x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Words in golden ink

Feature Poetry has long held a special place in the hearts of Arabs, a treasure trove of wisdom that keeps alive the glory and pride of the past. Bushra Alkaff al Hashemi describes its popularity among Emiratis and names some of her favourite poets, ancient and modern.

ILLUSTRATION: JOSH BERER
ILLUSTRATION: JOSH BERER

Poetry has long held a special place in the hearts of Arabs, a treasure trove of wisdom that keeps alive the glory and pride of the past. Bushra Alkaff al Hashemi describes its popularity among Emiratis and names some of her favourite poets, ancient and modern.

Throughout history, poetry has been the mirror and reflection of all Arabs. Known as "Diwan al Arab", meaning "The register of the Arabs", it reflects Arabs' deepest identity, thoughts, pride and glory. A poet voiced his age, the mood of the people, the politics of the times he lived in. Love, war, death - the big themes - were channelled into verse. My mother always says: "Great poetry depends on the meaning in the building of it." She believes that the greatest poets are those who speak their wisdom in rhyme, and that the core of this wisdom is "knowing God".

Different tribes took pride in their poets, and the fame of their long poems - qasidah - spread far and wide. I think of these works as hidden treasures. They can tell you as much about a life once lived as any artefact unearthed by archaeologists. Through the descriptions of scents, swords, animals, weather and palm trees, we hear about the great stories of the past - stories of glory and pride, love between men and women, failures and despair, humour and grief.

Poetry in ancient Arabia was disseminated through the souks, which were as much a market for ideas as merchandise. The most famous was Souk Ukaz, near Mecca. For 20 days a year, poets from all over Arabia would mingle with traders. They came to recite their work before a panel of judges. The winning poem would be written in gold ink and hung on the Kaaba door for a year. Today, classical Arabic poetry can be difficult to interpret because it was written in an archaic version of the language. The difficulties are the same as when one tries to read Chaucer. But poetry is alive and well, as the popularity of the TV show Million's Poet demonstrated. The late Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE, wrote many poems and songs, and one of the highlights of the final episode of Million's Poet was a rare clip of him in 1975 explaining the difference between classical Arabic poetry and Nabati poetry, an indigenous form of verse unique to the Gulf region.

Also inspired by Sheikh Zayed is another poet, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who initiated the "house of poetry", a centre for researching and documenting Arabic poetry and strengthening its presence. I have many favourite poems, both classical and Nabati, and would recommend the following to anyone who wants to get to know the beautiful art form: First, the poems of Sayyidina Ali ibn Abi Talib, Prophet Mohammed's cousin and the fourth caliph. He is known as "Door of the City of Knowledge" and the "Possessor of a wise heart and inquiring tongue" and all his poems contain much wisdom.

I also love the most famous poem of Hammam ibn Ghalib (circa 641 - 728), known as al Farazdaq. The story goes that one year during Haj, al Farazdaq found himself standing beside the caliph, Hisham Abd al Malik, struggling without success to reach the black stone in Kaaba through the crowd. The poet stood aside waiting for the way to clear. Just by the entrance the Prophet's grandson, Imam Zain al Abideen, was also trying to get in. The crowd, seeing him, fell back and opened a way for him. The caliph, deeply offended, inquired sarcastically, who was this person to whom the people had shown such preferential treatment. Al Farazdaq composed a poem about it on the spot.

Osha bint Khalifa al Suwaidi, known as the "Gulf Laureate Poet", who started composing poems at 15, is an inspiration to female poets. Many of her poems have been turned into songs, particularly by Meehad Hamad. Listening to her words gives you a true feeling of the origins of this land. One of my favourite lines reads: "le muhebin menni oo mennah, hob methl el johar el Safi", which compares love to a pure jewel.

The poems of Prince Khalid Alfaisal al Saud, a son of the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, are full of wisdom about the way we should treat life and other people, and his relationship with the desert and nature. My favourite starts with: "la tesa'alooni men ana" (Don't ask me who I am), where he explains that the core of his identity is to be found in his love of the desert. The desert is my ancestor's home,

My bed is the earth, and the ceiling is the sky, And I will always cherish its soil, I enjoy freedom from any ties, I love to walk in spacious grounds, I am enveloped with unlimited longing, And nothing can hold me down.