Grains of truth

In the midst of a desert, Shahidha Bari finds a wellspring of scholarly inspiration

March 6, 2014

A few weeks ago, squeezed in between the scuffle and fray of Tube strikes and university picket lines, my second-year poetry class managed to read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 sonnet Ozymandias – that acerbic love song to a long-dead desert despot. I suspect they reached for it with a yawn, jaded by memories of A‑level English. But I confess that my own exhausted mid-semester interest was barely piqued, apart from a fleetingly vicious thought that tyrannous vice-chancellors might suffer a similar demise to that of Rameses II, dwindling in a desert with the ruins of universities around them. A week later though, I found myself in a real desert and I began to think again about poems and power, boredom and books.


If you’ve ever seen the desert you will know that it is, by turns, a beautiful and bewildering thing. My visit came about after BBC Radio 4 commissioned a programme on Arabic poetry, and I travelled with a producer to Abu Dhabi to find out more. One part of the trip entailed a backstage tour of a prime time television show currently being broadcast across the Gulf states, titled Million’s Poet, and which might most efficiently be described as an off-kilter X Factor for aspirant poets. It comes complete with supercilious Arabic-speaking Simon Cowells and heartbreakingly sincere contestants clinging to their all-too-shatterable dreams. But the second part of the trip entailed a journey into the desert for a starlit open-air poetry reading, performed in traditional Bedouin style under a waterproofed camel-hair canopy and accompanied by thimbles of coffee strong enough to keep you awake for years.

Students are endlessly curious, but as we struggle with teaching loads, it isn’t always easy to remember why this job is meaningful

The largest emirate of the UAE, Abu Dhabi, lies on a T-shaped island in the Persian Gulf. It houses a population of nearly a million, many of whom are struggling migrant workers. UAE women are not always visible in social spaces, but they possess the same legal status as men and have the right to practise the same professions, with 77 per cent of female students continuing on to higher education. Central Abu Dhabi consists largely of skyscrapers, luxury hotels and sprawling shopping complexes, but drive about 70 kilometres west, through indifferent patches of arable land and scrubland, and you hit a desert town called Sweihan. There you can hardly find a soul. “Boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away” indeed.

The desert is quiet, even during the annual Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan Heritage Festival, to which I had been invited. A two-week extravaganza, its highlights include traditional dancing, Saluki dog racing and a much-vaunted camel beauty contest – this last consisting of fiercely competitive owners and serenely unperturbed dromedaries. To be fair, it’s hard to gauge numbers through the door when the door is a desert, but sat in an empty (if impressively air conditioned and wi‑fi-enabled) media tent, the unruly hubbub of a metropolitan university like mine felt a million miles away.

I was in Abu Dhabi to learn more about Nabati poetry, a vernacular form, Bedouin in origin and oral in tradition. It is concerned with every subject of any importance, including love, war, religion, politics, well-being and wit, with a good portion charmingly devoted to the affectionate praise of camels. A rigidly structured mode of poetry, it is also appealingly populist, evidenced by the success of Million’s Poet where glamorous commercial values are awkwardly squared with ideas of traditional culture. The poets speak intelligently, passionately and candidly, some daring to voice carefully framed political criticisms, others even daring to question religious authorities. Listening to them speak about the place of poetry in their lives, I thought of my battered course packs and strip-lit classrooms in London.

I am what is known, sometimes contemptuously, in academic circles, as an “impact” academic, peddling ideas and idle chat as often on the radio as on the scholarly conference circuit. While media academia has its problems, I remain, nonetheless, someone sunnily interested in speaking to people outside my discipline and idealistic about the ways in which specialist research informs and lifts the discourse of public life.

But it can happen the other way round, too. We travel beyond the gates of our institutions and we remember why we teach and we rethink how. Although the specious utility-based values of “public engagement” research are neither interesting nor desirable to me, we might ask how we keep those crucial terms, interest and desire, alive in our profession in this moment of crisis in higher education.

Students are endlessly curious and invigorating, but as we struggle with administrative duties, teaching loads and real-terms pay cuts, it isn’t always easy to remember why this profession is meaningful. And yet, sitting in the desert, watching a blazing sun sink into the dunes and thinking about the vivid life of poetry as it is lived in a country far from mine, I was reminded of what we do when we teach. We curate knowledge, stimulate curiosity and encourage understanding in ways that are infinitely important to the cultures in which we live.

Whenever I have travelled in the Middle East and explained in my faltering Arabic that I am a university lecturer, the people I meet have been unfailingly respectful, admiring, pleased to meet me. Teaching matters. In Abu Dhabi, my clever and capable translator, Wafa, recounted to me with delight her own stay in Dundee as part of her MA. British university life was cold but wonderful, she recalled. I came home with sand between my toes, resolved to remember that.

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