Dubai speaks 'language of love': How the city became world’s go-to hub for Urdu poetry

Amid the city's impressive array of world records, it's easy to overlook a lesser-known achievement — it hosts more mushairas (poetic symposiums) than any other place on the globe


Mazhar Farooqui

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Published: Thu 30 Nov 2023, 8:10 PM

Last updated: Fri 1 Dec 2023, 3:16 PM

It's well past midnight, yet the Sheikh Rashid Auditorium in Dubai crackles with infectious energy. Renowned Pakistani poet Abbas Tabish commands the stage, reciting his verses as applause erupts like a tidal wave. The captivated audience clamours for an encore. “Irshad, irshad! (Once more, once more!),” they shout over the din of thunderous claps.

Just 24 hours earlier, on a Saturday night at the Movenpick Hotel's ballroom in Oud Metha, cheers reverberated at another Urdu soirée, a gathering known as mushaira.

The poetic rhythm of Dubai, it appears, never pauses. The upcoming week promises a feast of Urdu poetry at the India Club, featuring the illustrious Javed Akhtar from December 1-3, followed by Jashn-e-Urdu on December 9. Meanwhile, an international mushaira is set to grace neighbouring Sharjah on December 3.

Amidst Dubai's impressive array of world records, one might easily overlook a lesser-known achievement—the city proudly hosts more mushairas than any other on the globe. Each passing year transforms the Emirate into a poetic haven, welcoming gatherings that feature a constellation of revered Urdu poets and legends. These evenings draw thousands of Urdu enthusiasts, vividly showcasing the thriving vitality of the language of love in this desert metropolis. Dubai, with its insatiable appetite for literary brilliance, eagerly embraces these moments with unwavering enthusiasm.

Jashn-e-Rekhta to debut in Dubai

Now, the stage is set for Urdu’s grandest showcase—the much-anticipated debut of Jashn-e-Rekhta, India's renowned literary Urdu festival, taking place in Dubai next year.

Originally scheduled for February 2019, the cultural extravaganza faced an unexpected last-minute cancellation. However, it now promises a celebration of Urdu's quintessential spirit, featuring poetic mastery, talk shows, soulful ghazals, and captivating storytelling, adding another layer to the city's already vibrant cultural tapestry.

“The UAE and especially Dubai is a global events destination, and its cosmopolitan character has broadened the scope of Urdu as a popular medium of speech,” says Sanjiv Saraf, founder of Rekhta Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation working for the preservation and promotion of Urdu

“In choosing Dubai, we embrace the city's thriving Urdu-speaking community, a testament to the rich demographic diversity in the heart of the UAE. In the current geopolitical climate, Jashn-e-Rekhta in Dubai stands out as a beacon of cultural unity, transcending political divides and fostering connections through the universal language of poetry and shared cultural heritage.”

Urdu, a cultural cornerstone in India, thrived under Mughal patronage for centuries, influencing the nation's independence and socialist movements. However, in modern Indian society, it faces a stigma of being considered foreign, resulting in a decline in enrollment in favour of English and other languages

Yet, within the vibrant realm of Bollywood, Urdu not only survives but thrives. It has become the language of romantic expression in songs and cinema, encapsulating sentiments of angst, heartbreak, and celebration.

Surprisingly, it is in Dubai that Urdu has discovered its deepest affection. The city has emerged as the favoured host for mushairas, much like how it has become the world's top spot for family vacations and overseas homes. This prominence is owed to the UAE’s diverse mix of Indian and Pakistani expats, constituting over 40 per cent of the population.

UAE-based Urdu poet Ehya Bhojpuri, a chronicler of mushairas in the country, asserts that Dubai has consistently been a step ahead of others, and Urdu poetry gatherings are no exception. “That's why the oldest digital media of mushairas is from Dubai, dating back to the time of cassettes.”

Early days

Recalling the origins of mushairas, Ehya details how people from India and Pakistan, settling in the UAE, found unity through the Urdu language and their shared passion for poetry. In the Seventies, informal gatherings resembling mushairas or nashishts were common across the UAE, particularly in Abu Dhabi. Active participants at that time included Salamat Najmi and Dr Izhar Haider, says Ehya.

