x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Verse matters

Last season, millions were glued to their seats as contestants competed for Dh1m and the chance to become the Prince of Poets. It's that time again.

Soap operas and poetry contests are the biggest draws on Middle Eastern TV.
Soap operas and poetry contests are the biggest draws on Middle Eastern TV.

From Susan Boyle (or "SuBo") mania on Britain's Got Talent, to Big Brother 963 having just kicked off in the UK last week, there are now myriad versions of reality television shows beaming out from screens across the globe. Often, they're painful to watch or controversial (think SuBo), or both, but it's rare that they are intelligent. Step forward Prince of Poets, the much-loved poetry reality show which will return to our screens tonight. It's back for a third series, bringing 35 optimistic Arab poets together from 18 countries to duel for the Dh1 million prize. The first two series attracted a viewing audience of up to 17 million, and producers expect the same this year. "We have been working around the clock to prepare the theatre set at Al Raha Beach Theatre in Abu Dhabi," says the show's producer, Mona Al Ruwaini. "I'm positive we will receive the high ratings we are used to."

The various aims of the show, as underlined earlier this week by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage, demonstrate the show's refined nature in comparison to that of other reality series. Issa al Mazrouei, the director of special projects for Adach, explained that the show is looking to "detect distinct poetic talents that have not been previously discovered by the media, to encourage new generations on the development of poetic talents, allow them to interact with the distinguished poets and to identify rhythms and rhymes and various schools of poetry".

It was first held in 2007, originally as a spin-off from the equally popular show, Million's Poet. There is no fundamental difference between the two (both have a judging panel and big prize money), apart from the fact that the former concerns itself with standard Arabic poetry and the Arab world as a whole, while the latter focuses mostly on the Gulf region, its dialects and the distinctive Nabati poetry style common to Bedouin culture.

Prince of Poets is, admittedly, similar in format to other reality shows such as American Idol and its offshoots. Initially, hopefuls are invited to send in an application form. More than 7,500 were received this year, from which a judging panel of five critics picked 200 to come and audition at the Abu Dhabi Folklore and Theatre Society last month. Over the course of three days, these 200 poets - both amateurs and professionals - spoke emotionally on themes such as love, patriotism and war. The filming covered not only their appearances in front of the judges, but their outpourings in the Diary Room as they discussed their nerves about the show. So far, so Big Brother.

Of the 200, the judges then narrowed the list down to 35 names to take part in the live shows. Tonight's audience is expected to be 2,000-strong. Nerve-racking stuff, especially when the prize is so valuable. Feedback on the poems then comes from the five judges (mostly less stern than Simon Cowell) and the audience subsequently votes for their favourites, along with the television viewers by text message.

The show rolls on like this for 10 weeks, and the rules are simple. All forms of classical Arabic poetry are acceptable, whether the verses are rhyming or blank, though prose is forbidden. Men and women are allowed to apply, but they must be aged between 18 and 45 years old and each participant's entries must not exceed 30 verses. One of those who knows the system well is Seedi Mohammed Weld Bamba, the 35-year-old Mauritanian winner of last year's series. Bamba now splits his time between Mauritania and Qatar, where he works as a journalist for Al Jazeera, but he remains passionate about his poetry, and speaks on the subject with typical, poetic romanticism. "Writing means that I exist, that I'm insane beyond the limits of reason, which is a peculiarly pleasurable feeling, to feel that you are mad and delirious when you stand on the top of rationality," he says.

Confused? "Poetry is the spice of life," he adds to try and clarify things. "It consists of a simple inspiration and correlation between word and man." Bamba is clearly a man passionate about his subject, and prior to Prince of Poets had not only written poetry, but had a volume published in 2001. Yet despite having taken home the main cheque last year, he is reticent about his achievement. "Victory is not always guaranteed, but you harvest the fruits of what efforts you've sown," he says when asked whether he expected to win all along.

