As the Prince of Poets contest heads towards the dramatic conclusion of its fifth season next week, Marcel Kurpershoek samples the buzz at a recent recording of the show in Abu Dhabi
Poetry TV programmes a sign of a new Arab world?
On the "Quiet Coast", at the theatre of Shati Al Raha, the mood was one of festive expectation. Relaxed, yes, but certainly not quiet. This was the latest season's second evening of competition for the title of Prince of Poets. Behind a table the three members of the panel of judges were getting ready. On the big stage, technicians were putting the last touches to cameras, screens, lights and sound. The decor of pillars and horseshoe-shaped arches bathed in glowing, changing colours suggested a mix of Andalusia and Hollywood.
But this is Abu Dhabi. The enormous success of Prince of Poets, and its twin, the Million's Poet, are indisputable proof that the Emirates are in the global vanguard of combining the attractions of West and East. No effort is spared to promote culture. Yet these two programmes stand out for their scale and impact on the mental orientation of millions. As stars compete and audiences watch enthralled from Mauritania to Egypt and Iraq to Oman and Yemen, it is no exaggeration to conclude that from Abu Dhabi, a new Arab world is being created.
For western and other non-Arab observers, this may be hard to grasp, as is the idea that millions can enthuse about poetry as much as girls and their grandmothers can about pop music in the southern United States, the heartland of American Idol. Yet it is a fact, as western scholars and media will one day recognise. Talking to my neighbours on the auditorium's front row, Sultan Al Amimi, the director of the Poetry Academy of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, and Dr Ali Al Tamimi, the Emirati judge on the panel, the design became clear to me.
The format is adapted from American Idol. The basis is a television and media competition with audiences voting in favour of the candidates for the title by sending text messages or through the internet. But here there is an overarching ambition: to forge a united Arab world in a cultural sense through renewed interest in the common literary language and the proud tradition of poetry. The Idol tool has been adapted for this noble ideal. Throughout its Arab history of 1,500 years, poetry has been known as diwan al-'Arab, the scroll on which the Arab heritage has been engraved.
On screens we watch as members of the public make comments. Some confess that they had trouble understanding poems and certain words. The educational need is clear. Then the poets who battled in the previous round line up on stage: from Egypt, Mauritania, as well as a poetess from Jordan. The poet from Oman had already passed to the next stage as the winner of the round. This time the public decides who will drop out. The presenter, the handsome Syrian actor Bassem Yakhour, keeps up the suspense by teasing the three, as a cat plays with mice. Then he pounces: the Egyptian drops out. He takes the blow as a man and kindly waves to the public as he walks off stage.
The next four poet-gladiators are introduced one by one and as a group. Technicians rush in and mount a sofa-sized throne on the floor. Ayt Al Siddiq appears dressed in a traditional Moroccan gown, topped off with a red fez. Loud cheers from his many supporters ring in our ears. A 26-year-old graduate in Arabic literature from a religious family, a man who has memorised the Quran, he has a firm command of the art. But the hawk-eyed and wolf-eared judges spot minor faults, even in the title: Brimful with Desires. In the latter word, a letter should have been doubled, Murtad, the judge from Algeria, points out. Half a missing syllable is enough to skew the meter. Moreover, the dual form of a relative pronoun is missing. The technical requirements of Arabic poetry and classical language are exacting. Yet the panel admires the poem, and "its Moroccan linguistic touches". It is about a boy who sets out, armed with a suitcase full of desire, to explore the wide world. "Sindbad on his mind", he ends his verse.
It does not take long for me to figure out how the judges operate as a team. The Algerian Murtad is the unforgiving schoolmaster who ferrets out every mistake or weakness in prosody and language. The Egyptian Fadl steps in with kind words and apposite praise. The panel's chair, Dr Al Tamimi, gives the overall verdict on style and literary impact.
