For better or for verse, the underground poetry scene in the UAE is buzzing. We attend a session.
Informal poetry events are attracting people from all walks of life. Nouran Salahieh attends an open-mic night in Abu Dhabi
One… two… three, mic check.
Under twinkling lights, surrounded by finger-snapping crowds, and colourfully decorated trees, Abu Dhabi’s youth gather to share one microphone, and an outpouring of poetry and emotion.
Aspiring poets and musicians, people with things to get off their chest or lots of love or anger to proclaim, get together in the Art House Café, one of Abu Dhabi’s hidden gems, to take part in Backyard Poetry’s open-mic nights.
The underground scene is frequented by poets and poetry lovers, mainly ranging from 15 to 27 years old, all of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and occupations. Events usually welcome an audience of about 100 people, and around 30 performers a night. Backyard Poetry is currently in its third year.
Safwa Mohammad, one of the event’s organisers, says the reason for its success is the platform it provides for performers.
‘Writing something down on paper is very different from saying it out loud,’ says Safwa, ‘It’s liberating to be able to share your story with strangers, because you have to find the strength in yourself to share a part of you with people you’ve never met
before, and there’s freedom in that.’
Some participants also feel that they not only benefit from performing, but also from listening to other people share their story.
‘It all comes together when you hear someone opening up about something important to them and you realise it’s important to you too,’ says Mohammad Hassaballa, a regular poetry, song, and guitar performer.
The audience shares their appreciation of the poetry being recited by snapping their fingers together. There’s also a common understanding to be quiet during performances. The crowd quiets down as soon as Safwa comes up to the stage and yells ‘respect the?’ She is answered with a unanimous roar from the audience yelling ‘mic’ followed by silent anticipation for the first performer.
‘We only ask performers to refrain from swearing, promoting religion, or talking about politics, but those are the only limitations. People come here from all around and talk about love, gender equality, discrimination, or just small personal stories and experiences,’ explains Safwa.
‘Love poems are the most popular,’ she adds. ‘That’s because love is a universal language, and they’re not all the same. They’re personal stories that are all different and unique in their own way, especially in the way the poet chooses to write or deliver them. It’s always a new experience.’
The popularity of the event can be judged from the growth in the regulars. ‘Some of these people started off shaky and nervous, then they got better and better and started competing in different events, and now they’re just killing it,’ says Safwa.
‘That’s my proudest moment, seeing someone come in afraid and then just grow in confidence,’ she adds.
Jeff Baker, a two-time performer at Backyard Poetry, explains that it is the first place he has ever presented his own work to a crowd. ‘I feel freer when I perform. I know very few people there, and being able to express [myself ] through the spoken word, especially for the first time, is both liberating and frightening,’ says Jeff, who performed a rap about environmental damage and climate change.
Backyard Poetry has also became a venue for children to express themselves. ‘The youngest performer we had was a seven year old. He came with one of our regular performers, who’s a schoolteacher who often brings along a bunch of his students,’ says Safwa. ‘The crowd is always supportive, and they went crazy for the little boy’s three-line poem,’ she continues. Talking about why she and her partner Qutouf Yahia started Backyard Poetry, Safwa says that they wanted to give young people a platform to freely speak their mind, and to add to the cultural scene in Abu Dhabi. ‘Because the art scene for the youth isn’t as prominent as one would like, a lot of the young people here need an outlet, they need the mic, the crowd, and to be able to say certain things.’
‘Performers talk about things they feel they’re alone in, and coming here makes them feel like they’re not alone. That’s the most important thing we’re trying to achieve here,’ says Safwa, ‘showing people that they are not alone, and that whatever they’re going through, someone, somewhere is going through the same thing.’
According to Safwa, the open mic nights are something people may need, but don’t know it. ‘If it’s their first time at an event like this, a lot of people say that they didn’t know that this existed and that they didn’t know that they needed this outlet.’
‘We come to share our passions in a loving environment. Backyard Poetry is family,’ says Mohammad.
Emphasising the idea of having a tightly-knit local poet community, Safwa explains that Backyard Poetry events are coordinated with Rooftop Rhythms poetry events in Abu Dhabi, and Blank Space poetry events in Dubai, so that no events overlap, and poetry lovers can attend them all.
Events run from 7-10.30pm, and tickets for a small meal and entry to the venue are Dh30. Follow Backyard Poetry on Facebook to find out about the next open mic event.
‘PERFORMERS talk about things they feel they’re ALONE in, and coming here makes them feel it’s not so. That’s the most important thing we’re trying to ACHIEVE.’
Young and old come together at Backyard Poetry’s open mic nights, co-organised by Safwa Mohammad (top)
Art House Café’s eclectic decor provides the perfect setting for a session of creative expression