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Bringing poetry to reality TV

An Abu Dhabi poetry competition revives the popularity of an ancient form of storytelling.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Ziyad Hijab bin Naheet felt like he was in a dream. Standing on the stage under bright lights and a storm of confetti, he raised his long arms in victory. The audience of 2,000 — many of whom had driven eight hours to be there — applauded wildly. Across the Arab world, another 17 million viewed his televised triumph from home.

The moment climaxed a long, grueling competition over several months. And now, Naheet, 34, had emerged an Arab hero, walking away with the Abu Dhabi TV program’s top prize of $1,361,207.64.

“It’s like the ‘American Idol’ of the Arab world,” observed journalist Tala Al Ramahi.

But Naheet’s talent was not singing or dancing. He did not survive weeks on a tropical island populated with deranged creatures, nor endure months of rooming with neurotic housemates.
His artistry, rather, is poetry. More specifically, Nabati poetry.

An ancient form of storytelling in rhymed verse, Nabati is a product of the Arabian peninsula’s Bedouin culture. Unlike classical Arab poetry, it is recited in tribal dialects.

“It’s the most famous genre of poetry in the Gulf,” explained Muhammad Ayish, a professor of communications at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, the seven-state nation nestled between Saudi Arabia and Oman.

Historically, Nabati poets “are the mouthpieces of their tribes,” usually singing the praises of tribal leaders, Ayish said. They also use their verse to raise issues of social concern. One of Naheet’s rival contestants, for example, recited a poem about the gap between rich and poor.
Poetry, whether traditional Nabati or modern verse, is revered in Arab culture.

“The WORD has always played an important role in our lives,” wrote Nashwa Al Ruwaini, the producer of "Millions’ Poet," the television program on which Naheet recently appeared.

“Arabs have often used the poetry form of expression in all aspects of life, from asserting an idea to mobilizing the masses,” Al Ruwaini added in emailed responses to questions from GlobalPost.

The live audience at this season’s final installment of "Millions’ Poet" included many young people — a heartening sight to elders concerned about the influence of western pop culture on their children.

A major reason for this interest is the active support of the regional governments in the United Arab Emirates for reviving Nabati poetry, Ayish said. “It’s a very important way to promote indigenous culture and to preserve local culture and heritage, especially in this time of globalization when people feel that their own culture is under threat,” he said.

The governments' efforts have included poetry festivals, the recently opened Sharjah Center for Popular Poetry, and the Abu Dhabi Poetry Academy, a new facility where poets will offer courses in the ancient art form.

But it is the popular "Millions’ Poet," which just completed its third season, that has done the most to renew interest in Nabati.

Al Ruwaini, the CEO of the Abu Dhabi-headquartered media production company Pyramedia Ltd., recalled that "Millions’ Poet" arose from a concern at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) that with globalization and satellite television, many young people were “becoming engrossed in popular music channels and foreign TV shows [and] slowly forgetting their cultural roots.”