Dubai — A mother of four from Saudi Arabia who recently shot to fame by using her poems to criticize religious extremism has failed to win the Arab world's biggest poetry competition, but instead captured third place and $800,000.
Wearing the Saudi traditional head-to-toe black abaya cloak, with a veil masking her face, Hissa Hillal recited her last poem in the contest, a defense of the freedom of thought.
The sole woman among five finalists, she rose to stardom after a series of poems blasting "evil" extremist fatwas (edicts) by Muslim clerics, a challenge which resulted in death threats being made against her on the internet.
Mrs. Hillal said that through her poems, she wants to "fight extremism, which has become a worrying phenomenon."
"A few years ago, society was more open. Now, things have become heavier. Some men do not even shake hands with female family members as they did in the past," she said.
In her poem entitled "The Chaos of Fatwas," which she has recited late last month during the popular televised competition putting her into last week’s finals, she boldly charged that the "evil comes from those fatwas."
She compared their authors to "monsters wearing belts," an apparent reference to explosive belts worn by suicide bombers.
The contest's panel praised Mrs. Hillal's courage for expressing her opinion "honestly and powerfully," giving her the highest score of at 47 out of 50.
The poem was seen as hitting out at Saudi cleric Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, who issued a fatwa in February calling for those promoting a mixing of the sexes in education and at the workplace to be put to death.
Mrs. Hillal said, however, that she was not referring to Barrak's fatwa in particular, but said that she was "against the idea of killing a human being because of his beliefs."
She considers the mixing of men and women at work "a necessity for daily life."
"We are always told: haram," or prohibited, she lamented. "This dangerous extremism is no longer limited to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, but has spread to other countries like Egypt, Jordan and Syria."
Radical Saudi clerics were infuriated when the reform-minded King Abdullah inaugurated in September the kingdom's first mixed-gender university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, on the Red Sea coast.
"Saudi Arabia has made great strides over the past five years" to improve women's status, Mrs. Hillal said, praising the "courage" of the Saudi monarch.
In an attempt to prove his commitment to improving the status of women, the king appointed Norah al-Fayez deputy minister of education for women's education in 2009, the first appointment of a woman to a ministerial post.
Women in Saudi Arabia must cover from head to toe in public. They are also forbidden to drive and can not travel without a male guardian, while segregation rules severely restrict work opportunities for women.
Mrs. Hillal is already challenging convention by being at once a journalist, in addition to her role as wife and mother.
Using a traditional verse form native to the Arab Peninsula's nomadic tribes, she writes critically about the country's hard-line Muslim clerics, calling them: "vicious in voice, barbaric, angry and blind."
Condemning the violence that she says lies beneath their religious messages, her poems speak of some of the clerics "wearing death as a robe cinched with a belt" – an apparent reference to suicide bombers' explosives belt.
Her poems rail against what she sees as a dangerous and excessively conservative shift in Arab society and mores, from within a country where women cannot travel without a male guardian and are forbidden from driving.
“Most of the people loved what I said, from their hearts”
"What made me so angry is seeing the Arab society becoming more and more kept to itself, not like before – loving and caring and sharing and open and welcoming everyone," she said.
"Now, even if you want to be simple and nice with others, people are asking themselves whether it is haram [forbidden] to say hello to strangers," she said, adding: "I blame those who have led the people, and directed them this way."
Mrs. Hillal's words were delivered from beneath a spotlight and televised across the Arab world from the capital of UAE, Abu Dhabi, on The Million Poets.
She describes the experience of reaching the competition's final as "amazing," but her poetry has also sparked death threats on Arab websites, with some outraged commentators saying she is acting shamefully.
Her voice quiets when she describes how some have posted messages asking for her home address – with the underlying threat that they would track her down and kill her.
“ I know the world is a small village – from my heart I wish peace and love for everybody ”
But, she says, many more have expressed support for her poems. She told the media that women especially have said they are rooting for her.
"Even old ladies, young ladies, they all said: 'You are our hope.'"
