Nabaṭī is the popular vernacular poetry of the Arabian Peninsula that is used in a variety of music genres, many of which are simply considered ‘sung poetry.’ The diction of nabaṭī poetry conforms to the colloquial speech of the Najd region, which encompasses the central Arabian plateau and surrounding areas. Through migration nabaṭī spread throughout the Peninsula, especially into the Gulf States, where it is still popular today in certain communities; however, historically it is the poetry of central Arabian Bedouin. Like classical Arabic poetry, the subject matter is predominantly boastful, full of extravagant praise, or pertains to love or loss.
The term ‘nabaṭī’ originally referred to the language of the Nabataens, but over time, the expression was greatly expanded and was applied to any vernacular speech that did not conform to the rules of well-established classical Arabic. The poets themselves rarely use the term, but instead refer to their art by a variety of names, including badawī (Bedouin), qasīda (ode), or jawab (response). Nabaṭī poetry of the Arabian Peninsula is simply vernacular poetry, and the designator in no way is intended to suggest a link with ancient Nabateans.
Nabaṭī poetry initially grew out of a pre-Islamic age of political turmoil, intertribal feuds and constant raids. Since a great deal of the Arabian Peninsula had no written history until modern times, nabaṭī poetry has served a major role in communicating and recording history and events, including issues related to tribal territories, watering holes, grievances, battles, and large and small matters. It played an influential role in maintaining the various codes of honor and chivalry of Bedouin and other desert people. Noble and heroic acts were celebrated in verses and songs that were passed down through generations, while those who violated social codes were vilified. Tribes, men, deeds and even animals were honored and immortalized, while cowardice and cultural offenses were criticized.
Anyone can be a nabaṭī poet, from a shepherd to a sheikh. In a land with so few readily available resources, creating oral vernacular poetry, which requires no special training or external materials to produce, understandably was the dominant artistic pastime, one at which many tried their hand. Poets are ranked and graded by their community, with the more skilled gaining social recognition and perhaps becoming the tribal, clan or family poet.
Nabaṭī poetry or song texts are usually composed by men – or at least the poems that are recognized publicly are attributed to men. The subject matter can pertain to personal as well as collective issues and can be used to amuse and entertain. But the most stirring compositions were those of Bedouin leaders or desert knights who through verse recorded heroic adventures and chivalrous acts, or roused the community into political, social or martial action. All established nabaṭī poetry is treated with some level of respect, but the poetic pronouncements of leaders and warriors were regarded with the utmost gravity. Stylistically, their offerings are more straightforward and do not manifest embellishments and ornamental devices employed by more purely ‘artistic’ poets, but they are still considered creative products.
Nabaṭī is not historical narrative, but makes allusions and hidden references to incidents. A good tribal poet must have knowledge of tribal history and genealogies and must be clever and quick in order to argue a case for his tribe or retaliate in verse against a poetic attack. A worthy poet seeks words out of the ordinary, not those used in daily life. The less common the words, the more the poem is valued. Thus verses are normally painstakingly revised many times, and advice sought before the final product is presented.
A nabaṭī poem ranges in length from a few verses to more than a hundred, but all verses must be of the same poetic meter. A verse is divided into two hemistichs that are identical metrically, although each has a different rhyme. A long poem usually consists of several themes strung together, and through word choice and style, there is search for a balance between the familiar and the unique.
Nabaṭī poetry is recited and orally transmitted through song. Although poems are written down, literally reciting from written text is usually not quite adequate. Unless one is well acquainted with vernacular nabaṭī and its interpretation, there will be mispronunciations and the verses will become unmetrical and lose their stylistic essence.
Because of the rhythmic nature of its performance, nabaṭī poetry is naturally associated with music. Indeed, a nabaṭī poet does not compose in silence, but sings out his verses, even in the presence of others. The poet may murmur or emotionally shout loud vocalizations. Hearing himself helps the poet to measure the rhythm of the verses as well as to aesthetically compose the texts, which will be performed out loud in any event. The poet will sometimes pound out a steady beat as he composes or recites. When creating a poem, the poet is not thinking about verse in relationship to meter and scansion, but rather, he focuses on verse through the musical processes of metered melody (tarq) and singing (shelih).
The final performance of nabaṭī is also musical, since the usual manner to offer the poetry is to chant it or sing it. Nabaṭī poetry can be performed as a solo or collective art. As a solo art, the favored time for reciting poetry is at night when men gather in a tent or in a majlis, dār or dīwānīya (coffee/meeting room). The performance is casual, and the poet may chant the texts with solo voice unaccompanied, or may accompany himself on the rebāba, the one-stringed chordophone. Normally, though, if there is a rebāba player/singer, he is not the original poet and is singing the poems of others. Some of the most popular solo nabaṭī songs are those of the genres masḥūb and hijīnī, both of which are comprised of various sub-styles. In masḥūb, there are major sections where the voice sings in unison with the rebāba in long, drawn-out notes, so that the two lines of sound are almost inseparable, creating a focused passion to the text. Hijīnī, which originally served as cameleer songs, is one of the most popular solo-voice genres of desert people. There are various types, some sung while traveling quickly on riding camels, or today performed in cars, buses or sometimes aircraft. Often hijīnī features sung verses, followed by short instrumental phrases of rebāba improvisation featuring a melodic mode ( maqām) with a narrow melodic range.
Prevalent collective music traditions that employ nabaṭī poetry include sāmrī, ʿarḍa, and galṭa, all music genres that are part of major social events such as wedding celebrations and Eid holiday festivities. Sung poems tend to be shorter than recited ones, on average seven lines long, especially when singing these group pieces. Sāmrī, which are love songs that often recall physical beauty, tend to be ten to fifteen verses long. Singers, several playing frame drums, sit on the ground in two lines facing each other and move their bodies in a stylized fashion to the music. One line sings a verse, and the other repeats it. ʿArḍa, an ancient war dance, is rhythmically related to sāmrī, but is performed as a standing sword dance that exhibits strength and fortitude. The nabaṭī text usually praises a tribe, group or leader and their military prowess. Galṭa, or poetic dueling, is the most creative form as it is composed on the spot. Two poets take part in each session, each representing a line of men who will dance and sing a refrain in between each poet’s turn. They express pride in their own community and verbally demean the challenger. The singing style may at times invoke the hjīnī camel song manner, with a little catch in the throat. The poets must be very knowledgeable since they need to draw on oral history and folklore to praise their own people and ridicule the others. The men who are gathered near their poet stand shoulder to shoulder and may clap hands in accompaniment of the recitation or join in singing a repeated musical phrase. This back and forth match of wits continues until one of the poets stops, finally defeated.