Sunday interview The huge success of the TV programme Prince of Poets has made stars of its two presenters. Philippa Kennedy talks to the duo about fame, poetry and the show's cultural significance.
The prince and princess of hosts
It's 7pm on Thursday and the atmosphere in the auditorium of the Al Raha Beach Theatre in Abu Dhabi is one of bustling tension as technicians carry out sound checks and contestants try to steady their nerves in the green room before the Prince of Poets goes live.
Eyad Nassar, the handsome Jordanian actor and the show's main anchor, is busy going over his script. In a corner of the theatre sits the young presenter of the spin-off show Prince of Poets Xtra, Raja al Shehi, quietly making notes. It has been an extraordinary journey for all of them - presenters, production staff and, of course, the poets themselves - as the popularity of the show, now reaching the conclusion of its second season, soars. The programme was created by Nashwa al Ruwaini, the CEO of Pyramedia, in conjunction with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. The production company also produces another success story, Millions' Poet, focusing on Arabic poetry written in dialect. Prince of Poets sets out to revive and promote the art of classical poetry, which was once an integral part of the cultural fabric of the Arab world.
The first series last year was a phenomenal success watched by millions, according to figures compiled by Abu Dhabi TV based on research, website hits and SMS voting. The winning poet in the current series will take home Dh1 million, and the contestants will have had the kind of exposure that only a smash hit television show can give them. On top of that, the show has made stars of its two presenters, chosen by Ruwaini not just because of their good looks, but also for their love of poetry. Neither Shehi nor Nassar had considered a full-time career as television presenters. Shehi has her heart set on becoming a teacher. Nassar was lured temporarily away from filmmaking in Jordan only by the fact that this was a serious show about poetry.
The programme has changed Shehi's life in many ways. She met and married the script writer Aref Omar, 35, on the show. At the age of 23, she possesses the poise and maturity of a much older woman. Her candour about her lack of interest in the fame game is breathtaking in its freshness. "I don't especially want to be a TV presenter. I love presenting and I love poetry, but if I dealt with it as a career I would lose the taste of it. If I accept money for it, I will lose it. I want to be a teacher and practise presenting as a hobby. I'm not interested in presenting a programme about make-up or fashion. I don't want to stand in front of a camera and say, 'I like this skirt,' " she says.
Shehi was spotted by Ruwaini when she auditioned for Millions' Poet with a poem she wrote about Sheikh Khalifa. "The judges didn't choose me and I was very disappointed. I had left my home in Ras al Khaimah at six in the morning. By 9pm I was very tired. I was the first girl in the theatre and I think the judges thought that the poem had some mistakes in rhythm and sound. I was in tears, but not in front of them. I was a very brave girl in front of them," she says.
"Then 'Doctora' Nashwa came to speak to me. She said to me, 'Your face is right for media and you have all the skills.' She offered me a job presenting Millions, but I couldn't do it at that time because my father thought it would interfere with my studies in my fourth year." It was a disappointment, but Shehi obeyed her father and concentrated on graduating from college. The following year, when Nashwa was preparing for the second series, she contacted Shehi again and offered her the job of presenting Prince of Poets Xtra, and this time she was available. "I have done quite a lot of presenting of awards and educational things. I was on the student council at Ras al Khaimah Higher College of Technology and became vice president. As a child at morning assembly I was the one who was asked to read everything, for example, when the national flag is raised each day."
Shehi, whose mother and four of her sisters are teachers and whose father is the manager of the Cultural Centre at RAK, comes fourth in a family of 10 sisters and one brother. She dresses in the traditional Emirati style - elegant abayas and hijabs or shemaghs - and was concerned that her producers might not think that suitable for a popular television show. "I told Nashwa I wanted to keep my shemagh and abaya and she said, 'We will protect you as if you were at home.' She said she was not looking for a presenter because of their haircut or their clothes, she was looking for someone who was strong.
"I like to be an Emirati woman who is capable of doing this. So many people think Emirati women can't do these things. But they can, even wearing the shemagh." Shehi's job as presenter of Xtra is to interview the poets after the main programme. "I watch the show carefully, taking notes and watching the reaction of the poets to criticism from the judges. I have to pay attention to their faces and their expressions and attitudes so that I can ask them questions. Sometimes their reactions are quite fiery. It happened last week with one of the poets. He just got angry and took some of the judges' comments badly. But he has to accept the judges' comments because he put himself in this situation by entering the competition. After he got through to the second stage, he stood in front of the judges and said, 'Your comments aren't right.' He may well have alienated the viewers by doing that.
"It happened last year with another poet. I asked him about a comment and he immediately said, 'I can shout here, I can say anything.' They find that the extra show is a good place to let off steam." It's a tricky job for a 23-year-old woman fresh out of college, although she has been writing poetry since she was 11 years old and is passionate about the subject. Many of the poets have already had work published. Shehi handles them with great skill and charm and is finding it easier this time than she did during the first series.