"Most of the people loved what I said, from their hearts. They think I am very brave to say so, and that I said what they feel in their hearts."
She explains the apparent contradiction in the fact that she advocates women's rights while wearing the full veil – which some suggest is a symbol of female oppression: "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 criticized by other men."
While her poetry is intended for a wide audience, the act of covering herself, she says, is out of understanding for her male relatives.
"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," she said.
A published poet, Mrs. Hillal – who is reported not to have studied at university – held the position of poetry editor for the Arab daily newspaper, al-Hayat.
A fan of Victorian writer Charles Dickens and US author Ernest Hemingway, Mrs. Hillal says her fundamental message is one of peace and understanding: "I know the world is a small village. From my heart I wish peace and love for everybody."
Despite not winning the overall contest which concluded last Wednesday night to enormous ratings, analysts say Mrs. Hillal's participation in this year's The Million's Poet contest will continue to have an impact on the art form, which is increasingly being used to highlight social problems and inequalities.
Mrs. Hillal has been, without question, the biggest story of the televised tournament's fourth season.
In the weeks leading up to last Wednesday night's final she wrote and recited poetry condemning the strict laws in her country that separate men and women and also spoke out against Islamic clerics who issue hard-line religious decrees.
Her work was applauded by many who labeled her "brave," but it was also met with resentment from conservative members of Saudi society, some of whom issued death threats against her. Despite the dangers, Mrs. Hillal refused to back out of the tournament, saying she had a message to get across.
"I'm trying to say maybe poetry can do what other things couldn't do – to make people more close and to feel all over the world that we have to share and care and that to have a nice human relationship is the most important thing," Mrs. Hillal said.
Mrs. Hillal was the first woman to ever reach the final of the competition, which features five contestants. She said she hopes her experience will inspire others.
"I was famous for about 20 years and I was always a very strong poet, but when I came here the people saw it. It was direct from my heart to them," Mrs. Hillal said. "Maybe this is a new stage of Arabic life, especially for Arab women. Maybe it says something to the world."
The Million's Poet competition was launched in 2006 and was designed to promote the native poetry of the Arabian Peninsula, known an Nabati.
Broadcast live every Wednesday at 10 p.m. on Abu Dhabi TV, it blends the competitive tension, audience participation and big-money prizes of a western-style reality TV show with a culture and tradition that is uniquely Arab.
Contestants are judged using a mixture of jury votes, live audience votes via the in-theatre voting pods, and SMS voting by TV viewers. The show, which has been compared to the American Idol talent competition series in the United States, gets its name from the $1.3 million prize awarded to the winner.
The show, sponsored and produced by Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage presents 48 poets, carefully selected by a panel of experts on Nabati poetry (dialect poetry), from thousands of applicants after a six-week tour of the Arabian Gulf countries and Jordan with contestants from all over the Arab world.
Contestants are required to recite their own works of Nabati poetry, a native Bedouin style of poetry similar to the classical ode and recited in colloquial Arabic. The art dates to fourth-century Arabia, where poets were revered as people inspired by God who elevated their tribe's sense of pride.
The poets battle it out, seeking to impress the jury and the audience with their poetic skills, in the hope of making it through to the grand final.
The show, watched by more than 20 million each week, aims to revive one of the ancient forms of poetry known in the region fore thousand years.
This year, contestants came from 12 countries including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Jordan. One of the show's three judges, Sultan al-Amini, says it has been the most successful season to date.
"All the people: small people, young, women, men… you'll find all levels watch this program and they know even the smallest things in this program," Amimi said. "They follow it and ask about it."
This year's runner up, Falah al-Mowraqi from Kuwait, says the popularity of Million's Poet can be attributed to the fact that people in the Gulf region consider poetry a vital part of their culture.
"Poetry is very, very important in Kuwait or the Emirates or Saudi Arabia. In the Middle East it's very important," Mowraqi said.
The Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research crowned the winners at Al Raha Beach Theater in the capital during last Wednesday night’s live broadcast.
