Arabic poetry in Saudi Arabia

The beauty of words

Saudi culture: The world of Arabic poetry

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The Tradition of Oral Poetry in Saudi

It was on a warm spring day when I first heard it. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that it was different. While interviewing men about transformations in Bedouin life and simultaneously sipping sweet tea, an elderly gentleman who was seated in the back corner of the tent suddenly burst into what sounded like a song. Surprised, I asked my hosts what was happening. They explained that their relative, who was over 100 years old and blind, was responding to my questions using old Bedouin poetry — a tradition for sharing knowledge.

There is an old saying in Saudi that “poetry is the Arab’s book.” Long before the advent of writing, it was common for Arabian tribesmen to impart important information to other members using oral poetry. Through this medium, men and women shared their stories, experiences, beliefs, and even hyperbole and propaganda to ensure that history was being passed down through the generations.

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The home of poet Hatim Al Tai.   

Prominent Forms of Classical Arabic Poetry in Saudi

The popularity of Arabian poetry stems from its emotional connection to the people; it reflects the complexities of Arabian life. Case in point: One popular style of oral poetry was associated with the passing of a loved one — the loss was expressed in the Madih, which was akin to a eulogy. The Hamasah focused on the recounting of tribal warfare. The Tardiyyah described the prowess of a hunter whose success contributed to the tribe’s survival. The Ghazal, or love poem, remains a poetic mainstay to this day.

A number of pre-Islamic poets, or sha’ir , rose to fame during the sixth century. Imru’  Al Qais Al Kindi is recognized by some as the father of classical Arabian poetry. Najd-born poet Antarah ibn Shaddad Al Absi based his poetry on the exploits of his tribe in battle. Al Zeir Adi ibn Rabia’  wrote from the perspective of a warrior and leader of the Banu Taghlib tribe. But perhaps the most noteworthy of all ancient Saudi poets is Hatim Al Tai, whose home you can visit in Hail. It is largely unchanged from the times when Al Tai sat writing, and there’s an area at the home itself where you can look around and imagine what inspired his words. His reputation for doing good deeds made him an Arabian icon. People praise his generosity, uttering the proverbial phrase “more generous than Hatim,” to this day.

The works of poets like Ghazi Abdul Al Gosaibi were inspired by the desert.

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The works of poets like Ghazi Abdul Al Gosaibi were inspired by the desert.

Modern Arabic Poetry in Saudi

With the passing of time, oral poetry’s value to society did not diminish. People continued the practice even after the introduction of Islam to Saudi in the seventh century, as literacy was still not widespread. Since then, these classical forms of poetry have become the foundation for modern interpretations. During the Arabic Renaissance of the early 20th century, new varieties of written poetry appeared, popularized by the likes of Ghazi Abdul Al Gosaibi, Rashid Al Zlami and Abdullah Thabit. In 2010, entire families were captivated by the United Arab Emirates’ poetry competition “Prince of Poets.” There were more than 7,000 entries from around the world vying for the prestigious title. And in 2016, Mohammed Abdel Bari won the Arab African Youth Award. More recently, diverse digital platforms have facilitated a virtual poetry revival for Arab youth.

For millennia, poetry in its many forms has been a pillar of Arabian culture. Standing the test of time, Arabic poetry has been central to the development and popularity of other forms of Arabian literature. You could say that poetry has been, and will always be, a window into the Arabian soul.

[CTA] If you love the arts, you’ll want to see what today’s female Saudi artists are creating. 

—Dr. Laura Strachan is an assistant professor in the core humanities and social sciences department at Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd University in Khobar.

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