chapter  20
The Dispute of Coffee and Tea: A Debate-Poem from the Gulf
Pages 14

In the past few years, no less than three book-length studies of contemporary Bedouin vernacular poetry have appeared: one each by Sowayan1 and Kurpershoek2 on the poetry of central Arabia, and one by Bailey3 on that of Sinai and the Negev. These writers have pointed to the similarities of this so-called nahali poetry in theme, structure, and even poetic idiom to the pre-and early Islamic qa~iiid, echoing the opinion of the pioneering German orientalist Albert Socin4 that there is a lineal link between the two. But the Bedouin tradition is not the only vernacular poetic tradition which thrives in contemporary Arabia. In the settled communities around the coasts of the peninsula, as well as in neighbouring Mesopotamia, there exist batjari poetic traditions which, circumstantial evidence suggests, may in some cases be as old or even older than those of the Bedouin, harking back to cultures which predate Islam. The origin of this poetry is not tribal, its themes are not lyrical or encomiastic, and its language is not high-flown: all of which negatives perhaps help explain why it has been neglected by Arabs and traditional Arabists alike. This batjari poetry often deals with the banal: the pains and pleasures of the Arab equivalents ofthe butcher, the baker and the candle-stick maker, treating them in a satirical, often comical fashion, and employing an idiom which, though by no means the plain vernacular of everyday speech, is nonetheless nearer to it in vocabulary and syntax than the stylised diction of the contemporary Bedouin bard. Part of the reason for its neglect also lies in the fact that, even more than the Bedouin poetry, it remains an oral tradition: when collections of poems are printed, the run is small and quickly exhausted, and they rarely circulate beyond the confines of the poets' own communities.