Driftless Sands: a dialogue between the Midwest and the Middle East by Sam Snoek-Brown

On Poetry[1] 

I live in the desert.  While late-winter blizzards and biting winds hurl against the gray driftless zone in southwest Wisconsin, I am sweating in 90-degree heat and nervously watching the brown haze of my first sandstorm.  A few short months ago, I moved here from Platteville, a small mining town turned small university town; I now live in Abu Dhabi, a small pearling village turned thrumming oil metropolis in the United Arab Emirates.  And I am reading poetry.

A few months ago, Russ Brickey asked me to write this, a column of sorts about my new life here in the Middle East.  At first I myself felt adrift, unsure how best to approach such a column.  I am no cultural anthropologist, after all—what I know is writing and literature, teaching and academia, fiction and poetry.  But as I began studying my new culture, I discovered among the pearling and fishing dhows the line that, for me anyway, connects this part of the Middle East to my old home in the Midwest:  Driftless is a literary and arts magazine, interested in fiction and poetry and essays and art and photography and scripts and comics….  And Abu Dhabi is fast becoming the cultural capitol of the Arab world, with symphonies and theaters and new museums (including the first “branch campus” of the Louvre) complementing the rich Arab traditions of carpet making, calligraphy, and literature—especially poetry.

Emiratis love poetry.  There are several common symbols associated with this country, including the falcon (honoring their favored traditional sport), the camel (honoring their Bedouin history), the dhow (honoring their heritage as a shipping and fishing port), the pearl (for their primary industry before the discovery of oil), and the dallah (the Arab coffee pot).  But none of these is as publicly celebrated or personally revered as poetry, and if the Emiratis could make a symbol that would speak for poetry, it might well be their national emblem. 

And so this column was born.

I don’t intend to write every essay on poetry, of course, because the literary and artistic culture here is vast and offers plenty of other enticements.  But, as strange fate would have it, most of my writer friends from the Midwest are themselves poets, including Russ Brickey, and because poetry is also a major component of Emirati culture, I will begin this series with poetry. 

As I’ve explored the city here and spoken with Emiratis and expats, I’ve been asking people about life here, what people do, how people view the rapid changes here.  Abu Dhabi, and indeed the UAE as a whole, has expanded exponentially in the last 40 years (the seven emirates that comprise the UAE united between 1971 and 1972), and any evidence of the traditional life here only a generation ago is hard to find.  While the young Emirati women I teach are more than happy to wear the latest European or American fashions under their abayas and sheilas, bopping across campus with their iPods plugged in their ears and explaining with wonder and a bit of fear that they can’t understand how their own parents and grandparents ever lived without air-conditioning, they also frequently comment on the threat this new lifestyle holds for their traditions.  The young military cadets, too, express a desire to keep wearing their dishdashas and trying to preserve traditional foods and music. 

Many people I meet view poetry as an important element of maintaining their connections to the past.  One Emirati man I met, the cultural guide Ali Alsaloom (of Ask-Ali.com), told me about a friend of his who publishes poetry.  Wael Al-Sayegh, who holds a masters degree from the University of Glasgow, has gained some notoriety for writing and publishing Arabic poetry in English.  In this way, he is bringing the tradition to a wider audience while maintaining the formal elements of his poetic heritage.  In an e-mail, Ali wrote me “Wael is a great example of how Arabic Poets managed to inspire other nationalities to enjoy reading the Arabic poetry and raise the awareness of its richness.”  Wael himself wrote me in an e-mail that “poetry is by far the highest regarded form of artistic expression in the Arab world. The relationship between the Arabs and poetry is like the sand and the desert.”  He went on to give his account of the history of poetry here:

Before Islam arrived, the Arabs not only revered beautiful expression, they worshiped it. The Kabba, the cube shaped monument that Muslims today pray towards, previously had best poetry hung on its walls. These were known as the “Al Muallaqat” the very best poems from around the region. Poets back then were like pop idols today. Wherever they went a flock of fans followed. Then all that changed when a 40-year-old man came out with words that baffled the very best of poets with its beauty, so much so that many of them dropped to the ground and prostrated to its source. That young man was none other than the Prophet Mohammed PBUH[2] and those words are now called the Holy Quran.

