x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Verse versus verse: a reciting war in Qatar

Saloon Doha's young poets step into the ring.

Doha's young poets step into the ring. In the Arabian Peninsula of the sixth century, the emergence of a talented poet was an event, ensuring a tribe's renown as well as its future posterity. Seven of the more revered poems from the era - collectively called the Mu'allaqat, or Suspended Odes - are said to have been written on tapestries and hung from the Kaaba, Mecca's sacred cube, before the arrival of Islam. As the setting for a youth poetry recitation contest, then, Aaqol Atrium - a broad, high-ceilinged space in the community centre of Doha's Education City - seemed appropriate. The event, officially titled the Aspiring Youth Poetry Slam, had been organised by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP), a non-profit subsidiary of the Qatar Foundation with a publishing arm managed by London-based Bloomsbury Publishing.

At the event's 5pm start time, the room was all but empty, and the proffered coffee, juices, cakes and sandwiches sat untouched. But as the sinking sun's rays filtered through the entrance, so too did a trickle of anxious poets and their guests. "I'm not staying here, go back," a headscarved girl whispered to a friend, who then pushed the whisperer towards the front. "Come on, let's not be shy," said another girl, urging her friends to sit.

Outside, darkness fell. After a few introductory remarks by a BQFP staffer, the readings began. Gothic and purple verses flew. "His image viciously tears the ideas in my mind," intoned Walaa Quisay, a dimpled Egyptian student from the International School of Choueifat. "His eyes penetrate my corpse and contaminate the blood of my heart." Salima, a Northwestern University-Qatar freshman in skinny jeans, canvas trainers and a sky blue headscarf, furrowed her brow and tightly gripped the page from which she read - "So you're tired of dreaming / And breathing / And looking for reasons to smile at the spotless sun" - then beamed at the audience's burst of applause.

She was followed by Sundus Sardar, a Weill Cornell freshman and, to judge by her writing, a fan of Edgar Allen Poe. "Darkness rolling... churning... eyes blinking no more," she began, punctuating each phrase with a pause, as if her poem, The Unheard Screams of Death, were stalking its listeners. "Existence burning... screaming... flesh feeling no more." At the end of the evening's English-language portion, the poets stood in a line before the audience, which indicated its favourites with applause, then chose a finalist with a show of hands. Two high school girls tied for the top honour and were given some writing paraphernalia; all received praise and thanks.

"We chose poetry because it has a strong Arab foundation," Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, BQFP's director of reading and writing development, said during a break in the readings. "It also offers a natural platform for youth involvement." A couple of weeks ago, the organisation held a poetry contest over Twitter. Next month they'll hold a competition for the best text message poems. "We want to show people there is a lot of creativity in Doha, across nationalities, across age groups," said Rajakumar, who hopes to improve the image of Arabs in the western world. "We also want to keep that connection to the language, that love of Arabic."

After the break, the evening's Arabic recitation commenced. "Qatar, the home of glory," read Abdullah Saeed al Muraikhi, a 16-year-old student at Omar Iban al Khatab Prepatory School. "Qatar, the home of close friends. The country of glory that passed from father to son: Abu Meshaal, the symbol of our pride." Perhaps the evening's most lively performance was delivered by Mohamed Saeed al Marri, a classmate of al Muraikhi's, who arrived at the last minute, hurried onto the stage and launched into a passionate reading of his poem Shedding Tears.

"Your love is deep in my heart, not affected by blowing wind. The only thing that could wound me deeply was your abandoning me. I hoped to step in your way and shout, Damn your exaggerated pride, of position and reputation." The 16-year-old, who wore a bright white thobe and ghutra with his oral (the black ring that keeps the headscarf in place) at a jaunty angle, punctuated his phrases by peering heavenwards or gesturing with his left hand, which was wrapped with prayer beads. "For lovers, desertion is the ultimate. I will struggle to live without you, though it is so difficult. I have tried to control my tears but they help me by coming out."

Later, as the half-filled room emptied, Mohamed spoke of his love for Gulf poetry, his support network of writers and readers, and his new-found confidence. "You see how I come in late, things are a little crazy, but still it works out and I am able to read my poems and get things done," he said in English. "Maybe this habit has given me a good strong persona. I feel like I can do anything I want - nothing is impossible."


* David Lepeska