Smiling modestly, the second contender installs himself on the throne. He is Billa from Burkina Faso. I am surprised. Is the country a recent addition to the Arab world? No, his father is from there, his mother from Guinea, but he grew up in Saudi Arabia. He is 32 years old and his "age as a poet" is 12 years. His bearing and gestures are quiet and kind, his text philosophical: Attempt to exit towards myself is the title. I take an instant liking to him. And not just me: he receives the highest score from the public. Unfortunately, the judges are less impressionable. His grip on the language is a bit shaky. "The profound thought of the piece is more admirable than the words used to express it," as one of them puts it. Dr Al Tamimi is acid: "You start out saying 'I will not be like any other poet.' Why don't you leave it to your audience to decide whether indeed you are? Murtad: you have potential, a poet in the making." Fadl adds with a friendly smile: "A nice try!" Billa listens attentively and nods.
I get more and more excited, as does the hall. There is so much diversity of character and style on display. In comes Al Amir from Iraq. As a fortysomething, he is close to the age limit of 45. In the short interview with Yakhour, he tells us that love made him a poet (Billa mentioned sympathy for the Palestinians as having prompted his first poem.) Perhaps because of his stolid presentation, the public gives him the lowest score. The piece, entitled My lips are an ear of grain's speech, is grave about the torments of lovesickness.
Murtad pronounces himself satisfied with the technical competence, though in one case he would have chosen a different word. He gives Amir a verbal pat on the shoulder: "You are a stud of poetry" (the traditional Arabic term of praise for a strong poet). Fadl is intrigued. "The verse is loud-throated and eloquent as we are used from Iraqi poets." What tickles him is the last line where the poet asks his amour to be considerate with his soul and begs her: "Do not awaken my Khansa." A poetess born before the advent of Islam, Al Khansa was famous for her elegies. "You are proof that hidden in every poet is a female who dictates the verses to him," Fadl says with a grin. Al Tamimi has some doubts. In the opening line he detects echoes of Al Mutanabbi, a classical poet whom many still strive to emulate.
"Camp sites of old! You have your sites in hearts, / Teeming with your presence as you lie deserted."
But in Al Amir's pastiche he found little charm and "not a ray of hope".
Time for the last contender: Linda Ibrahim from Tartus on the Syrian coast. On high heels, with blonde hairdo, and white trouser suit, she immediately cuts a striking figure. She reminds me of Kelly Clarkson, the winner of American Idol's first season. Might the same lie in store for Linda? Supplied with Arab coffee, tea and dates, I settle deeper in my chair. Linda does not betray any sign of nerves. Her composure is absolute. Her choice of Al Mutanabbi appears in the title: The last sufferings of Al Mutanabbi. Her song in verse is the saddest. It bemoans the fate of her home country. Unlike some of the convoluted language and images of others, her words are readily understood. For the voters in the theatre she is the clear winner.
Again, the judges are not so easily swayed by sentiment. Murtad takes pity on her for pretending to Mutanabbi's mantle. More serious, Fadl admonishes her for overstepping the programme's bounds. Though veiled, the allusion to the "devastations of cities by the Rum" brings politics into the contest, says Fadl (Al Mutanabbi's patron fought against the Byzantines, called the Rum, or Romans, a territory corresponding to present-day Turkey, as the web discussion points out). Quite understandable, for given free rein politics would wreck the show and defeat its educational and unifying purpose. Dr Al Tamimi thinks Ibrahim might have taken her cue from the great Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish's poem called Al Mutanabbi's Journey to Egypt. But she does not achieve that artistic level, in his view.
It is past midnight as the four contestants are lined up by Yakhour. Then the winner, Al Siddiq from Morocco, jumps, throws his red fez into the air and does a little dance, his gown whirling. He is the winner and will graduate automatically to the next round. The three others will have to await the public's verdict. We thank and congratulate Sultan Al Amimi, happy and enriched with a new cultural dimension.
Marcel Kurpershoek is the author of Arabia of the Bedouins (in Arabic translation: Al-Badawi Al-Akhir) and Studies on the Oral Poetry of Central Arabia. He is currently the Dutch ambassador in Warsaw.