Hissa Hilal: You will see a lot of great things coming from Saudi women
It was one of the defining moments of last year: a fully veiled Saudi Arabian poet delivering blistering words on live television.
Her 15-verse poem, The Chaos of Fatwas, delivered in the rhythmic Nabati form favoured by Bedouins, criticised hard-line clerics for "terrorising people and preying on everyone seeking peace".
Hissa Hilal's appearance in 2010's Million's Poet , a pan-Arab poetry competition presented in American Idol format, is still spoken of today.
Her tribe call her the daughter of the desert. Her fans view her as inspirational. Literary critics love her and her detractors loathe her.
But Hilal would rather just call herself "a fighter".
Speaking at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, the relaxed 43-year-old says a lot has changed since the competition where she pocketed Dh3 million for coming in third place.
For one thing, the cash injection allowed her family to move out of their rented apartment and into their own house in Riyadh. She also spends more time corresponding with a global fan base that stretches from Germany to America.
Now she is back in the literary spotlight with two works. The first is Enlightenment, a compilation spanning the last decade. The other, titled Divorce and Kholu' Poetry: A Reading of the Status of Women in Tribal Society and Nabati Poetry as a Witness, is an edited collection of pre-1950 poetry written by Bedouin women in the Gulf.
Sipping a cup of tea, Hilal is bubbly and her responses often end with a soft chuckle. Her feistiness is apparent through quick interjections to clarify responses and in her preference to hold my tape recorder close to ensure her comments are clearly understood.
She is initially wary about questions regarding the television programme and her poetry. She would rather first talk about her latest literary passion for Dan Brown.
"I just read The Da Vinci Code and wow! The story, the characters.... that was really great," she says. "I also love War and Peace and Crime and Punishment. In fact, I love all the great Russian literature because the writers take their time and patience to explain all details and emotions."
While her television appearance was hailed as revelatory, Hilal says her poetic career has always caused controversy. Only this time, she explains, the television cameras gave her a bigger audience.
"My issues, my thoughts, these topics I speak about; I have always been like this," she says. "If you speak to my friends and colleagues they will tell you the Hissa you see on television is the Hissa they knew for 20 years."
While her work may have been praised abroad, Hilal received death threats from extremist groups back home.
She admits to feeling nervous upon returning to Riyadh and says she sought out the comfort of family and friends. While the veil gave her anonymity to venture outdoors, it wasn't enough to shield her from her new-found notoriety.
She recalls two cases where she denied who she was after her voice was recognised.
"The first time I was in a taxi and the driver asked me if I was Hissa Hilal," she says. "I said I was not her and he said he was 90 per cent sure that I was Hissa Hilal, and I left the car. The other time a person asked me the same question in the market and I again said no and went home. I didn't feel comfortable - especially in those days."
Hilal used the time away from the public eye to complete her poetry anthologies. She describes Divorce and Kholu' Poetry (published by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage's Poetry Academy) as an attempt to illustrate the freedoms Saudi women enjoyed in previous generations.
"I have collected poems from 50 to 300 years back that show these tribal women saying strong things against the male governor, speaking of coward men and generally saying their thoughts," she says. "Now women in Saudi Arabia can't even say five per cent of that, it is just impossible."
But with the Saudi novelist Raja Alem recently announced as the first woman to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Hilal says Saudi female writers are on the way to reclaiming their voice.
"There are hundreds of writers and poets in Saudi Arabia that are coming," she says. "But the golden period has not yet come. We are only at the beginning. You will see a lot of great things coming from Saudi women."
When it comes to her own compilation, Enlightenment, Hilal is typically straightforward.
"It is a witness that a woman called Hissa Hilal lived in the world," she says. "These are her words and this is how she viewed her life."
Born in Saudi Arabia's north-west near Jordan, Hilal is part of the Al Malihan tribe. She recalls a Bedouin childhood filled with simple pleasures. "You spent the days running free and seeing the rain and the birds," she says. "Spring was only two or three months and you can sometimes see the green. But the rest of the time it is hot desert. I still think about that time and I realise that it really affected me so much."
Hilal credits her tough living conditions with filling her with determination. It is a trait that came in handy when she first started experimenting with poetry when she was 12. Even at that young age, Hilal realised her poetry would cause her trouble.
"I wasn't writing just about the environment or these things," she says. "One of the first poems I ever wrote was about a poetess being judged by her tribe."
When Hilal was 16, her brother searched her room and discovered a book of poetry that she kept hidden. Dismayed at its contents, he immediately burnt it.
"When I came home he told me what he did and I was really angry," she says. "But he was also upset because I wrote poetry and women in our society weren't allowed to do that. But what really made him angry was that I was writing about love."
Hilal says the incident didn't deter her from writing, but she realised she had to be more discreet.
While her early poetry was heavily influenced by her physical surroundings, she explains it developed further when attending high-school in Bahrain. It was there she encountered classic fiction in English by Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway.
Despite her high grades, her family couldn't afford to send her to university where she wanted to continue studying English literature. Heart-broken, Hilal returned to Saudi Arabia where she found clerical work in a Riyadh hospital while managing to have some of her poetry published in Saudi newspapers.
Hilal says not being able to study in university remains a crushing disappointment.
"I already applied to the university and was accepted but I had to go back," she says. " I still think about it and I feel really sad."
Hilal's family did finally grant her the creative freedom she always sought, however. It came in the form of marriage.
"They were happy to get rid of me," she jokes. "They felt great because now I can write about anything and it is my husband's responsibility."
Hilal describes marriage and raising four children as a stabilising influence.
"I actually have to be calmer for my children - this is what being a mother is," she says.
But this didn't stop Hilal's unbridled spirit from being passed on to her children. She says her eldest daughter, 11, is exhibiting the same restless traits that made Hilal a handful for her parents.
"I look at her and I think to myself 'We have another Hissa!'" she says. "I don't know what I am going to do with her - I am going to have to wait and see."
But Hilal says family life hasn't altered her own creative process. She still writes in periodic and intense bursts.
When inspired by an event she has witnessed, a story she heard or read, Hilal hurriedly grabs a pen and "like rain, I write till I am finished".
She says that while some view her poetry as Saudi-centric she always attempts to write from a universal perspective. For that she credits the internet and satellite television channels for exposing Saudi women to news and events that their gender would have otherwise shielded them from.
She dismisses the notion that hi-tech mediums could eventually diminish the role of poetry in the Arab world. Instead, she views them as modern instruments helping Arab poets reach a wider audience.
"Before, you only read poetry in the paper, and if you couldn't get on there then it was impossible for people to know you. Now we can use the internet and satellites to show our work everywhere," she says.
"This is the first time in our history that Arabs are starting to understand that we are a small society in a big world and there are other people in the planet with a different experience."
Hilal admits she often dreams of that big world. She still hopes she can study in university and has ambitions to visit Europe and North America for the first time.
"It is by chance that I am living here and that I am not some woman living in Bolivia," she says. "You have to make the best of your circumstance and sometimes I do escape. I do that by writing."
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Updated: March 27, 2011 04:00 AM