“Million’s Poet”: When Nabati poetry speaks up in Middle East

Carefully selected poets

The fifth season of Abu Dhabi’s hit TV show “Million’s Poet” is approaching its climax.
Next month, five of the 48 carefully selected poets who have been battling weekly since January at the Pleasure Beach Theatre in Abu Dhabi will win cash prizes totalling 15 million dirhams [approximately £2.6 million GBP]. Vibrant tradition The poets compete by reciting a type of poetry called Nabati poetry which has a vibrant tradition in the Arabian Gulf dating back 1500 years and which employs a variety of Arabic that some scholars believe is similar to that which was used in pre-Islamic poetry.
“There is a remarkable similarity between the vocabulary of Bedouin Nabati poetry and the classical poetry that was being composed before Islam” said Prof. Clive Holes, the Khalid bin'Abdullah Al-Sa'ud Professor for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World at the University of Oxford.
“I am pretty certain that there is a connection between pre-Islamic poetry and traditional Nabati poetry in modern day Arabia. It exists in the same geographical space, but it is like a slightly updated version.”
Prof. Holes is a leading authority on Arabian poetry and author of two recent books on the subject, Poetry and Politics in Contemporary Bedouin Society (Garnet Press and AUC Press, 2009) and The Nabati Poetry of the United Arab Emirates (Garnet, 2011).
Since the poetry employs a vocabulary quite unlike that used in normal speech – what dialect specialists call a ‘poetic koine’ - it is impenetrable to most Arabs.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that Million’s Poet continues to draw millions of viewers in its 5th season and organisers say this time around 20,000 people from more than 20 countries applied to take part.

Million’s Poet continues to draw millions of viewers
Renaissance in Arabian Gulf poetry Thanks in large part to the show, the last decade has witnessed a major renaissance in Arabian Gulf poetry, the region’s premier art form, and ordinary people and governments a like have started to realise the importance of safe-guarding their cultural heritage.
“The Gulf generally has moved fantastically quickly and many people feel a lot has been lost, old buildings knocked down and poetry put on one side” commented Prof. Holes.
“Now they regret it and realise this is what made them who they are, so they are on a voyage of self-rediscovery. Million’s Poet is a reassertion of identity, this is why it is popular.”
Being a poet in the Gulf is not so much a job as a pastime, anyone can do it as long as they have the talent, and all kinds of people do. Several ruling family members are noted poets including Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid of Dubai.
Poet and Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed

Historically the poet’s job was not to express his or her own views so much as advocate those of their tribe or community. Today Nabati poetry has transformed from an inter-tribal medium into a powerful contemporary means of making social or political criticism and commentary about the nation-state.
It is a remarkably democratic means by which anyone, from prince to pauper, can win influence and - in the case of Million’s Poet – a lot of money too.
Poetry on state-run TV shows tends to be fairly anodyne with a rose-tinted view on events past and present, but home produced poetry audio-recordings which circulate widely inside Gulf countries often contain much edgier content.
“Poetry used to be a means for tribes to converse and sometimes wars over poetry could turn into real wars” commented Prof. Holes. “Nowadays poetry is used to address social issues, for example criticising consumerism or intermarriage with foreigners and sometimes for making oblique criticism about those in power.”
The wild success of the show is the crowning achievement in the extraordinary development of the media that has occurred in the Arabian Gulf.
100 years ago poetry in the Gulf was still being composed and transmitted in a way similar to how myths and legends were recounted in northern Europe around the 6th century AD. Cultural Awakening
Fifty ago the UAE was still so beset with illiteracy that ruler Sheikh Shakboot would summon his court reader whenever he needed something read.
Fast forward to 2012 and Dubai’s Media City has become a regional media hub hosting more than 1300 media companies and Abu Dhabi has invested billions in state of-the-art media facilities in its 200,000 square metre Media Zone attracting many of the world’s best known international media organizations.
Extraordinary development of media

The Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority which oversees “Millions’ Poet runs several other media projects including the Kalima translation project and the Sheikh Zayed Book Award.
The Abu Dhabi Media Company owns several radio and TV channels, a stable of magazines and radio stations, as well as the Gulf’s leading English-language newspaper.
Last month its subsidiary Imagination, launched in 2008 with access to more than $1 billion to fund making movies and computer games, won an Oscar at the 84th Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles for the movie "The Help" which it co-produced. Hugh Miles is a writer and journalist living in Cairo. His books include Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World and Playing Cards in Cairo.