"Waseem Ahmad Waseem from Pakistan played a pivotal role in promoting Urdu. Beyond being a poet in these gatherings, he spearheaded the nurturing of young poets, founding the group Bazm-e-sher-o-adab in 1974.”

A mushaira held in Abu Dhabi in 1986
A mushaira held in Abu Dhabi in 1986

However, it wasn't until 1979 that the first mushaira was organised in the UAE, taking place not in Dubai but at the Central Hotel in Abu Dhabi. The inaugural international mushaira also occurred in the UAE capital, hosted at the Intercontinental Hotel in 1981.

During the early '80s, mushairas ventured into Dubai, featuring luminaries like Jaun Elia, Mehshar Badauyuni, Mohsin Bhopali, and Pirzada Qasim.

Ehya recalls a notable incident in 1984 when the Aligarh Old Boys Association (Pakistan chapter) organised a mushaira called 'Bayad-e-Faiz' in memory of the revolutionary Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz who had passed away that year.

The legendary Ali Sardar Jafri hosted the event. Faced with objections regarding the connection between Faiz and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Ali Sardar Jafri silenced dissenters from the stage, stating that while Faiz may not have studied in AMU, AMU certainly studied Faiz.

Magnet for top poets

In the Eighties, Dubai became a poetic magnet for top subcontinental poets, thanks to Saleem Jaffery from Pakistan, the visionary behind elevating mushairas to new heights. His team, including Waseem Chisti, Syed Salahuddin, and Musibur Rahman, played a pivotal role. Syed Salahuddin, currently the founder and chief organiser of the annual Indian Republic Kavi Sammelan and Mushaira, a mainstay of the Dubai Shopping Festival for over two decades, fondly recalls that era as the zenith of those poetic gatherings.

“We ran an annual series called 'Jashn' that alternated between Pakistani and Indian poets, celebrating greats like Khumar Barabankvi and Ahmed Faraz. The series ran for 12 years,” recounts Salahuddin.

In Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, Zahoor Islam Javed held the forte, hosting mushairas until last year when he moved to the USA. Sharjah has also witnessed numerous mushairas, including one at Expo Centre in 2001 where the chief guest was the bandit queen turned politician Phoolan Devi.

The mushaira scene in Dubai underwent a transformative evolution in the 21st century, thanks to figures such as Rehan Siddiqui, Shazia Kidwai, Rehan Khan, Syed Farhaan Wasti, and Imad Ul Malik. Hosting annual mushairas that often extend into the early hours, each of them brings a unique flair to the tradition.

Pushkin Agha, spearheading Vertex Events, curates the Aligarh mushaira. Meanwhile, Ehya Bhojpuri and their team organize intimate events, adding diversity to the poetic landscape. In Abu Dhabi, Syed Sarosh Arif, the driving force behind Cultural Carwaan, has been instrumental in puting together numerous Urdu poetry symposiums.

Despite being beyond the borders of the UAE, Tariq Faizi has orchestrated 10 mushairas in the region over the past two decades, showcasing the enduring appeal of these gatherings.

This raises the question: Is Dubai hosting one mushaira too many?

Syed Salahuddin, preparing to host his own annual mushaira on January 27 next year, says it is often difficult to keep pace.

Yet, many believe there's always room for more. Shadab Ulfat, an Indian expat whose book Itrdaan traces the history of Urdu literature in the UAE, says he has seen the Urdu community grow before his eyes. “I launched the book at the Sharjah International Book Fair, and the response was overwhelming.”

The book launch, was managed by Bazm-e-Urdu, a licensed Dubai-based organisation promoting Urdu language and literature in the country. Collaborating with Sharjah Book Authority (SBA) and SIBF for years, this marked their first independent stall at the fair.

The Mohammad Bin Rashid Library has acquired over 100 Urdu titles from Bazm-e-Urdu, reflecting the significant interest in the language, even among non-Urdu speakers. Among them is Dubai-based Devina Mehra, founder-managing director of the portfolio management services firm First Global. Featured in the Fortune India 2022 list of Most Powerful Business Women, Devina actively participates in multiple WhatsApp groups dedicated to Urdu poetry and is now in the process of learning the Urdu script.