The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage spokesman Eman Turki says tradition is shifting. And, she says the poems of Mrs. Hillal and Mowraqi, who touched on terrorism, prove this.
"You can see that the trend in poetry is changing. It's not anymore about praising officials or sheikhs or the pride of the country or belonging," Turki said. "Poets now are more interested in people's lives, in daily life issues, in social change, even in political life."
Thirty-year-old Nasser al-Ajami of Kuwait was named this year's Million's Poet champion, earning the $1.3 million prize.
Mowraqi secured $1 million for his second-place finish.
Note: I found this fascinating and extremely important. While researching what the event, I came upon a brilliant and insightful commentary by renowned doctor-author Qanta Ahmed, in the Huffington Post. I have reposted it in full below, or you can read it directly at the Huffington Post website.
Qanta Ahmed, MD
Posted: March 29, 2010 12:12 PM
“Hissa Hillal is the voice for countless 'Invisible Women." She is the Saudi woman who has captured the Arab world's attention through her poetry on Abu Dhabi's televised poetry competition broadcast by Emirati. Watched by millions, analogies to American Idol readily follow. Her poetry focuses on the abuse of Islam as it is wielded by extremist clerics. Her public challenge to established theocracy has garnered breathtaking attention in the region where women like Hissa, Saudi Arabian stay-at-home moms, are usually neither seen nor heard.
There is however a far more arresting aspect to Hissa's accomplishment. By thrusting her powerful verses into orbit through satellite television, she has thrown dawn a gauntlet in a way that newspapers, bloggers or network media segments cannot begin to compete. Her public poetry contains the latent power that will ignite a new dimension of dialogue in the Arab and wider Muslim world, a power derived of an ancient cultural currency.
Poetry, which speaks to the Arabian Peninsula's heritage of oral poetry as a means of cultural dialogue, invites much more attention than news commentary or opinion editorials. Traditionally, the true forebears of the modern day Saudi Arabia recorded their history and tradition through the medium of poetry, largely unwritten, but instead committed to memory and recited with elaborate, ceremonial oratory. This was the medium through which they preserved feats of arms and celebrated events in their history. Similar oral poetic history is also evident elsewhere in the Middle East including Israel, where fears for the preservation of this fading culture are growing.
Considering the geographic environment and the sparse population comprising pre-Twentieth Century Arabia, preserving cultural memory through transmitted and treasured poetry makes perfect sense. Ornate poetry traveled across the sandstorm-swept nascent Saudi steppe, immortalizing cultural yearnings, history and opinion in a pulsing ebb and flow across barely inhabited land. Vital to the survival of this art across generations, over desiccated Wadis and desolate escarpments was the role of the poet: his dedication, his imagination and his willingness to dialogue with other poets.
I learned this not through extensive studies of central Najd poetry but rather while teaching class one day in the post graduate medical center of the King Abdul Aziz Medical Center in Riyadh, last winter. I was teaching a class on scientific medical writing to a group of animated Saudi men and women. Yes, it was a co-ed class and my students were physicians, surgeons and masters candidates enrolled in various degree programs (contrary to popular belief, postgraduate medicine in the Kingdom is desegregated). We were enjoying an intense debate on the use of references, citations and sources. During the hour we examined how to correctly attribute authorship following accepted rules concerning plagiarism as defined in Western academia. The topic was a surprisingly disturbing one for my accomplished Saudi students. The class discussion was growing heated and edgy. We had evidently touched a nerve. As I struggled to understand the implications, one of my class, a board certified gastroenterologist demystified our growing distress. Rising from the too-small classroom chair in his crisp white thobe, Abdullah gathered his portly figure and stood up to make his point. He spoke in soft, accented English.
"‘In our culture, an author is esteemed, as are his values and his creativity. Readers who want to cite an author here often believe they can only devalue his work, and dishonor the author, by rephrasing it into their own words. They simply don't believe their words do the author justice,’" my eyes widened in comprehension realizing why what is taken as bald plagiarism in Western academe might be interpreted here as according an author the highest honor.
