Poetry plays an important role in the daily reality of the Arab world. Far from being a thing of the past, it has extended its sway through television and the internet to reach audiences of millions. Mixed with traditional themes such as lovers' complaints, poetry gives voice to current social and political concerns, and charts striking shifts in people's sensibilities. It is an artist's blog for critique and satire, as well as for the affirmation of society's values.
For outsiders, language can be a barrier, but that obstacle has now been removed by Clive Holes and Said Salman Abu Athera in their anthology of Emirati verse with English translations. Its variety, based on judicious choice, allows us to get to know the UAE through its most authentic voices and, at the same time, the art of Arab poetry in the Gulf in its current guise.
As in the title, the word "nabati" is used to denote the poetry circulating among the population of the Arabian peninsula in general, unlike the poetry written according to the rules of literary Arabic, for which the Quran is the supreme example. According to some, nabati may stem from the ancient Nabataeans who lived in Petra and other parts of north-western Arabia. It is commonly translated as "vernacular, popular", but this may suggest that this type of poetry is the domain of uneducated, "backwards" segments of society, waiting to be eradicated by general progress towards modern standard Arabic. While purists may see it that way, the facts are otherwise.
Early examples of nabati poetry are given by the medieval historian Ibn Khaldun in Al Muqaddima (The Introduction), his renowned work first published in 1377. Nabati poetry, therefore, has a pedigree that reaches back hundreds of years and perhaps even more. As pointed out by the preeminent authority in this field, Dr Saad A Sowayan, in Nabati Poetry, the Oral Poetry of Arabia, his groundbreaking 1985 work, Bedouin poets composed verse remarkably similar in structure, theme, metre and rhyme to the odes by Imru'l Qays and other pre-Islamic poets. These qasida's set the classical standard for hundreds of years. Remarkably, until quite recently, verse composed by illiterate Bedouin masters of the art has remained close in spirit and language to these examples.