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Nouveaux accents de la poésie dialectale en péninsule Arabique


Mohamed Bakhouch, Julien Dufour et Philip Kennedy
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1In the Arab peninsula, since pre-Islamic times, poetry has been not only the main art form but also the place par excellence for the representation and construction of social and political relations. Not only does poetry express aspirations, love, conflicts and alliances – it also creates these, and composing or reciting a poem is in itself a social and political act, be it in times of war or in times of peace. Poetry collectors from the dawn of Islam recorded part of the poetic production of ancient Arabia, and thus established a corpus which became the central point of reference for the Arabic poetry referred to as “classical”. The corpus has not been expanded in centuries, yet the practices that gave birth to it are still well and alive, as the societies of the Arabian Peninsula continue, to this day, to produce poetry which we now refer to as “dialectal” so as to distinguish it from the tradition of literature that has continued to hew to the language of ancient poetry.  Sowayan (1985, 2000) has thus shown that, for instance, the tribal poetry known as nabaṭī should be considered as the surviving avatar of pre-Islamic poetry; the changes that have occurred naturally over the course of the odd 1,500 years do not amount to a major break in their evolution

  • 1 The variety of registers has been studied by Palva, 1992.

2The term “dialectal” poetry itself, as it has come to be used, is to some extent a misnomer. The language in which the poets compose is for the most part distinctly different from everyday language, and cannot be understood without a knowledge of a certain poetic repertoire, or specific training. This poetry is only dialectal insofar as it is couched in a language distinct from what we now refer to as “classical” Arabic.1

3Although “dialectal” poetry was recorded well before the modern period (see Sowayan 1985: 101 ff.) it was not until the 20th century that studies were specifically devoted to it; we allude to the work carried out by Arabian authors such as Ibn Bulayhid (1951–3), al-Farj (1952) and Ibn Khamis (1958), which were preceded by European researchers: Wallin (1851–2), Socin (1900–1) and, for South Arabia, Landberg (1901–9) then Serjeant (1951). There is more and more research after the 1980s, thanks to a generation of Arab authors with a university education: this is the case of Yemen with al-Maqalih (1986) and al-Baradduni (1988), of the Gulf states with al-Hasan (1990), and of Saudi Arabia with Ibn Aqil (1982) and Sowayan (1985, 2000). The latter is especially noteworthy as he is equally familiar with the oral tradition of Najd, with classical Arabic culture, and with the work of Western Arabists, while his oeuvre constitutes a new phase in the history of the discipline (​). As for Caton (1990), he identifies a poetics based on the uses of poetry in Yemeni tribal poetry; it is an exemplary work which should be read by all students of Arabic poetry. Finally, the monumental work of Kurpershoek (1994–2005) combines collecting najdī poetry, and data analysis based on different levels: literary, linguistic and social.

4It is noteworthy that such a development in the study of dialectal poetry, witnessed in the 1980s and early 1990s, corresponds to a time in history when the oil boom of the mid-20th century has changed society irreversibly in most of the countries of the Peninsula, so much so that the very raison d’être of this poetry is called into question. Something so intimately imbricated in social realities as poetry could not be unaffected by the appearance of new sources of income and means of subsistence, by the sedentarization of nomadic populations, by urbanization, by the growth of literacy and the development of new means of communication. In the Yemen, change is more gradual, and Miller (2007) has studied how a qaṣīda-style form of tribal poetry has, by jumping on the audiocassette bandwagon, remained — by growing along new means of communication — a privileged channel of political discourse. Yet, even in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council where an era has undeniably come to an end, and where dialectal poetry has undergone profound transformations, it nevertheless continues to generate immense interest, as exemplified by everyday conversation and the huge audiences of the various television programs devoted to it. The analysis of such trends is still in its early stages; it is, for example, the subject of Holes and Abu Athera (2009).

5The present volume of Arabian Humanities seeks to understand how historical depth , as well as recent developments, are reflected in the conventions and thematic or enunciative structures which are at the core of the various poetic genres, and which are intimately tied to the needs of the societies that practice and create them. These new genres are worthy of close scholarly attention.

6The study of Marcel Kurpershoek is devoted to one of the great representatives of nabaṭī tradition who lived just before the upheavals of the 20th century: Abd Allah b. Subayyil, a poet from Nifi in the Najd, who died in 1938, and to four of his poems which the author was able to record in 1989 from one of the last oral transmitters of Ibn Subayyil’s poetry – which was afterwards published. We can see how Ibn Subayyil, in his exchanges with other poets, makes use of the amorous conventions of nabaṭī poetry, while forging a style of his own, and creating a literary portrait of a society in which nomads  — he was not one of them — are idealized and praised in the most exalted terms.

7Sam Liebhaber explores the history of the poetic language of Arabia by contrasting the structures and conventions of Yemeni poetry composed in the mehri language and those of nabaṭī poetry in Arabic. Modern so-called South Arabian languages, including mehri, are the last vestiges of the non-Arabic languages of Arabia. They have their own poetic traditions that bear comparison with those of the rest of the Peninsula but / while retaining thematic and formal characteristics that may go back to ancient times.

8Poetic jousting known as maydan is considered typical of popular Omani culture, and as such it is studied in official circles in this country, in an effort to make this cultural heritage part of a broader heritage.  Claude Audebert and Mohamed Bakhouch study the descriptions produced by many Omani authors, revealing of the differences in approaches to within a corpus of poetry that is as much a practice as it is a repertoire.

9In the Yemen there exists a genre of political poetry of tribal setting that is referred to generically as the qaṣīda; it is similar in its forms and functions to what is labelled nabaṭī in other parts of the Peninsula. Adapted to the new ways that information and public discourses circulate, it contains within its structures many references to the contemporary situation. Julien Dufour and Hanan Maloom explore the mechanisms of such adaptation, made possible by the fact that it is in the very nature of the qaṣīda to fashion a mise en scène of the message it delivers.

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1 The variety of registers has been studied by Palva, 1992.

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Mohamed Bakhouch, Julien Dufour et Philip Kennedy, « Introduction », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 5 | 2015, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2015, consulté le 23 septembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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