Nabati poetry has been a feature of life in the Arabian Peninsula since the 16th century. In certain eras, this poetry was the only record of historical events. Historians only know of these events because the Nabati poems have been passed down through generations.
Nabati poetry shows the natural creativity of the Gulf’s inhabitants and represents their roots in this land. It is their everyday dialect. A strong dialect, slightly removed from classical Arabic. It should be studied so that it may be preserved.
Nabati poetry is also known as “the people’s poetry” and “Bedouin poetry”. It is considered the richest form of popular literature, and seen to reflect the reality of everyday life.
Nabati poetry is a great literary treasure, and a phenomenon unique to the Arabian Peninsula. Its form and content, literary significance, social function and historical value also make it a unique style of poetry. It is the document on which one can catch a glimpse of the past, or even get a more precise idea of historical customs. It depicts the situations faced by the countries of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula before their modern-day renaissance.
Why is it called ‘Nabati’ poetry?
There are several theories about where the name ‘Nabati poetry’ came from.
One suggestion 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’. Also, in classical Arabic, one says, for example, ‘to derive water’, to mean extracting water from the ground. 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.
The most notable 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 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 the subjects addressed by classical Arabic poetry. They include the following:
Chivalry – Chivalry is very important in Nabati poetry. The poems on chivalry comprise its largest body of work dedicated to a particular subject. Most Nabati poets begin their poetic experience by composing a poem on chivalry.
Eulogy – In Nabati poetry, the eulogy is characterised 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 immortalised in verse and in the memory of their people.
Satire – The alter ego of the eulogy. One can find examples of satire in Nabati poetry, but they are very rare.
Pride and exaltation – After chivalry, this is the next subject most commonly tackled in Nabati poetry. Bedouin life is centred on the work of the tribe. A true Bedouin cannot travel, live, or defend himself alone, and would not wish to. Loyalty and devotion to his tribe and the desire for unity are vital attributes for a Bedouin. When the poets address pride and exaltation, it is to express their pride in, and exalt, their people, not themselves. The poets call for harmony amongst people.
Advice and wisdom – 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.
Society – Naturally, the poet suffers the same everyday problems as the rest of the society. Through his verse, he can outline the rights and wrongs and discourage greed, cowardice and other faults.
Description – The passion of Nabati poets for nature, and particularly the sands and dunes of the desert, stimulates their fertile imaginations. Thanks to the richness of their vocabulary, they are capable of portraying a tableau in precise detail. Those who hear a recital of descriptive Nabati verse can imagine themselves transported to the very place depicted by the poet.
Proverbs – Proverbs are contained in most Nabati poems, especially those of the greatest poets, who wish to reinforce the meaning of their words with the colourful imagery of popular wisdom.
Narrative – The narrative poem has always been part of Nabati poetry. The inherent style of Nabati lends itself perfectly to storytelling, with the poet as narrator. Much of what historians know of past events in the Arabian Peninsula has been learned through narrative Nabati poems.
Riddles – Riddles have been regarded as a separate genre of Nabati poetry since its origin. Almost all Nabati poets have composed this form of verse at some time. Sheikh Mohammed is a renowned riddle writer, whose riddles attract responses from throughout the world.
Pastiche – A pastiche imitates the style of another poet, by echoing the theme, structure and vocabulary of the original. It is usually created to show the composer’s admiration for the poet being imitated, and to showcase his technical ability.
Epic – The epic is a contemporary Nabati subject, introduced recently by Sheikh Mohammed in his famous poem ‘The Epic of the Emirates’.
Nabati poetry is a central part of the rich heritage of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. The recitation of Nabati verse is a mark of people’s respect for this heritage. Reading and understanding Nabati poems will also afford a greater understanding of the present.