Novels may not be in every (Arab) hand, but poetry lives and breathes, particularly on the peninsula.
This is not necessarily the poetry that one would recognize in the West—our sometimes difficult to understand, sometimes exhilarating, almost never popular lines—but nabati has its music, its beauty, and its relevance.
It has become particularly popular since advent of the “Million’s Poet” show. Now, Saudis can also enjoy poetry by dialing 1401.
“Same3ni does not only give you the opportunity to know about the latest poetic passages, you also get to listen to the voice of the poets themselves…. A lot of people are grateful for the chance to feed their souls with a good poem or two.”
“Poetry was meant to be heard,” says Dr Stephen C. Caton, a specialist in Yemeni oral poetry. He recently lectured on the oral poetry of the peninsula, known as al shir al nabati—nabati poetry—or al-shir al shabi’—popular poetry. This poetic form has seen a resurgence lately, with big poetry prizes sponsored by the UAE.
Writer and UAE resident Chris Wright gives a somewhat tongue-in-cheek view of the nabati phenomenon. He says:
“Nabati is to this tradition what break dancing is to the minuet. It’s meant to be loose-limbed and spontaneous, recited in everyday language, expressing common concerns. Its rules are negotiable; if it sounds good over a plate of al harees, you’re in.”
He quotes Ghassan Al Hassan, a Nabati scholar and a “Million’s Poet” judge as saying: “Nabati speaks the language of the common people.”
But poetry is not just a phenomenon of the (Arabian) peninsula. It exists in North Africa as well; even a young Egyptian scientist might feel the need to express him or herself poetically, as in this contest.
There is very little nabati—or popular—poetry in translation. Perhaps it is not necessarily relevant in English worlds; it is not our idea of poetry. Novels and short stories, I believe, are fairly similar around the world. (I say “fairly similar,” not carbon copies.) But poetry can have quite variable standards for success and quality.
Read some official Nabati poetry. I wish I could find some Million’s Poet work in translation, but nay.
Read an official introduction to nabati poetry.
It’s Phase 2 of the latest Million’s Poet. Who will win?
Of course, this is Persian and not Arabic, but the Guardian has an interesting piece about cross-cultural judging of poetry, translation, and the poems of Ayatollah Khomeini.