmers invited to a wedding celebration in 1934. Kluger Zoltan / Government Press Office
A Bedouin tent welcomes Arab farmers invited to a wedding celebration in 1934. Kluger Zoltan / Government Press Office
On Monday night, two of the world's foremost experts on Arabic oral tradition, Saad Sowayan and Marcel Kurpershoek, will sit in the garden of the NYUAD campus to discuss Nabati poetry, their shared obsession, and the object of their life's work. Unlike classical Arabic poetry, which is written according to the rules of literary Arabic – the Arabic of the Quran – Nabati has its own idiom and rules and is performed in the dialects spoken by the nomadic tribes of the Arabian Peninsula.

To English speakers unfamiliar with the charms of Bedouin verse, a genre often described as “people's poetry”, the evening may sound like an event for the specialist, but that would be a profound misunderstanding of both its importance and the potential breadth of its appeal. For Arabic speakers throughout the GCC and surrounding region – the lands of the Bedouin – Nabati is more than a matter of literature, Nabati is a proud matter of ethnicity and identity. Nabati is also box office.

For anyone familiar with Million's Poet, the bi-annual Nabati poetry competition broadcast live across the Arab world from Abu Dhabi's Al Raha Beach Theatre, the genre needs no introduction. When it was first broadcast, Million's Poet scored higher ratings than televised football, and was hailed as one of the most successful Arab television shows ever. In the West, Million's Poet was hailed as the Arab world's answer to The X-Factor – not bad for a programme funded by the then-Abu Dhabi Authority of Culture and Heritage as a vehicle for reviving an ancient form of colloquial poetry.

Inspired by the success of the TV programme, the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation established a Nabati poetry academy in 2008 and in 2010, Nabati poetry captured the headlines again thanks to Hissa Hilal, a veiled mother of four from Saudi Arabia. Hilal, the first woman to make it to the finals of Million's Poet, divided audiences when she recited a 15-verse Nabati poem that criticised Muslim preachers who were “frightening” people with their fatwas. Hilal just missed out on the show's top prize, Dh5 million, but walked away with Dh3 million in a remarkable third place.

The links between the UAE and the current vogue for all things Nabati run deeper. Last year not only saw the publication of The Nabati Poetry of the UAE by Clive Holes and Said Salman Abu Athera, but it also saw an Emirati, the poet Rashid Al Rumaithi, win the fifth edition of Million's Poet, the first UAE national to do so. In an interview with The National, Mohammed Khalaf Al Mazrouei, then the Director of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, declared that “Nabati poetry is the legacy of the UAE and the contest is important for its future”.

Just as Nabati poetry has a history that stretches back many hundreds of years – it was already many centuries old when the renowned medieval historian, Ibn Khaldun quoted it in his 1377 work, Al Muqaddima – so the experts gathered at NYUAD have careers that stretch back beyond Nabati's current renaissance.

Frequently outspoken, Saad Sowayan is one of Saudi Arabia's foremost anthropologists and ethnographers. Born in the town of Unaizah, deep in the heart of the Al Qassim province of central Saudi Arabia, Nabati poetry is in his blood. Not only was his father a gifted composer of Nabati, but his maternal grandfather was also recognised as a talented reciter of the verse.

Sowayan is the author of an extensive list of works on Nabati poetry that includes Nabati Poetry – The Oral Poetry of Arabia, and The Arabian Oral Historical Narrative. He has spent decades researching and recording Nabati poetry in the field, producing a body of work and an archive of material that places the verse and its associated narratives in their cultural, linguistic, literary, and historical context. The result, the Nabati Poetry Project, has been described as an “invaluable register” of pre-modern Arabia.

Then the Netherlands' ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Marcel Kurpershoek's first experience of Nabati poetry also occurred in Saudi Arabia where, as an experienced Arabist and linguist, he was surprised to find in Nabati a form of Arabic he couldn't readily understand. Kurpershoek decided to immerse himself in the local culture and spent four years visiting majlis's in Riyadh's Nasim quarter, an area popular with Bedouin, where he was able to hear Nabati poetry and meet local scholars who collected the poems. It was here that he received the necessary training – in Bedouin vocabulary, manners, etiquette, protocol, and genealogy – that eventually enabled him to conduct his own research in the field. Twelve years later, Kurpershoek produced his five-volume, 3,000-page magnum opus, Oral Poetry and Narrtives from Central Arabia.

On Monday night, as Sowayan and Kurpershoek discuss the traditions and the historical context of Nabati poetry in Abu Dhabi, the judges of Million's Poet will be out on the road, searching for the contestants who will take part in the sixth edition of the Bedouin world's favourite competition. Academics, linguists, and poets alike, they are all part of a remarkable cultural phenomenon that represents more than a thousand years of living tradition. As Kurpershoek says: “Poetry is such an integral part of Bedouin and tribal life, it cannot be ignored.”

• Understanding Nabati Poetry: Tools of the Trade, a panel discussion with Saad Sowayan and Marcel Kurpershoek, will take place on November 11 at 6.30pm at NYUAD Campus Garden in downtown Abu Dhabi. To register your attendance, visit nyuad.nyu.edu.

Nick Leech is a features writer at The National