He says he decided to participate in the show because he believed the competition was "contributing something new to the Arab poetry scene". And indeed, the desire for a kind of poetry renaissance is the motivation for the entire series, which is organised by Adach and held under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. In his own eloquent fashion, Bamba had touched upon the Arab love of poetry. "If theatre is the father of the arts, as they say, then poetry is the father of theatre," he explained of his passion for the subject. "It will remain a major epitome and a genuine cornerstone of the Arab culture, through which identity crystallises and dusts itself off of so-called globalisation."

The lyrical tradition of poetry has been closely linked to Arab culture for centuries, as demonstrated by the show's title. The original Prince of Poets was the Egyptian writer Ahmad Shawqi, who oversaw a revival of Arab poetry in the early 20th century and was labelled the prince in 1927 in recognition of his service to the genre. One of his odes to the pharaohs of Egypt highlights the patriotism that often marked his work. "They were shining stars when the earth was night/And men walked the globe in darkness/Rome walked under their guiding light/And from their glow Athens borrowed greatness." But Shawqi was writing almost a century ago; is such lofty sentiment really relevant still today?

One of the show's five main judges, Ahmad Khrais, argues that it is, and insists that the show's support demonstrates poetry's enduring popularity. A Palestinian academic, Khrais has spent years translating several western works into Arabic and has penned books on Arabic literature and poetry, so he speaks with authority on the subject. "Some have come to think that the Arab world has tired of poetry, and that young poetic talent has gone scarce, but this third edition comes to refute those claims," he says.

In fact, far from dying out, Khrais insists that poetry remains irretrievably linked with Arab culture. "Poetic taste buds are part and parcel of the Arab palate," he says. "The Arab culture is chiefly a graphic culture - it relies on language more than anything else - where poetry is the central literary genre. It has remained for centuries the ultimate medium through which the Arab identity expresses itself."

It is impressive, therefore, that despite the somewhat old-fashioned connotations, the show has been hugely successful in harnessing the interest of young viewers and participants. "Whoever watches closely will notice that there is a predominant participation of young candidates," explains Khrais. "We have selected 19 and 20-year-old poets and a little above." It was a decision, he says, that stemmed from the programme makers' desire to encourage young talent in this area, to help carry the poetic renaissance along.

It has proved a successful tactic, because the inclusion of young poets has encouraged a young audience. There are Facebook groups with hundreds of members devoted to the programme, and after the previous two series, some fans even downloaded snippets of their favourite entries as their mobile phone ringtone. "I can safely say that no small portion of youngsters now think highly of poetry and look up to poets. This, in an age when one could swear it would be impossible, as everything around us seems to steer away from poetics."

The past two series consistently topped the TV-ratings polls when screened, with the size of the audience outstripping even that of football viewers. One of the show's most talked-about achievements was in the first series, thanks to the participation of the 32-year old Palestinian-Egyptian poet Tamim al Barghouti. His appearance and politically charged poems briefly united Fatah and Hamas in support of his quest for the title, and their respective television stations repeatedly screened his poems. Key chains with his face on were sold in Palestinian cities, and there are more than 70 videos of his performances listed on YouTube. In the end, he came fifth. But the frenzy he whipped up cemented the show's popularity with its audience.

Khrais says the appeal of the show is in its make-up, despite its highbrow content. "It didn't just stop at pleasing the elite of creative writers and critics," he explains. "It has also attracted the lay viewer, especially given that Arab television channels are wanting in cultural programmes that join entertainment to enrichment." Such is the show's success that Adach have now released a collection of poems in book form from the first series in 2007, with future plans for further releases from the ensuing series.

The show has therefore succeeded in making poetry glamorous for the masses, not just the intelligentsia - a fact perhaps in part explained by the vast sum of money doled out to the winner. Bamba would only say coyly that the prize money had allowed him "certain things" that he could not have otherwise. Khrais insists that it's really the exposure that a poet gains from the show is invaluable. "It is every poet's dream to be famous outside the motherland, which also helps the poet expand on the pan-Arab sphere, which in turn elicits more interest from publishers."

For Khrais, financial gain comes second to the increased popularity of the art. "I think the true value of the prize lies in that it makes the poet known to a wider public," he says. scoutts@thenational.ae