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Poetess speaks her mind

Poetess speaks her mind

Abu Dhabi, 21 March 2011 – The 21st Abu Dhabi International Book Fair hosted yesterday the famous Saudi Poetess Hissa Hilal to recite some of her popular poems that brought to here recognition through here appearance in Arabs biggest poetry competition "Million's Poet"

Since its debut a few years ago, the television program “Million’s Poet” (Sha‘ir al-Miliyun) has been a smash hit in the Arab world. Produced by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, the show is an American Idol-style contest, in which contestants compete in reciting their own poems in Arabic for a panel of judges over the course of several rounds. The poems are in the nabati style—a traditional poetic genre from the Arabian Peninsula, composed in the spoken Bedouin dialect of Arabic. The top prize is more than $1 million US: not surprisingly, competition is fierce.

In April 2010, Saudi poet Hissa Hilal made it to the final round, as one of the five finalists. In her appearances on the show, she won a lot of fans—and generated a lot of controversy—with her poems, which directly criticized those Muslim clerics who she says promote a backwards-looking version of Islam, encourage terrorism, and unfairly place divisions between men and women. Appearing on television wearing the niqab (the veil covering the full face, other than her eyes), Hilal became something of a celebrity for her outspoken stance. “It was great how people responded,” she recalls.

But although she was a favourite with many in the audience, and did very well with the judges (making it to the eighth round), her poetry also attracted negative criticisms: “Because of the ideas in the poetry, because I was talking about extremism, some people were against me. It was like a rush of attacks against me,” she says. “Some people were saying, ‘Why is she attacking shaykhs and fatwas? Why is this woman talking like this? She’s a woman, not a man.’ Maybe 55% of the responses were against me. But I was happy about the 45% who did defend me, because one of them is worth 1000 others attacking me.” Despite the controversy, she ended up wining third place, and taking home the equivalent of $800,000 US—enough for her family to buy the new house she wanted. (As with shows like American Idol, the voting is done by a mix of a panel of judges and viewers voting by text message.)

Her full name is Hissa Hilal al-Malihan al-‘Unzi, a name that reflects her family origin in the Malihan tribe in northwest Saudi Arabia, near Jordan. Born in a Bedouin environment, she now lives in Riyadh with her husband and four children. Hilal first began writing poetry when she was 13, and remembers hiding her early poems in her room so her parents wouldn’t find out. It was until years later, when she published her first book of poetry, that her parents learned that their daughter was a poet.

As an adult, she worked as an editor and correspondent for a number of Saudi and Gulf newspapers, such as Gulf Panorama and the Kuwaiti-based magazine Hayatna (Our Life.) She edited the poetry section of the Saudi magazine Hajis, and for three years, was the poetry editor for the London-based -Arab newspaper al-Hayat. She writes poems in formal written Arabic (fusha) as well as nabati poetry. “I write nabati because I know this culture very well. Tribal people know it very well.”

In fact, despite her outspoken verses, she got a favorable reaction from family and friends: her husband—who is also from a Bedouin tribal background—didn’t get any criticism for letting his wife appear on television, and as Hilal puts it, “Most of the tribal people supported me—even the old men and women liked me.”

In addition to her television fame, Hilal has also found time to edit a collection of older poetry by Bedouin on the subject of divorce. The collection, published by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), is titled Divorce and Kholu‘Poetry. “Tribal women used to recite poetry requesting a divorce, and when their husbands heard it, they would divorce them.” In other words, poetry was not merely a work of art, but played a vital purpose in relations between men and women, and in allowing women to express themselves in a formal, public fashion. “You used to be able to express yourself in this culture,” Hilal explains. “You could say to a man that you hated him, and he would divorce you. Now, it’s impossible to find a woman who writes poems about divorce, or how she feels about her husband. No way.” Since this tradition of poetry-as-divorce-request has died out, the poems Hilal has collected are historical: the oldest is more than two centuries old, while the most recent dates to forty years ago. The poems are by fifty female poets from different tribes.

While Hilal acknowledges the benefits that modernity has brought to Bedouin life—from schools to formal government institutions—she regrets that something has been lost in the transition to the modern world: “Arabs have changed… There is a new type of culture, and you don’t find real Arabs now. We used to be simple, we used to be free. There was a good spirit in Arab culture: there are good schools and mosques now, but something is gone. It’s like somebody has come and stepped on roses. I edited this book as a witness to show how Arab life really was in the past. Maybe it won’t change anything. But when these women wrote their poetry, they said everything freely and simply. These nabati poems came out of a real society and real women’s lives.”

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