Photograph by Nikki Joaquin

Poetry in the Desert

A glimpse into Desert Stanzas, an annual night-time event in the desert celebrating Arabic poetry and culture.

Amid the cool desert climate of the evening on March 9, a crowd gathered underneath the open sky for an evening of live poetry. The crowd was relaxed, lying down on cushions as speaker after speaker came up on stage to perform their poetry pieces. Poets brought with them laughs, tears and even moments of utter confusion.
As part of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, the Al Maha resort (located in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve) hosted the annual Desert Stanzas peformance. This is a night that showcases poetry from all around the world, ranging from Syria to the UAE and London.
Beginning with an Arabian buffet dinner that featured a live grill and local delicacies, the event offered plenty of activities before the reading began, including brief camel rides and photographs with hawks. There was even a bonfire for those that found the evening desert air a little too chilly.
When the poetry reading began, the crowd gathered in front of the stage, relaxing on the carpeted floors and cushions as the host, Ibrahim Ustadi, introduced the poets.
The first two poets were Zeina Hashem Beck and 2016 Millions Poet competitor Zainab AlBlooshi. Hashem Beck opened the evening with a poem about her mother, a woman who taught herself the English language and took advanced writing classes. Zeina purposely read English words incorrectly, the way that her mother would have said them. She spoke about her mother’s strength in raising two children — an experience her mother likened to the Boston Marathon.
Zainab’s poetry performance was entirely in Arabic, but even non-Arabic speaking audience members felt the power of her voice and the passion in her performance. An Emirati audience member explained that Zainab used the Arabic dialect used by Bedouins.
The next two performers were by Kei Miller and Michael Cooperson. Kei Miller is an award-winning Jamaican poet and novelist. The poetry he performed garnered a series of laughs as he used rubber ducks to talk about serious topics such as the slave trade. One of the poems he performed was about gold, which became quite politically charged and humorous as crowd members laughed in reaction to his reading.
Michael Cooperson, an Arabic translator and member of the NYU Abu Dhabi community — he currently works in The Library of Arabic Literature — performed next with his translations of Arabic poems. He performed them in the Arabic language before delivering his translations. He began with a poem in a Shakespearean fashion, followed by one that he performed as a rap. His final reading was of an Arabic palindromic poem.
Photograph by Nikki Joaquin
The final performance was by Adnan Alaoda, a Syrian poet and screenwriter, who was accompanied by a musician named Khalil Ghadri. His poetry was also delivered in Arabic but was performed in English afterwards by a female translator. Syria was at the center of his performance, which had the audience in silence, admiring the music as it played to the sound of his voice.
Photograph by Nikki Joaquin
The evening closed with chilled drinks and warm shawarmas as members of the audience crowded around the poets near the stage. Others made their way toward the book stand to buy books both in English and in Arabic, and were even able to get them signed by some of the poets that had performed earlier.
Dominique Joaquin is Deputy Features. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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