"I am a poet, when I don't practice medicine, Doctora Qanta," he continued, "‘in fact, I have won several prizes for my skills in Arabic poetry, which is an ancient art form. To be truly appreciated and recognized as creative, one poet must dialogue with another. In the process of dialogue one poet incorporates another's words into his or her own poetry, to continue the conversation. We make new stanzas using each others words, and the poetry unfolds, back and forth in a rhythm between poets. So while you may think this is plagiarism – to take another poet's words and incorporate them into our own – this is an ancient and fundamental part of our culture.’"
Suddenly everything made sense. In a culture where a teacher is accorded high respect, and the written word, beginning with the revealed Quran has traditionally been preserved by rote repetition and painstaking memorization, the repetition of unattributed words did not constitute plagiarism. Of course, Abdullah was referring to non-scientific writing. (Saudi Arabia has a robust and rapidly evolving medical academe where standard rules guarding against scientific plagiarism are upheld). But Abdullah taught me something new: interacting culturally at the highest level involved listening astutely to the poet, and responding in kind.
This is why Hissa Hillal's poetry is such a colossal cultural moment: not merely because one Saudi woman has had the courage to speak out, but because of the cascading, tumultuous conversation this will certainly uncork. Like a gathering storm, a cloudburst of cultural rebellion is mounting. Seen in this light, a woman shrouded in store-bought polyester presents a brazen, dangerous agent provocateur to challenge the crumbling status quo. Her very 'everywoman' qualities – of being a homemaker, wife and mother in Saudi Arabia (one who evidently doesn't shop at Lamsa for a $500 Swarovski encrusted veil) – is precisely what makes her an unmistakable force. Nor did she have to attend a costly Chicago Dental School to say what Riyadh or Jeddah is thinking. This woman is the real deal. She is from within the world that we dumbly insist on characterizing as 'invisible' while every reality constantly reveals it is we, the viewers from here, who are truly unseeing.
Hissa's Nabati poetry, a genre particularly beloved to the Arab Gulf world, exposes witless, misogynistic and unIslamic fatwas in their true light: as crude tools for mass oppression exercised by an increasingly calcified theocratic autocracy on the irreversible threshold of rigor mortis.
The woman calls a spade a spade, as we like to say in England. Her breathtaking condemnation of the abuse and misuse of Islam as evil incarnate, expressed in the most ancient art form predating modern day petrochemical Wahabiism contains the power to free a world increasingly mired in Petronia, antiSemitism, Islamophobia and polarization. The key to such freedom is nothing other than authentic Islam.
She grabs the bull by the horns, as this line shows:
"I have seen evil in the eyes of fatwas, at a time when the permitted is being twisted into the forbidden."
Reading the above reminds me very much of a particular Hadith (saying attributed to the Prophet Mohamed). Let me share it with you. When the Prophet was leading prayer, a member of the congregation asked him what he feared for his people and followers.
After careful thought, the Prophet responded, revealing he feared most those who would come from within his flock and recite the Qu'ran but that the Qu'ran would go 'no further than their throats' (sparing their hearts and souls). Using the cover of religion, he foretold they would do the exact opposite of what Islam intended purely for their own gain while claiming to exalt God. These people, he predicted, would come from within us (the Muslim Ummah), filleting our community to the innards very much 'like an arrow passes through its quarry.'
I read this Hadith shortly after 9-11 and immediately recognized the references to modern day terrorism executed by imposter Muslims in pursuit of their sick fallacies of serving Islam, when they do exactly the opposite by desecrating everything sacred and humane.
But words are weapons too, and can slay whole societies and cultures. Hostile clerical theocrats can do just as much damage as a demented Mumbai bomber, 9-11 hijacker, or British-born 7-11 plotter.