As much as culture and international exposure have changed the Arab world, though, the love and reverence for poetry has remained constant.  Today, poetry is celebrated in national festivals, national book fairs, and national contests.  One of the most popular programs on UAE television is a reading series of new poetry; on our satellite listings, there is an entire channel called simply “Poet.”  I never saw anything of this sort in the States.  Imagine tuning into Fox or NBC and seeing Billy Connolly and Robert Pinsky sitting in matching armchairs while Kay Ryan stands at a lectern and recites from Say Uncle

Poetry is more important than entertainment, however—it is of vital national value:  Poetry and news of poetry appears almost daily in The National and The Gulf News, two of the English-language newspapers in the area.  Some articles celebrate the opening of a new poetry center or announce a new contest, others review the latest published collection, and a few—my favorite—discuss the culture of poetry itself.  One recent article reports on a rarity in Arab poetry: A woman made it to the finals of the national poetry competition.  This rarity is as much about the literary culture as the religion, actually: though the woman’s Saudi family has expressed moral objections to her participation in the contest (which is televised, and since poets much recite their works publicly, she must appear on TV without her veil), the article is news here because Arab poetry is dominated by men, who consider the ability to write and recite poetry a sign of masculinity.

Poetry takes an honored place in state festivals and is worthy of the statesmen themselves:  The current president of UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahayan, is a renowned poet; the vice president, prime minister, and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has just released a collection of his poems translated into English, entitled Poems from the Desert, with a foreword by Paulo Coelho.  In it, Coelho explains that “reading His Highness’s poems, I try to imagine the conflict between being a poet and being a ruler.  But when I give a second thought to it, I understand that there is no conflict at all: when the ruler has the soul of a poet, he understands better the needs of his people. … His Highness’s poems help us to understand better the soul of a man and the heritage of a nation.”

But while poetry is worthy of rulers, it belongs to the people.  As Wael explained to me, “In a society like the Arabian Gulf, that has many restrictions of etiquette and decorum, one’s inner thoughts and feelings are seldom given a chance to be shared.  Poetry provides our society with that outlet, to let your hair down and just say what’s on your mind. It has a huge cathartic role.”  The culture of poetry here is so pervasive that, at the international academy down the street from our apartment, the schoolchildren spend their mischievous afternoons painting love poems on the lids of the dumpsters behind the school.  On my walks through our back roads, I often stop to read the few poems that remain.  One reads

Rose is red

Sky is blue

oh my friend

I love you


And another, directly below, reads

Zoo Zoo Zoo

I went to zoo

I saw a rabbit

Just like you

They are simple expressions, built on some of the most basic elements of poetry—nature and romance—but simple elements of everyday life remain the primary focus of Emirati Arab poetry today. 

The most popular form of Emirati poetry, Nabati poetry, is a Bedouin form, drawing on the common experiences of desert nomad life and written in colloquial Arabic (as opposed to the Classical Arabic of other poetry forms).  The form is renowned for its spontaneity, and poets in this form are valued for their ability to make beautiful use of spontaneous inspiration; to my Western mind, it bears some similarity with Romantic poetry, especially in its love of using nature imagery to express deep emotion, though the flavor is certainly distinct.  In a 2003 review of X, by Iowa poet James Galvin, Gianmarc Manzione begins by comparing Galvin to Keats: both poets, Manzione, are brave enough to explore the “awesome challenge” of conveying deeply personal human emotions and to “revisit themes endemic to lyric poetry since Sappho–desire, betrayal, trust, loss, loneliness and nature,” a challenge all the more difficult for Galvin, who write in “our cool age.”  But I could make exactly this comparison with His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who frequently uses gazelles and falcons and soft, cool moon and glistening pearls to describe his heartache, his desire, his intellect, and his nation in poems like “As the Night Approached,” “Beauty So Natural,” or “O Soul Mate.”

