Salem Al Attas has a way with words. The 24-year-old Emirati can often be found on stage channeling his love of intricate word play, rhymes, and alliterations into his style of slam poetry.
But Salem isn’t just reciting his poems to an appreciative audience — he’s laying down a challenge to other poets.
“Slam poetry is spoken word meant for competition,” said Salem. “You ‘slam’ against other poets. Slam poetry is free in its structure. This gives way to countless styles and a more diverse avenue for the art to live.”
Read this next: Mashrou’Leila: The Poster Boys of Arab Alternative Music
Salem discovered his love of language at a young age and was quickly drawn to performance poetry. “I saw how slam poetry was exciting and approachable,” he said.
One of his favourite poems to perform live explains how he found his voice as a poet. It’s a hit with audiences. “I have a poem about how I began writing poetry and how my relationship with it has transformed throughout my life and journey as a performer.”
Traditional Arabic poetry is held in high esteem across the Gulf, with poets able to carve out successful and lucrative careers. Although slam poetry has won over many new fans, it hasn’t yet reached a mainstream audience. “Most people in this region aren’t familiar with my style,” said Salem. “They equate poetry (in English) to an old English style of writing they can’t relate to.”
However, whether performing in the UAE or the US, Salem has found audiences quickly warm to his work. “I find that the crowd enjoys my energy and delivery. It’s relatively new to them and hopefully encourages them to look for more.”
Despite its modern style and delivery, slam poetry often follows very traditional themes of love and family. “When I first started performing, I focused heavily on love as many young artists do,” said Salem. “Over time my work became more introspective. I wanted to ask questions like ‘what does it mean to be a man?’ and ‘what defines me?’
“I realised that I wasn’t the only person grappling with these issues. I found my work became a form of outreach to my community.”
Salem credits poet Dorian Paul Rogers with bringing slam poetry to the Emirates. “He is the creator of Rooftop Rhythms in Abu Dhabi and essentially birthed the slam poetry movement here. He showed me that you can tackle serious issues while still being entertaining.”
As the UAE’s slam poetry scene grows, more and more new poets are emerging. “Although I’m the first Emirati slam poet, there are many others from all around the world,” said Salem. “Events like Dubai Poetry Slam (facebook.com/DubaiPoetrySlam) are moving the scene forward. Rooftop Rhythms is on a large scale while Backyard Poetry caters to a smaller but fierce following.”
As for the future of his art, Salem has his sights set high. “I want it to become a staple in Emirati culture,” he said. “I want the world to realise the UAE is becoming a powerhouse in slam poetry.”