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Nabataean Poetry

By Naser al-Ta’mari al-Ta’amra
and Huthaifa Al-Hathalin

Nabataean poetry has enjoyed a place of prominence in the hearts of Bedouins. From ancient times until our current era, it has served as one of the principal means of documentation and provided decisive evidence of wars, historical events, and sources of pride. Some have utilized it to praise their chieftains for the foresight, generosity, determination, and power they possessed.

Perhaps while browsing social media outlets, you have seen a clip of a person with a distinct and vigorous Bedouin dialect reciting ornate and rhythmical speech with rhymes interwoven in the first (sadr) and second (ajz) portions. Readers well versed in Arabic literature may have read such a Bedouin text. Allow me to shed some light on this aspect of literature and satisfy your hunger for knowledge.

The examples mentioned above relate to Nabataean poetry, a term linguists use for spoken poetry presented exclusively in the Bedouin dialect. The name derives from the original mother language of Arabic. This poetry is composed in a scale devised by Al-Khalil Ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi. There are many derivatives and styles, such as the short and long hajini (the camel-related rhythm ), al-mas’hub (the extended), al-hilali (related to Bani Hilal ancient Arabic tribe), al-sakhri (related to the Bani Sakher Arabic tribe), al-mankus (the half-mast poetry), and more. Other styles have been created by poets in the form of dialogue and the art of al-qalta (lit. clipping, interrupting, and complementing each other in formalized ways). In addition, there are standardized forms of music that include poetic feet and rhymes. New styles have emerged that were created through the intense efforts of very experienced poets.

Bedouins find sacredness in this cultural expression that accompanies them throughout the stages of their lives, from al-jahiliyya (pre-Islam) through souq ʿokāẓ (Okaz Market, a well-known market on the pre-Islamic Saudi Arabian peninsula where some of the most famous poets would recite their works), to this very day. Arabs traditionally have taken pride in their poets and considered them their ambassadors. When the nomadic lifestyle was replaced by a more settled mode of living, the Bedouins kept their own specific dialect that varied depending on which countries their journey had taken them through, taking on attributes of the civilizations where they spent most of their time.

There are common vocabularies that are considered standard and fundamental in spoken language, as Bedouins are classified into two categories when it comes to Nabataean poetry: those of the Arab Peninsula and the Bedouins of the Levant.

©UNDP/PAPP photo archive.

The Bedouins of the Arab Peninsula practice rituals that distinguish them from others. Not only did they develop this type of poetry by creating poetic rhymes and scales, but they also went further by establishing academies for teaching its rules and fundamentals to those who love and have a gift for poetry. They consider Nabataean poetry the legitimate scion of classical Arabic poetry because it is full of Bedouin words that originally were words in standard Arabic, such as ‘ams’ (yesterday) and ghadan (tomorrow).

Among the Levant Bedouins, i.e., those who live in Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon, Nabataean poetry does not enjoy the same status as with those in the Arab Peninsula, even though the number of Levantine Arab tribes and clans is large. Nevertheless, here we find poets who intuitively possess wonderful poetic talent and giftedness. Utilizing the Bedouin tongue, they depend on spontaneity and do not abide by rhyme or scale, as do the Arab Peninsula poets.

When poets wanted to propose an issue, whether it be a complaint or a need such as an appeal to release a prisoner, they frequently expressed it in the form of a poem (qaseed in the Bedouin pronunciation, qaseeda in standard Arabic), then they would take it to the ruler, prince, or sheikh and recite it before him. Many stories tell of incidents that occurred particularly in Saudi Arabia. They exhibit a tremendous and exquisite eloquence, often narrating a situation that involves an action and reaction. Poems frequently give form to important or significant situations; in fact, prisoners have been released through the tongue of a poet, and in some cases, the needy have been spared destitution through an expressive poem.

Bedouins rely not only on historical records for the documentation of a certain event, such as a battle, for instance, but also on al-qaseed. Poets have documented particular events and narrated their occurrences and active players via their qaseed. Today’s Bedouins are keen to preserve their history for the next generations, believing in the proposition that a poet can make a nation, even though not every nation can produce a poet.

Nabataean poetry has expressed the history of the Arab desert since Banu Hilal composed the famed Al-Sirah al-Hilaliyyah (Al-Hilali epic) that chronicled raids, disasters, celebrations, passion, unity, and disunity. Nabataean poetry has developed, with poets competing with their compositions, securing it a strong presence in the Arabic library. It is now one of the most powerful languages of dialogue in the Levant, the Gulf, and Yemen. We must learn, compose, and teach it to the new generations. It is the identity of the Bedouin discourse and its chronicling of events.

Authors

  • Sheikh Nasser Mubarak al-Ta’mari is a poet and a writer. He holds an honorary doctorate degree in literature from the International Arab Literary Forum and was appointed by royal decree of the King of Jordan as Manaqee’ al-Dumum, (equivalent to a supreme court judge in the tribal judiciary system). He also has held high positions as an adviser for the Palestinian National Authority.

  • Born in 1996 and raised in Um al-Kheir village in the Hebron governorate, poet Huthaifa al-Hathaleen received his BA degree in Arabic language and literature from Hebron University. Representing Palestine, Huthaifa has participated in the pan-Arab poetry contest titled The Poet of the Millions in 2017 (its eighth season), 2018, and 2021 as one of the 100 most prominent poets in the Arab world.

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