Over 1,000 people gathered at Al Raha Beach Theatre in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday night, January 16th, and hundreds of thousands more turned on the Baynounah and Al Emarat TV channels at 10 pm to watch the first episode of Million’s Poets 2018.
One by one, the first six poets – Fahan Nabhan (Oman), Ali Al Ghayat (Jordan), Musaabed Al Ajmi (Kuwait), Nawaf Al Dhaferi (Saudi Arabia), Tahani Al Tamimi (Saudi Arabia) and Obaid Al Kaabi (UAE) – gave their best composed verses and performance on Al Raha Beach Theatre’s stage, in front of the packed audience and the three competition judges, who gave each competitor feedback on the quality of their poems.
Organised by the Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee – Abu Dhabi, the Million’s Poet competition is the biggest literary reality show worldwide. It is reviving the centuries old Nabati (Bedouin) poetry, giving the young Arab generation a platform to preserve this art form, which is at the heart of the Bedouin cultural heritage.
Nabati poetry is a literary form typical to the Arabian Peninsula, dating back to the 16th century. It was once a form of recording history, as poems often reveal tribal conflicts, lifestyle, social issues and events. The verses were never written, but passed down from generation to generation orally.
Based on colloquial dialect, Nabati poetry is also knows as “the people’s poetry” or “Bedouin poetry”. It is considered the richest form of popular literature, a national treasure, unique to the Arabian Peninsula.
There are several theories about where the name ‘Nabati poetry’ came from. One is that this style of poetry originated in a place near Medina, called Nabat. Another reason that has been put forward is that when the Arabs first began to interact with other cultures and nationalities, certain words and linguistic traits were assimilated into classical Arabic to create a new form of Arabic. The people who spoke this style of Arabic, embellished with foreign vocabulary, were said to be speaking ‘Nabati’, which, in this sense, meant ‘foreign’.
A more popular theory is that Nabati poetry came from an ancient Arabic tribe called the Nabateans, who, between 200 BCE and 600 CE, established a considerable empire in the Fertile Crescent, with Petra, in Jordan, as its capital. They spoke a dialect of Arabic and later adopted Aramaic.
This theory does not, however, stand up to closer scrutiny. Nabati poetry is known to be the unique style of poets from the Arabian Peninsula, who are descended from known Arabic tribes. There is no known link between the Nabateans and any of these tribes. Besides this, no history book about the Nabateans, no matter how comprehensively it covers their culture and heritage, ever mentioned Nabati poetry.
The most likely theory is that the term ‘Nabati’ comes from the Arabic word ‘nabat’, meaning ‘to derive from’ or ‘to obtain the sense of one word from another word’. When the nomadic tribes of Arabia began to emigrate from their native lands, their language also changed. It shifted slightly away from classical Arabic to become a tribal dialect. Naturally, their poetry adopted this derived dialect, hence it became known as Nabati poetry.
Perhaps the most noteworthy characteristic of Nabati poetry is its spontaneity. Its composition is usually direct and unfaltering. This is not to say that it is of a poorer quality than classical Arabic poetry, or that the verses are composed in a rush, without consideration. It simply means that Nabati poets sought to create a simple style, combining artistic flair with clear, direct expression. The characteristics of the verse reflect those of the Bedouins of long ago. The poetry has been passed down through the generations in the same oral manner as in ancient times. Its success and survival is assured because of the simplicity and spontaneity of its style.
Nabati poetry deals with all subject matters, but some of the most popular are chivalry, pride, eulogy and wisdom. Chivalry, in fact, comprises the largest body of work in Nabati poetry. Most Nabati poets begin their poetic experience by composing a poem on chivalry.
Eulogy is usually characterized by praise and exaggeration; that is to say the poet exaggerates his narration of a person’s actions. This has acted as an inspiration for many Bedouin chiefs and princes, pushing them to achieve great things in the hope that they will be immortalized in verse and in the memory of their people.
Consultation and advice is an important facet of Bedouin life. It is said that, in the past, Bedouins would happily exchange a camel for a piece of good advice. The Nabati poet gives advice to society as a whole through his personal experience.
Another treat of Nabati poetry is proverbs, which are often included in the verses, especially those of the greatest poets, who wish to reinforce the meaning of their words with the colorful imagery of popular wisdom. Riddles too are a popular form of Nabati poems, being regarded as a separate genre of Nabati poetry since its origin. Almost all Nabati poets have composed this form of verse at some time.
The discovery of oil in the 1960s, which triggered urban development and a new, modern way of life, brought the decline of many Arab customs and traditions, Nabati poetry included. It is shows such as the Million’s Poet that changed the fate of Nabati verse, reviving the passion and the interest in this desert art form of expression. Launched in November 2007 and happening once every two years, it is safe to say that the Million’s Poet has changed the scene of Nabati poetry throughout the Arabian Gulf.
In this latest show happening over 15 weeks, 48 poets from 10 different countries will fight battles of words to win the title and the AED 5 million cash awarded to first place. Altogether, the cash prizes for the competition total AED 15 million, split between the top five poets – AED 5 million for first place, AED 4 million for the second, AED 3 million for the third place, AED 2 million for the fourth and AED 1 million for the fifth place. The winners will be revealed on 24th April 2018, the last day of the show.
This year, the 48 finalists were selected from thousands who applied for the competition. Since October last year, the Committee had toured Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi to hear the applicants and make a preselection of 150. After thorough testing, the judges selected the best 48 to enter the live show. They are this year’s best wordsmiths from Saudi Arabia (16 poets), Kuwait (nine poets), Jordan (five poets), Bahrain (three poets), Oman (three poets), Syria (3 poets), Iraq (one poet), Egypt (one poet) and Yemen (one poet). From the UAE, five poets have qualified for the competition.
Through an elimination process, based on the judges and audiences’ votes, the best six will qualify to the final round, when the top five will be awarded. The competitions will take place every Tuesday night, from 10 pm, at Al Raha Beach Theatre.