x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A woman's small voice that shouts out for change

The Saudi poet Hissa Hilal is following in the footsteps of one of Russia's greatest modern poets, Anna Akhmatova.

When he handed down the sentence, denouncing her as 'half-nun and half-harlot' - this was a man who tried to reduce culture to a mathematical formula, who thought the world of art could be understood in black and white - Andrey Zhadanov, then in charge of Soviet cultural policy, was attacking the woman who would become one of Russia's greatest modern poets.

By expelling Anna Akhmatova from the Writer's Union in the 1940s, he condemned her to a life of penury. Akhmatova wrote poetry the Bolsheviks saw as radical, railing - in Requiem, one of her most famous works - on behalf of the mothers who lost sons to Soviet repression, "remembering them always, everywhere/unforgotten in each new terror's care"

Female poets have a long and honourable tradition of speaking truth to power. From Maya Angelou's inspired Still I Rise - You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I'll rise - which focused the rage and celebrated the resilience of the black female experience of her generation, to Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature and who spoke out against censorship in her homeland during the decades under Soviet domination.

Into this tradition, enter Hissa Hilal, a poet on the reality TV show Million's Poet, who has sparked headlines around the world for her uncompromising verses against preachers and their religious edicts. Mrs Hilal, a former journalist, unleashed a scathing critique of conservative clerics in her native Saudi Arabia and was rewarded with death threats from extremist websites — and a place in next week's final. If she wins, and the signs are she will, she will become the first female to take the top prize in the show's short history.

Regardless of next week's outcome, her words, 15 short lines in the Arabian Nabati poetry style, have already resonated around the Arab region and the wider world, her message because of its boldness at a time of widespread timidity towards religious doctrine, the messenger because she wears the niqab, a full face veil, in a medium that thrives on the visual image.

Indeed, much about the message is peculiarly Arab, delivered as it was in poetry, a literary art that has been reduced in the West to a subject for sober contemplation and scholarly analysis, to be wheeled out on sombre occasions. The US and Britain may both have poet laureates - both women, as it happens - but few in either country would be able to identify Kay Ryan or Carol Ann Duffy, much less quote one of their poems. The poetry of crying out for social change, of poets railing from their garrets against the oppression of the world, of compressing the experience of the moment into a few lines that illuminate for centuries, has been replaced by the cult of celebrity. Duffy's last official poem was a lament for the injury that will keep footballer David Beckham out of this year's World Cup.

Yet poetry in the Arab world is thriving. "No people in the world manifest such enthusiastic admiration for literary expression and are so moved by the word, spoken or written, as the Arabs," wrote Philip Hitti in his History of the Arabs, and the place of poetry in the Arab world is still enormously central, even in the maelstrom of modern media. A recent film by a British filmmaker entitled Men of Words highlighted how in Yemen oral tradition is kept alive, even in the internet age, with current issues of politics and economics debated in poetry. This is a region, after all, that boasts two reality TV shows dedicated to poetry (the other being Prince of Poets), both of which draw millions of viewers, and where Mahmoud Darwish, the greatest Palestinian poet of his generation, could pack a football stadium with listeners.

What then does the story of Hissa Hilal tell us about the modern Arab world? In an interview, Mrs Hilal said, "We are all living in a global village, so we cannot live without each other." Her rise to celebrity is indicative of this. Million's Poet is a show based on a British format, popularised by its American version, transmitted across the Arab world by satellite television, where a woman who covers her face travels from Saudi Arabia to the Emirates to audition and ends up speaking to millions of people across the world in an ancient poetry form.

Wrapped up in her appearance are the seeds of what is happening to the modern world: it shows how celebrity, so easily created, has become a currency through which even ordinary people can challenge those in authority. The clerics she railed against from her prime-time pulpit were forced to listen to an accuser whose face they don't know: Abdul-Rahman al Barrak, a Saudi cleric who issued a religious edict (fatwa) calling for those who opposed gender segregation to be put to death, was widely seen as the target of her verses, "He speaks from an official, powerful platform, terrorising people and preying on everyone seeking peace."

Yet it also tells us something that is already widely known: that most of the Arab world is young, that it is eager for change and that it already has widely different views than those ascribed to it by other people, even by its own media. That the audience voted for Mrs Hilal in overwhelming numbers, and applauded her poetry so enthusiastically, says that these sentiments are widely shared. The change she longs for has already occurred — though some generations have not been told.

Mrs Hilal's is a voice from the heart of a culture, calling in the most modern way for change. At their best, poets are historians and also visionaries, politicians as well as prophets. Szymborska's poem, The Three Oddest Words, begins with this sentiment: "When I pronounce the word Future/the first syllable already belongs to the past." Hilal follows in this tradition, one foot in the past and one in the present. Her words last week were entertaining as much as declaratory, at once a statement and a warning.

A monument to Anna Akhmatova stands today in St Petersburg, while the statue of her oppressor, Zhdanov, has long been torn down. As the Soviet leadership discovered, the greatest of constructions can be outlived by a small voice calling in the wilderness.


Faisal al Yafai is a journalist. He received the Ibn Battuta Award for Media in London last month and is a Churchill Fellow for 2009/2010