Nabati is the name given to a colloquial form of Arabic that emerged with the spread of Islam. As non-Arabic natives accepted Islam into their lives, they began to speak some Arabic, but it was slightly different from classical Arabic and became known as Nabati. It is also known as "Bint al rimal" (lit. Daughter of the sands). Nabati poetry has been a feature of life in the Arabian Peninsula since the 16th century. It is now prevalent in the Gulf and represents a distinct literary voice for the people of that region.
Nabati poetry shows the natural creativity of the Gulf's inhabitants and represents their roots in this land. Its form and content, literary significance, social function and historical value make it one of the Arabian Peninsula's great literary treasures.
Sheikh Mohammed began composing Nabati poetry while he was still at school. He says the greatest influences on his development as a poet have been his father, the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, and the UAE President, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. In his youth, when travelling with Sheikh Rashid, Sheikh Mohammed would often take poetry anthologies (he cites Al Mutanabi, Al Buhtori and Abu Tammam as his favourite classical poets) with him to read on the journey, something which has contributed to his extensive poetic vocabulary.
When Sheikh Mohammed's poems were first published in the newspapers, they appeared under pseudonyms - including Nedawi and Saleet - as he wanted to be sure that people genuinely thought his poetry was good, and that the newspapers were not just publishing his poetry because the author was a member of the ruling family. He received early encouragement from the renowned poetess Fatat Al Arab, when she composed a reply to one of his earliest poems - a rare honour for an unknown poet. Nowadays, he is widely acknowledged as one of the finest exponents of Nabati verse and his work is published under his own name.
Poetry has allowed Sheikh Mohammed to express the creative, sensitive side of his nature, which he has little chance to display in the political arena. He writes about a wide range of topics, from romance - in poems such as 'Symbol of love ' - and unrequited love ('Promise ') to current affairs, often producing a poem about a significant event just hours after it occurs (for example,his poem for Mohammed Al Durrah, the Palestinian boy whose death near the Netzarim junction in Gaza City on Sept 30, 2000 was captured by a film crew and shown throughout the world). His poems contain many maxims that give the reader an insight into his philosophy, for example:
"How precious the days when nights oppose them
If eternal, I believe them unbearable...
And even springtime, if prolonged
Would not witness, oh friend, people's yearning"
"Triumphs whoever stands firm
And for his right fights"
His poetry tends to confront themes that are more to do with general events than personal matters. As Sheikh Mohammed said, "The subjects closest to my heart are those that are closest to people." Thus, he has written several poems in honour of Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, praising their wise leadership of the UAE.
There are several recurring symbolic themes in Sheikh Mohammed's poetry. As one might expect from a UAE poet, the desert is close to his heart. He has said that the desert taught him "patience and perseverance" and these two attributes are prominent themes in his poems, as one can see in 'I am patient' and 'How I persevered'. The sea, too, is frequently used as a symbol in his poetry, for example:
"Your waves roil and I drowned in the depths
Of seas, waves of which crash, and deep"
The wildlife of the region is also an important part of Sheikh Mohammed's poetic vocabulary. Gazelles are widely used in Arabic literature to symbolise beauty:
"Her figure from the gazelle
Staring, afraid of hunters"
The path of lovers
Lanner falcons symbolise beauty too, ("eyes like the eyes of the kohled lanner falcon" - 'I am patient') but can also symbolise courage and authority:
"Oh lanner, ever assailing
Your prey, if strikes, always slain"
In an effort to spread awareness of his nation's cultural heritage, Sheikh Mohammed has participated in a number of poetic "contests" with other high-profile poets from the region, including Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Khalid bin Faisal of Saudi Arabia. These contests involve the poets responding to each other's verses and can be written or oral. Sheikh Mohammed remarked of these contests, "This poetic art is greatly appreciated by people as it arouses the spirit of competition between poets. I support and encourage this art because it brings about communication between poets."
Sheikh Mohammed has also tried to encourage others to compose Nabati verse through his riddles. He composes a poem comprising many questions, unlike the traditional one-line riddle of Western cultures, that people are invited to attempt to answer. However, they must send their solutions in the form of a Nabati poem that matches the style of Sheikh Mohammed's original. A substantial reward is offered to anyone who manages this feat, and there has been a great response to the riddles from all over the Arab world. There were over 12,000 replies received for the fifth riddle.
Sheikh Mohammed has already created an impressive body of work and continues to compose whenever he has the time, ensuring that he will be remembered not only as a visionary leader and accomplished equestrian, but also for his cultural legacy.
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