Hissa becomes even more explicit. Her descriptions, which speak to suicide bombing, capture exactly how such seditious and deceptive rhetoric directly leads to bloodshed, and indeed the voices and forces inciting such destruction are exactly what the Prophet foretold. She writes these instigators of evil, in the form of distorted clerical leaders and suicide bombers:
"are vicious in voice, barbaric, angry and blind, wearing death as a robe cinched with a belt"
I thought of this as I caught today's GPS. Fareed Zakaria mentioned Hissa on his show this morning. Briefly he played tapes of Hissa reading her poetry as a panel looked on, noting she has reached further in the competition than any other woman ever. Some believe that she may perhaps even win. In my eyes she has won already, by articulating what countless Muslims fear expressing irrespective of the political environment within which they must function. Speaking negatively of a Muslim is detested in Islamic culture, yet if we are to be true, principled Muslims we must speak up in the exposure of injustices.This is what Hissa is doing and why she is so brave. She risks becoming pariah.
I was about to switch off when I caught Fareed's closing comment on the segment, which couldn't end without the de rigueur comment about Saudi Arabia where 'women cannot drive'. This remains true and certainly impedes womens' liberties, as well as the liberties of their men folk buckling under the economic pressure of providing a vehicle and chauffeur for every independent woman in the Kingdom. So while it may be ironic to Fareed that that a woman is taking on the rigors of the established and often punitive theocracy, his implication that men are absent from such dialogue and positive insurrection is myopic.
Certainly Hissa's womanhood – concealed and yet therefore for the same reason so extremely revealed – augments her power. Indeed, speaking at a Perspex podium in her traditional veiling of the niqab which covers her face and her stark, undecorated abbayah which covers her body is indeed intensely arresting – much more so than if a Saudi man was composing the same invective. Aye, I am with you on this Fareed.
But we must make an important, further deduction. For every Hissa objecting to the stultifying restrictions of a fundamentalist theocracy on women, lets not forget these restrictions weigh heavily on Saudi men too. Many, many Saudi men share the objections and pain that is expressed by her verse. In some ways, while one can easily construct a metaphor for Saudi womanhood to be invisible, in my experience, Saudi men are just as invisible and in the rising climate of scrutiny for all aspects of Saudi, and in fact Muslim, feminism, the male voice is even more often obliterated, quashed. Try reading about Islamic masculinities to understand this double-edged sword.
Behind Hissa are supportive male family members, a husband who is not emasculated by her intensely public stance and controversial views, and a growing number influential men (alongside influential women) who have helped her find a means of expression in a culture which vehemently shies away from individualism and the bald glare of public attention. She speaks for these men too. She assumes the role of leader. And agreed, while unlicensed to drive a stick shift, she does however, drive the charged climate for cultural change forward. She does so, in keeping with historical mores defining Islam at its birth.
If we look at early Islam, history records the first Muslim women to be strong, effective and indomitable advocates for social change, even during the lifetime of our beloved Prophet Mohamed. Islam gives women many rights: the right to choose one's life partner, and the right to divorce him, the right to hold wealth and property, the right to a valid vote so that a woman can be heard equally to any man. Muslim women are required to fulfill exactly the same obligations in religious duty as are Muslim men, and so too are their rights to earn equivalent blessings.
Hissa Hillal is merely exercising her right to voice what millions have feared to do so: the right to return to meaningful Islam, which is benevolent, just, honorable and devoid of compulsion and oppression. She does so at the grave risk of being accused of a particularly offensive moniker recently leveled at me: to speak out in criticism of Islamic poses the risk of being type cast as Islamophobic, as a critic prejudiced against Muslims, when in fact such actions of bravery are the very mettle of being a functioning Muslim.
While Hissa is heavily veiled, she has seized, and indeed very much owns, the spotlight. Once embodied by able horsewomen in the field of battle, now these Islamic feminist wage war in air-conditioned studios beaming into millions of households. Hissa emulates our first female forebears who lent their voice to justice for Muslim women, and men, through the centuries: her message is clear.
For Muslim women, and Muslim Men everywhere, Hissa demands Poetic Justice.
And, once demands begin, justice has a habit of following.”