"When I began the programme last year at the age of 22 it was very difficult. You are dealing with poets and people who have history in their lives with their poetry and backgrounds and I was so young, just a fourth-year student in the college with specialisation in English. This year I feel stronger," she says. The recognition that the show has brought her has been a mixed blessing. She has already experienced something of the nastier side of fame. She explains: "Last year when I presented the programme I received so many criticisms, especially from Ras al Khaimah. It's a very closed community. They don't like their girls to do jobs like presenting. On the other hand, so many girls have called me and said that I present Emirati women in a very respectful way.
"I like being recognised and responding to people normally. I don't feel different to them just because I am on television and people know who I am. It has its downsides too. In the past two weeks I was very disappointed by one incident. I am a sensitive person too and sometimes criticism is hurtful especially when someone criticises me unfairly. I read on the internet something that one woman wrote. She said that when Shehi comes on television 'I turn it off'.
"That really hurt me and I wanted to know why she wrote that so I emailed her and said, 'This is Shehi and I want to talk to you.' I did talk to her and it turned out that her husband had started making comments about me, like I had nice eyes. In the end she said she was sorry for what she wrote." Her interest in poetry began when she was a small child and she heard her father recite a poem to her mother. "She was upset with him and he wrote a letter to her and put it under her pillow, but it was better when he read it out loud. I was there and I was very touched by it. I could also see the power of poetry and it was a lesson I learnt when I was quite young.
"I think Prince of Poets really takes people back to a very beautiful world. I think poetry is another world, a world of peace and of feelings, a world that represents our customs and traditions. One poem can save lives. For example, if the people are watching a poet and he recites a poem about driving or some other social issue, people respond to that. Poets should be on a pedestal." Shehi met Aref Omar, also a poet, during the making of the first series and they married earlier this year. She has definite ideas about starting a family that clearly take priority over any ambitions she might have either as a teacher or as a presenter. "It was a real love story. We were brought together by poetry. As far as my future is concerned, it is a suitable age to have children. If you become too old you do not give your children what they need. If women just think about themselves and about their bodies I think this is not a good idea. I have to give my children their ambitions and encourage them and look after them and be with them like my friends."
Among the current crop of contestants on Prince of Poets, one in particular stands out for Shehi, a female poet, Khalidya Gaballah, from Algeria who wrote a poem about women and their importance. "She was considering if the woman could live without a man in her life. She didn't talk about raising children or marriage but how women can achieve their dreams and reach their goals on their own merits. In many cases, when male poets write about women they admire their faces and their hair and their eyes. They don't talk about women as leaders and role models."
Two years ago Shehi had some of her work published in newspapers and magazines and she also released her first collection of poems, called Whispers From the Depths of Life. One of her poems was turned into a song and released by the singer Yousef al Omani. She describes her writing as a mixture of reality and classic romanticism. Once the series is over, she intends to complete her master's degree and work in a college teaching adults. Yet it is hard to imagine that her producers will allow her to fade into obscurity, and she admits she would love to present another poetry programme especially Millions' Poet. "It is a different type of poetry, concentrating on dialect, that I like."
Nashwa al Ruwaini's other success story is Eyad Nassar, who replaced Dhafer L'Abidine, the popular British/Tunisian actor and presenter of the first series. Unlike many European and American shows with similar formats, the gladiatorial aspect is missing. There is no nasty Simon Cowell figure ripping performances to shreds, but instead a panel of academics delivering analyses. Nassar, 36, knows he has to get the right balance, soothing the egos of sensitive souls yet maintaining the tensions of a competitive show.
"The producer and I work closely together about how much excitement we try to introduce without spoiling the atmosphere. Normally poetry would create a calm atmosphere, but the presenter has to try and revive the enthusiasm and excitement of a competition. We don't have nasty judges like many judges on other programmes because a poet is a sensitive person so we don't have to shock him or shake him. Even in the way they select them is careful. They won't tell the candidate 'you are out'. They would separate the qualifying people and say thanks to all the others. It's not an elimination as such, and the sensitive nature of the poet is an important factor. We try to involve the audience in a softer way."
Well known in his native Jordan, Nassar presented a show called CinemaCall there before moving into acting in television dramas such as Al Dardawi, Tareeq el Waer and Imru al Qais about the life of the pre-Islamic Arab poet. This year he was nominated for best actor at the Cairo Festival for Radio and Television for his role as Khalifa al Maamoun in the show Abnaa al Rasheed. Nassar is convinced that Prince of Poets will help to revive Arabic interest in what has almost become a lost art. He says: "At one point in the history of the Arab world, poets played a major role in society. They were part of everybody's life. Now that poets as an entity representing a literary genre and part of the social dynamic of the Arab world has almost completely disappeared. Nowadays it's a group of people practising a hobby in the margins of society. The contest is an attempt to revive their importance in society. This won't happen magically overnight, but it will come progressively. It can be achieved through an accumulative process but there will need more than one programme like this."