Urdu is a composite language, with grammar and syntax indigenous to India, while drawing its script and a significant portion of its vocabulary from Persian and Arabic. It’s never too late to learn it. Sanjiv Saraf, whose Rekhta website now has about 20 million users annually, two-thirds of them under 35, learned the script at the age of 53.

Rehan Khan, the founder and general secretary of Bazm-e-Urdu, expresses their philosophy of uniting people through the language of love. “We want to connect people together, organise events that bring all the lovers of Urdu on one platform, and showcase the power of poetry,” said Khan. Their programmes extend beyond mushairas to include Urdu plays and storytelling. Distinguished personalities like Javed Akhtar, Muzaffar Ali, Nandita Das, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Mahesh Bhatt, Nida Fazli, Gulzar Dehlvi, Abbas Tabish, Anwar Shaour, Anwar Masood, Manzar Bhopali, and Wasi Shah have graced these events over the past 10 years.

“In Dubai, Indians enjoy live shows of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, and Pakistanis relish Arijit Singh,” says Khan, using the analogy to illustrate the peaceful coexistence of people from both countries in Dubai. “A successful mushaira is incomplete without shayars (poets) from India and Pakistan. Given the relations between the neighbouring countries, it's challenging for Indian poets to travel to Pakistan and vice versa. However, Dubai serves as a neutral ground, overcoming this obstacle by hosting stalwarts from both countries," he explains.

Imad Ul Malik, CEO of a leading financial institution and founder of Applause Adab, agrees. “A couple of months back, we hosted a mushaira headlined by the living legend of Urdu literature, Iftekhar Arif. When Himanshu Bajpai, a popular dastango (storyteller) in India, got wind of it, he flew down to Dubai specifically to meet him," shares Imad Mallick. Bajpai, describing the meeting in a photograph (below) as one of the most unforgettable moments of his life, said, "It was a long-cherished dream which could have only come true in Dubai.”

What sets mushairas in Dubai apart is the participation of poets from not just the Asian subcontinent but also places like Canada or the USA, given the city's connectivity.

“Today, Dubai is the ultimate stage for mushairas. It's like a poet's essential stop — a poetic rite of passage,” says Malik. “Performing here completes their journey, much like a vital stamp on a passport."

But winning the hearts of the discerning audience is no easy feat in those few minutes. How well they recite their lines can determine their fate—either facing disapproval and being booed off the stage, or earning approval and being allowed to stay, as directed by the moderator.

Shazia Kidwai, creative director of Andaaz-e-Bayan Aur, the force behind the mushaira in Sheikh Rashid Auditorium last week, says Dubai has launched the careers of many poets, propelling them from notoriety to overnight stardom. “For a poet, a performance in Dubai is a significant entry on their CV. It shows they have arrived."

The Urdu poetry community also includes Arab poets who express themselves in Urdu, like Emirati dermatologist Dr Zubair Farooq and Walaa Jamal El Esseily from Egypt, an associate professor of Urdu at Ain Shams University in Cairo.

Encouraged by the response to mushairas, leading brands like AGMC and corporate houses have started partnering with these gatherings as sponsors. “The future of Urdu looks bright,” says Shazia. “It transcends class distinctions. Whoever speaks Urdu is a part of these programmes.” ​

This passion for the language has driven younger poets like Muskan Syed Riaz, based in Sharjah, to carry forward this great tradition of reciting Urdu poetry to a receptive audience.

Centuries ago, a burning candle would have been placed in front of the poet whose turn it was to recite their work. Syed Farhaan Wasti of Jash-e-Urdu, who has been organising mushairas since 2009, says he's passed his love for Urdu to his kids, both of whom are taking a keen interest in his programmes.

"I've also lit up a candle in their hearts, passing on the warmth of Urdu poetry and our cultural heritage. In that glow candle, I see the spark of enthusiasm in my children — a flame connecting generations, preserving the essence of our rich poetic legacy."

(With additional reporting from Adeena Siddiqui)

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