While no Nobel Prize winner has yet risen from the ranks of poets in UAE, the wealth of Arab literary compositions – and their distinct themes – is highly regarded. Dominant themes in poetry range from satire, chivalry, self-praise, patriotism, religion, family and love, and could range from descriptive to narrative.
Princes, sheikhs, sailors and teachers make the crop of poets in the Arab world. Poetry in fact seems to subordinate other forms of art such as calligraphy, architecture and music in this region.
The style and form of ancient poetry in UAE was strongly influenced by the eighth century Gulf Arab scholar, Al Khalil bin Ahmed, which followed sixteen metres. This form underwent slight modification (Al Muwashahat) during the period of Islamic civilization in Andalucia (Spain), where “the line or bait adhered to the two hemistitches form, each with an equal number of feet, all the second hemistitches ending in the same rhyming letter and sound throughout the poem.”1 The indigenous Arabic poetry form, however, was not spared from western influence; sometime in the 20th century prose poetry started to make their way into the local literary scene.
The earliest known poet in the UAE is Ibn Majid, who was born between 1432 and 1437 in Ras Al Khaimah. Coming from a family of successful sailors, Ibn Majid has a total of 40 surviving compositions, 39 of which are verses. Another poet gained the respect of his peers in the 17th century, Ibn Daher, who also hailed from Ras Al Khaimah. Ibn Daher utilized nabati poetry (also known as the people’s poetry or Bedouin poetry), using the everyday vernacular dialect, as opposed to poetry in classical Arabic.
The greatest luminaries in the UAE literary realm during the 20th century, particularly for Classical Arabic poetry, were Mubarak Al Oqaili (1880-1954), Salem bin Ali al Owais (1887-1959) and Ahmed bin Sulayem (1905 -1976). Three other poets from Sharjah, known as the Hirah group, also thrived during the 20th century including Khalfan Musabah (1923-1946), Sheikh Saqr Al Qasimi (1925-1993), an ex-ruler of Sharjah, and Sultan bin Ali al Owais (1925-2000). The Hirah group’s works are observed to have been heavily influenced by the Apollo and romantic poets.
The late president His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan as well as His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, are also known to have penned nabati poetry.