He tells a charming story about his foray into the world of writing poetry after being rejected by several girls when he was a young man. "I did write something once as an emotional reaction when I was about 21 years old and was getting over my first, or perhaps it was my third, broken heart. I wrote a poem about more than one woman. There were three, one after another and all these relationships failed in the same way."
He even remembers how it began: Every time we start as a knight we come back defeated. I love this pain because I love you. Because you are my paper, my pen and my ink And then I cry, I cry, I cry. He is now happily married and he and his wife, Ohood, have a daughter, Esar, aged five and an eight-month-old son, Adam. Speaking with the aid of a translator, he described how his love of poetry attracted him to the project. "I got involved with the show when Nashwa contacted me and offered me the opportunity to present. Although I am primarily an actor, I didn't think this would take me too far away from the acting world.
"Most of my family are teachers of Arabic. That's one of the reasons I don't speak English very well. I can't remember the first time I heard poetry, but my father used to write it a great deal and we had all the books at home. I would be very familiar with them even if I couldn't understand them. Over the years I got used to the structure and format of poetry. "My special favourite Arab poets are Badr Shaker Sayab, a modern poet, and Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet."
He expressed concern that some of the contestants may suffer because of their poor presentation. "As an actor I am very much aware of the importance of presentation. The performance is part of the show. The way that the poet reads their own poetry is part of the show. Some poets are not being fairly judged in that respect because of their lack of ability to perform. However, the feeling they put into it is important. Their emotional state can still be assessed even if they are not so good as presenters."
The show itself is something of a marathon, going out live at 10.30pm on Abu Dhabi TV and The Poetry Channel and lasting till 1.30am when Shehi's Xtra programme begins. "It is very long, but Arab poetry is never a short thing. Going into the rhythm of the poem can stretch for a very long time," says Nassar. The concept was conceived under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, who frequently turns up to watch the live show. The 35 poets, selected by a panel of experts from more than 10,000 who auditioned, compete for the title over a period of 10 weeks. The judges are all academics and this year include Dr Abdel Malik al Murtad, Dr Ali bin Tamim, Ahmed Khrais, Dr Salah Fadhl and Naif al Rushdan.
Prince of Poets is also a showcase for established musical talent such as the Iraqi lute player Naseer Shamma and the Lebanese singer Walid Tawfiq, who appeared on the first series. This year, the Egyptian poet Iman Bakri, famous for her scathing political poems, performed, as did Majed al Mohandis, the popular Iraqi singer, and the Egyptian singer Amal Maher. Only classical Arabic poetry is accepted and it can be either traditional columnar poetry or free and measure poetry. Each week the public votes for their favourites via SMS, which counts for 50 per cent. The judges' votes determine the other 50 per cent. In the final programme on Thursday, just five poets will fight it out for the title.
Nassar is impressed by the quality: "The standard is very high this year. Some of them are already fulfilled poets who have published their own impressive collections. I prefer not to say who my favourites are as I don't think it would be fair in case I influenced the result. "It certainly has a very wide audience that is increasing from season to season. Of course we cannot generalise or say that all people feel this thirst for poetry. Actually, we are addressing an elite. Some people will always go for pop music and others for poetry. What we hope to do is to enlarge the numbers of people interested in poetry. Although poetry is very much present in our schools, the process is disrupted after high school. After 18 we lose all these people, and these are the people we want to bring back to poetry."
Nassar starts shooting his next movie, a gritty drama called Wedding Party, in Cairo as soon as the current run of Prince of Poets is over. For the actor it is a departure from his usual "handsome hero" role and he welcomes the challenge, just as he relished the chance to present the poetry show that is exposing him to a new fan base in the UAE. "I'm not very well known here. Fame is a nice feeling, but at the same time it can be exhausting and it's a responsibility. There is also the feeling that you have something that you can lose at any time. It's something that you can't hang on to. The problem for me is not when people come forward and shake hands or ask for an autograph. It's the people who keep staring at me from afar. That makes me feel uneasy. It's not a question of being prepared for it. It's a gradual process as an actor gets bigger and more widely known."
He does not foresee himself carving out a career as a television presenter but would happily consider fronting Prince of Poets again. "I'm not thinking of being a big television presenter, although I have had offers from other shows but this is a special show. It is taking the initiative in popularising classical poetry and putting it back where it deserves to be, at the heart of Arab culture."
Prince of Poets is transmitted live on Abu Dhabi TV and the Poetry Channel on Thursdays starting at 22.30. The live shows are free for the public to attend at Al Raha Beach Theatre, Abu Dhabi, with the last entrance at 21:30. The Poetry Channel can be viewed on Arabsat, Bader4 DL11804, horizontal. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org