x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Use Million's show to reach the world, poet says

The female Saudi poet who received death threats after criticising "ad hoc fatwas" on Million's Poet has urged her fellow competitors to use the show to stand up for what they believe in.

ABU DHABI // The female Saudi poet who received death threats after criticising "ad hoc fatwas" on Million's Poet has urged her fellow competitors to use the show to stand up for what they believe in. Hissa Hilal, a mother of four, said the poets usually recited works praising "themselves, [or] a famous person of their tribe". "But this is a platform that can help you to reach the world," she said. "The ball is in your court. There are a wide range of issues to tackle. It is a platform with a wider horizon and higher ceiling."

Two weeks ago, Mrs Hilal recited a poem that took issue with "ad hoc fatwas", including one by Sheikh Abdul Rahman al Barrak, a Saudi cleric who called on his website for the execution of anyone who said the mixing of sexes was allowed in Islam. The former journalist's poem sparked controversy in Saudi Arabia and lively exchanges on internet forums. Many viewers hailed her "courage" - but others called for her death.

She defied the threats on this week's show on Wednesday by reciting a similar poem about the media, a topic chosen by the panel of judges. "I join the birds of light in a battle of enlightenment, we want to rise with a world that is fighting its ignorance." She followed with a verse on how "the birds" defeat censorship, as their goal is to "cut the tongue of truth". It included the admonition: "If our society keeps listening to extremists and would not stand up against them, it will not progress." Mrs Hilal said her poems had been "very well received" in her native kingdom and had been praised by "poets, journalists and men of letters".

But, she conceded that "many people did not like them because [people] have an innate tendency to be hostile". "There are some people who constantly look for a target and this is something I find prevalent in some societies but more in our society." She added that while "everyone composes their poem according to their background, ability and character", many of the competitors on the programme, which is immensely popular around the Arab world and carries a first-place prize of Dh5 million (US$1.3m), "come here for the prize so they want to leave without any problems, they want to stay on the safe side".

Dr Haithan el Zobaidi, the editor of the London-based website Middle East Online, said the show was having a notable impact on Middle East media. "People will be keen to hear the other voice of the Middle East - the non-conservative, non-extremist, liberal side," he said. Mrs Hilal is the former poetry editor for the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, which, the judges said, came across well in her work.

She has also spoken out on other sensitive issues. She recently told the BBC's World Service, for instance, that she wore the niqab mostly for the sake of her male relatives. "Covering my face is not because I am afraid of people. We live in a tribal society and otherwise my husband, my brother will be criticised by other men," she said. "I know they love me and they support me. It's a big sacrifice for them in such a society to let me go to the TV and talk to the media. I am hoping my daughters won't have to cover their faces and they'll live a better life."

Some poets on the competition seem have taken up the gauntlet, if somewhat gingerly. On Wednesday, Sultan al Assaimar's poem was about terrorism. He started with phrases that hinted at the issue - "He claims that the land is his own, and sees that the universe needs change" - but only revealed his subject in the 10th verse. The judges praised his use of suspense. Currently, Mrs Hilal and Mr al Assaimar, a Kuwaiti, lead the rankings with 28 points each going into the finale, followed by Falah al Mowraqi, another Kuwaiti, with 27 points. Jazaa al Baqmi, a Saudi, and Nasser al Ajami, also a Kuwaiti, all have 26 points.

The finale is scheduled to be broadcast next Wednesday.
hdajani@thenational.ae hassan@thenational.ae