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, one of the most prolific Nabati poets, devotes a lengthy page of his government website to defining Nabati poetry (there is also a browseable database of his poems in English):  Early Nabati poets, he explains, “sought to create a simple style, combining artistic flair with clear, direct expression.  The characteristics of the verse reflect those of the Bedouins of long ago.  [. . .] The recitation of Nabati verse is a mark of people’s respect for this heritage. Reading and understanding Nabati poems will also afford a greater understanding of the present.”

A few of my students are themselves poets and have expressed not only their deep love for poetry in general but also how they value poetry as connection to their past and as a tool to express their culture, and they are especially keen to preserve their poetry’s traditional elements.  Progressive or experimental poetry seem not to be the fashion here, and the few poets I’ve spoken to hold a passion for form, preferring metered lines and rhymes.  (I showed my male students some poetry by William Carlos Williams and part of a poem by Beth Ann Fennelly, and they said neither was their “cup of tea”; they loved Shakespeare’s sonnets, however.)

One student, Sumaya Abdulla, explained her views to me in an e-mail:  “Poetry to me is another language I speak, I write poetry myself,” she wrote.  “Personally, having this gift is really amazing, the words lining up in your head when you try writing about something is phenomenal, the whole process of writing a poem is divine. We live in a country where this gift is rather cherished and appreciated; it’s a sign of perception and wisdom. A poet is a respected figure in our society, most of our leaders are poets, and it’s to us a sign of good judgment. His Highness Zayed[3]—God rest his soul—was a poet, so are his sons and almost all of Emirati royals are.” 

Many Emiratis, in fact, view the American attitude toward poetry as shockingly apathetic and wonder Americans don’t value poetry more.  In an editorial in The National, communications professor Muhammad Ayish remarked on what he saw as an appalling lack of attention paid to Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day,” the poem she composed for Obama’s inauguration.  He complains that in America, “interest in poetry seems to be receding to the eccentric confines of academia and the literati,” and that “for many of us in the Arab world, this diminishing stature of poetry in American public life is hard to accept.”  I think Muhammad’s assessment is unfair, because while American poetry seems not to hold quite the place in political life that it enjoys here in the UAE, the poetry of “American public life” has evolved to fill other arenas, finding a more comfortable home in hip-hop and poetry slams.  And poetry remains an important part of American personal life, as well—when I led a creative writing workshop for teens in Platteville the last two summers, the students were anxious to explore poetry and demonstrated a remarkable talent for it.  And, academic though I may be, I continue to enjoy traditional verse forms.  I know, too, that poetry is alive and well in the Midwest and I look forward to reading new works in Driftless as the issues roll out.  But now, I am also relishing the artistic life in UAE, in a country that values verse tremendously, in a culture that celebrates the natural rhythms of language, and among people who are not afraid to let their hearts sing aloud. 


Samuel Snoek-Brown is a fiction writer and poet with a doctorate in creative writing.  His work has appeared in Tonopah Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Orchid, Amarillo Bay, and others.  He is also an editor and co-founder of Driftless.  He grew up in Texas but came to love the cold Midwest and the snowy hills of southwest Wisconsin, but now he’s exchanged snow for sand; he lives in Abu Dhabi with his wife and two cats.

[1] Many words in Arabic have no exact transliteration, so spelling varies widely.  In cases where I quote Emiratis, I have altered the spelling of their comments, as well as some of their local shorthand, for a Western audience; however, I have left their grammar intact to give a sense of the Arabic rhythms.  As my own students have explained to me, Arabic often fuses ideas with a grammatical term that means something like “and, and” in a way that we would call a comma splice.  In Arabic, this structure is perfectly normal.

[2] PBUH is an acronym for “Peace be upon him,” a phrase of reverence that follows any mention of the Prophet.

[3] Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the late ruler of Abu Dhabi and “founding father” of UAE.  Emiratis credit his vision and leadership for the success of UAE as a nation.  He died in 2004 after more than 30 years as the first president of UAE.


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