Dubai: Dubai's International Poetry Festival brought poets and major literary figures from all over the world.

The festival's motto was striking: "A Thousand Poets, One Language."

Like many other unique cultural and other ventures for which Dubai has become well known, the festival is the brainchild of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai.

In addition to promoting poetry, the festival was widely seen as enhancing better understanding and dialogue between nations.

For what is better than poetry, which is the soul of any nation, to bring souls, hearts and minds of nations together, and mend what politics has damaged and spoiled?

It would be fair to say that sparkling though the various poetry readings and activities were, the festival's highlight was undoubtedly the release of Shaikh Mohammad's new book, Poems From The Desert.

Twenty-seven of his Arabic-language poems - written in the traditional Nabati style - are contained in a beautifully produced English-language translation.

Shaikh Mohammad is a prolific poet and renowned for his Nabati poetry - traditionally the poetry of the peoples of the desert — not only in the UAE but also around the Gulf and throughout the Arab World.

Moreover, he also occasionally writes poetry in classical standard Arabic.

I have followed Shaikh Mohammad's literary work for many years. In fact, I was perhaps the first person to translate a poem of Shaikh Mohammad and that translation was published in Gulf Weekly in 1995.

As a translator, I realise that in translating poetry, especially that written in the classical form, such as the poetry of Al Mutanabi, Ahmad Shawqi or Shaikh Mohammad himself, a lot is lost: rhyme, rhythm and some aspects of eloquence such as pun.

But imagery and meanings can be conveyed well by a good translator, especially if he or she is a poet himself. Nevertheless, the full appreciation of poetry can only be achieved in the original language.

This is not to quibble with the current translation of Poems from The Desert, but only to point out how difficult translations can be, particularly in the case of the Arabic language, which is rich, layered and deeply textured. Still, this is an excellent book.


I don't know who the translator was, but surely His Highness — who is fluent in English himself — must have been pleased. Of course, many translations of Shaikh Mohammad's poetry into several languages have appeared in book form or on the internet, including the official site of His Highness.

And now lovers of Shaikh Mohammad's poetry, who may not be able to read Arabic, have the opportunity to enjoy a fine English-language translation of an assorted selection in Poems From The Desert.

I always like to think that Shaikh Mohammad is like a bird that needs two wings to fly, one is the wing of creativity and poetry, and the other is the wing of wisdom and leadership. I am sure Shaikh Mohammad is one of those who use both sides of their brain equally: the right side for creative imagination and the left side for logical thinking. In fact, both sides are needed for creative leadership.

Moreover, Shaikh Mohammad is an accomplished horseman who loves and understands horses and has won first place in many races especially those that demonstrate endurance and fortitude. All of these themes, in some fashion or the other, are woven through the new book.

The poems of the book are quite varied in subject. The first poem, A Mother's Lament, depicts the humanistic touch in several of Shaikh Mohammad's poems. In this poem a mother complains about her son whom she had brought up alone. She had to toil as a servant in order to support him, but when he became a fully-grown man he expelled her from her home. The poet's soul flared up with rage but when he wanted to bring the son to justice, the mother begged him not to punish him. This act of forgiveness of a prodigal son by a terribly wronged mother inspired the poem.

Another poem with a clear humanistic touch is The Old Man. It is no doubt about the UAE's great founder, the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Shaikh Mohammad has dedicated many of his poems to his mentor. In his long poem Zayed, Shaikh Mohammad expresses his great admiration for that outstanding and popular Arab leader, and also his deep loyalty to him. He says, addressing Shaikh Zayed:

Great loyalty and goodness you scatter on earth,

An arid land, made fertile with your earth bounty.

All the Arabs, Shaikhs and great Kings,

Would be honoured to be just a little like you.

There are also many love poems in the collection in which Shaikh Mohammad expresses his appreciation of the beauty of the beloved, but also how the fire of unrequited love torments him.

In one poem he says:

Place me in your eyes, then seal them shut,

Allow me to rest within their depth.

Please be cautious, and with care do blink,

For the captive within might easily fall.

When sorrowful, I beg you hold back your tears,

For in their rain I may drown and perish.

The novelist Paulo Coelho, whose works are popular internationally wrote the foreword to the book. Listen to what Coelho says: "Reading His Highness's poems, I try to imagine the inner conflict between being a poet and a ruler. But when I give a second thought to it, I understand that there is no conflict at all: when a ruler has the soul of a poet, he understands better the needs of his people. "

He observes that Shaikh Mohammad's love poems are tinged by imageries of the hunter such as lions and gazelles.

In his poem my "My Poetic Inspiration" he says:

When my thoughts soar to heights unknown,

I create verse filled with passion.

Will they end up pleasing me,

Or will I suffocate in the heat of my fervor?

Poems From The Desert is a book meant to be savored at leisure. It is surely a book for the ages.


Dr Shihab Ghanem is a UAE-based poet and an author.