Hissa Hilal recites one of her poems Photo: AP
In The Million’s Poet programme, competitors battle it out to impress a panel of judges with traditional Arabic poems, not pop songs.
But instead of choosing an ode to the beauty of Bedouin life, Hissa Hilal, only her eyes visible through her black veil, delivered a blistering attack on Muslim preachers „who sit in the position of power” but are „frightening” people with their fatwas, or religious edicts, and „preying like a wolf” on those seeking peace.
The programme, The Million’s Poet, is a chance for poets to show off their original work, airing live weekly on satellite television across the Arab world from Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. Contestants are graded on voice and style of recitation, but also on their subject matter, said Sultan al-Amimi, one of the three judges on the show and a manager of Abu Dhabi’s Poetry Academy.
Her poem got loud cheers from the audience and won her a place in the competition’s finals, to be aired today. While she is a favourite to win the show, her poetry has also brought her death threats, posted on several Islamic militant websites.
But she has shrugged off the controversy.
„My poetry has always been provocative,” she said. „It’s a way to express myself and give voice to Arab women, silenced by those who have hijacked our culture and our religion.”
Her poem was seen as a response to Sheik Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak, a prominent cleric in Saudi Arabia who recently issued a fatwa saying those who call for the mingling of men and women should be considered infidels, punishable by death.
But more broadly, it was seen as addressing any of many hard-line clerics in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region who hold a wide influence through television programmes, university positions or websites.
Poetry holds a prominent place in Arab culture, and some poets in the Middle East have a fan base akin to those of rock stars.