Dr. Ahmed is currently an assistant professor of medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, and Assistant Director of the MUSC Sleep Disorders Laboratory. She is a quadruple boarded in internal medicine, pulmonary disease, critical care medicine, and sleep disorders medicine. She continues to practice intensive care medicine. She became a fellow of the American College of Chest Physicians, a Diplomat and member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
She is also the author of the acclaimed, In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom, an award-winning and powerful memoir. I was extremely moved when I read this book, so I have included information about it below.
In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom
From Publisher’s Weekly:
This memoir is a journey into a complex world readers will find fascinating and at times repugnant. After being denied a visa to remain in the U.S., British-born Ahmed, a Muslim woman of Pakistani origin, takes advantage of an opportunity, before 9/11, to practice medicine in Saudi Arabia. She discovers her new environment is defined by schizophrenic contrasts that create an absurd clamorous clash of modern and medieval.... It never became less arresting to behold. Ahmed's introduction to her new environment is shocking. Her first patient is an elderly Bedouin woman. Though naked on the operating table, she still is required by custom to have her face concealed with a veil under which numerous hoses snake their way to hissing machines. Everyday life is laced with bizarre situations created by the rabid puritanical orthodoxy that among other requirements forbids women to wear seat belts because it results in their breasts being more defined, and oppresses Saudi men as much as women by its archaic rules. At times the narrative is burdened with Ahmed's descriptions of the physical characteristics of individuals and the luxurious adornments of their homes but this minor flaw is easily overlooked in exchange for the intimate introduction to a world most readers will never know.
Following Book Excerpt, © Reprinted by permission, All rights reserved:
“I returned to Khalaa Tarfa, my first patient in the Kingdom. She was a Bedouin Saudi well into her seventies, though no one could be sure of her age (female births were not certified in Saudi Arabia when she had been born). She was on a respirator for a pneumonia which had been slow to resolve. Comatose, she was oblivious to my studying gaze. A colleague prepared her for the placement of a central line (a major intravenous line into a deep vein).
Her torso was uncovered in anticipation.. Another physician sterilized the berry brown skin with swathes of iodine. A mundane procedure I had performed countless times, in Saudi Arabia it made for a starling scene. I looked up from the sterilized field which was quickly submerging the Bedouin body under a disposable sea of blue. Her face remained enshrouded in a black scarf, as if she was out in a market scurrying through a crowd of loitering men. I was astounded.
Behind the curtain, a family member hovered, the dutiful son. Intermittently, he peered at us . He was obviously worrying, I decided, as I watched his slim brown fingers rapidly manipulating a rosary. He was probably concerned about the insertion of the central line, I thought, just like any other caring family member.
Every now and again, he signaled vigorously, rapidly talking in Arabic to instruct the nurse. I wondered what he was asking about and how he could know if we were at a crucial step in the procedure. Everything was going smoothly; in fact soon the jugular would be cannulated. We were almost finished. What could be troubling him?
Through my dullness, eventually, I noticed a clue. Each time the physician's sleeve touched the patient's veil, and the veil slipped, the son burst out in a flurry of anxiety. Perhaps all of nineteen, the son was instructing the nurse to cover the patient's face, all the while painfully averting his uninitiated gaze away from his mother's fully exposed torso, revealing possibly the first breasts he may have seen.
I wondered about the lengths to which the son continued to veil his mother, even when she was gravely ill. Couldn't he see it was the least important thing for her now at this time, when her life could ebb away at any point? Didn't he know God was Merciful, tolerant and understanding and would never quibble over the wearing of a veil in such circumstances, or I doubted, any circumstances?
Somehow I assumed the veil was mandated by the son, but perhaps I was wrong about that as well. Already, I was finding myself wildly ignorant in this country. Perhaps the patient herself would be furious if her modesty was unveiled when she was powerless to resist. Nothing was clear to me other than veiling was essential, inescapable, even for a dying woman. This was the way of the new world in which I was now confined. For now, and the next two years, I would see many things I couldn't understand. I was now a stranger in the Kingdom.”
This wonderful book is available at Amazon in paperback, but is also available for it’s Kindle e-reader.
— The Curator