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

Friday - - Contents -

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.’

PHO­TOS BY STE­FAN LINDEQUE

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

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