More Than Words: Arabic Poetry and the Legacy of the Spoken Word in the UAE

© Claude Aranza / Culture Trip
© Claude Aranza / Culture Trip | © Claude Aranza / Culture Trip
Joe Worthington

The spoken word holds a special place in Emirati culture. Used throughout history as a way to tell stories, this oral tradition has reemerged recently as a competitive art form where poets battle it out to tell their tales to a modern audience.

For centuries, a small group of men were chosen to pass on tribal legends through the art of storytelling and poetry recitals to future generations. The Hakawati, as these storytellers were known, were the novelists of their day. They would tell stories to entertain and inform, to spread wisdom and moral lessons, and to keep stories of tribal heroism and religious teachings alive.

They attracted generations of families to public gatherings and broke into spontaneous narrative, retelling the enthralling tales of conquests, conflicts and mythical creatures they had learned from their forebears. The Hakawati, like soothsayers and priests, told stories that were intended to offer solutions to problems affecting society.

The tradition of Arab storytelling is said to date back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, when few people could read and write and the only way to learn was through the spoken word. Within Arab tribal society, the Hakawati were able to bridge the divisions within generations and between tribes.

As the Arab world emerged as a series of nation states – including the UAE – an aspect of the Hakawati tradition has reemerged within the Emirates. During Ramadan, the Hakawati would often compete with other storytellers to attract the largest crowds, and this competitive storytelling has inspired a new form of Emirati entertainment – slam poetry.

Modern day poetry slams and the reinvention of Hakawati storytelling

These days, poetry slams draw large crowds, but the contemporary interpretation of Hakawati poetry is not a direct replica of the traditional form of storytelling. The poetry slams taking place in Dubai today have a lot in common with the popular “slam poetry” competitions in the United States, where poets compete against each other, though the legacy of Arab storytelling adds its own unique flavour to these performances.

The popularity of storytelling in the Emirates can be credited to the legendary poet Ousha bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi, commonly known as Ousha the Poet, who led the way in establishing the national literature of the UAE after federalisation in 1971. Her poems were so important to Emirati culture that the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, led tributes at her funeral in 2018.

Ousha the Poet, also known as the ‘Girl of the Arabs’, was an Arabic Nabati poet who wrote verses that were popular among Bedouin tribes. Many of her poems were inspired by classical Hakawati poets such as Abu Tammam and Al Muntannabi. Ousha bint Khalifa was perhaps the first poet to bridge the gap between traditional storytelling and contemporary Emirati poetry.

Today, Dubai’s poetry scene is divided into six distinct groups: Punch Poetry and on-the-spot poetry; Rooftop Rhythms, which was established by poet Dorian Paul Rogers in Abu Dhabi as a way to bring small groups of poets together; Blank Space, which is an open mic platform in Dubai where up to 25 poets perform on stage; Dubai Poetics and the empowerment of grassroots movements; Echoes, which gives voices to new poets; and the DXB Speakeasy, which holds poetry writing and performance workshops.

Afra Atiq, a slam poet famous for her Blank Space performances, believes that “we are all vessels for stories and our capacity for storytelling doesn’t change even if the medium, aesthetics and format change.” This is a belief that many contemporary poets share, and however they choose to perform their poems, they all try to tell a story, just like the Hakawati storytellers.

Dubai’s slam poets

There are a number of spoken word poets across the Arab world who are working to revive and celebrate their heritage of verbal storytelling. Atiq, the first female Emirati spoken word poet, has already won numerous awards. She is of Emirati-Japanese heritage and speaks numerous languages, including English, French and Arabic, but her Emirati heritage plays an important role in her poetic themes.

She believes “language and poetry are both fluid”. This is a modern evolution of poetic storytelling. Whereas the Hakawati only told tales in Arabic, Atiq says, “blending languages in poetry is a natural step. It is amazing to use multiple languages because it has the potential to reach a wider audience”. Atiq says that she wants to inspire future generations with her poetry and hopes that her work will “become part of the proud legacy of Emirati poetry”.

“Poetry and storytelling have always been a huge part of the Arabic and especially Emirati culture. I am blessed to carry such an important part of who we are as a culture,” she says.

Venues showcasing the contemporary spoken word

The popularity of this art form in Dubai has grown over the past few years from 30 poetry events in 2016 to more than 100 in 2018. Clubs, cafés, schools and anywhere that can host crowds have opened their doors to spoken word performances.

The Dubai Poetry Slam, founded in 2015, hosts poetry-themed events every Saturday throughout the year, welcoming poets and performers for open mic poetry nights. Others, such as Poeticians, Punch, and Blank Space have since followed suit, organising regular meet-ups for poets, fans of poets, and those looking to experience the art of Hakawati storytelling.

The Dubai Poetry Slam (DPS) is the most famous spoken-word platform in the UAE. A community initiative that recreates the Arab Hakawati, it is a platform for local youth who want to showcase their spoken-word skills in front of an audience.

Slam poetry and similar forms of poetic storytelling is quickly emerging as an experience akin to theatre or opera plays. Omran Al Mohamad, co-founder of the DPS and a spoken-word artist, says that audiences have become increasingly diverse and hopes to expand his shows and workshops and eventually open his own venue for this art.

The future of Dubai’s poetry culture

The hard work of poets to revive art is paying off. Atiq tells Culture Trip that contemporary forms of storytelling and poetry are having a renaissance at the moment, but they have always been part of the culture and artistic heritage of the Arab region.

Storytelling – whether through poetry or narrative – is ingrained in Arab culture, and Dubai is committed to opening venues dedicated to the spoken word and promoting the art form around the world online. Poets like Afra Atiq are taking the lead.

Dubai may be leading the way, but the underlying roots of Hakawati are becoming known outside of the Arab world, whether in the London award-winning film production company of the same name that puts storytelling at the heart of every film, or the social justice not-for-profit named Hakawati based in Los Angeles and Berlin that explores the intersection between spirituality and storytelling.

The Hakawati earned their place in Arab society through their storytelling, and today their stories are being told through the art of competitive poetry. Although the Hakawati have largely disappeared from society, their traditions live on.

Culture Trip Summer Sale

Save up to $1,395 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

Edit article