Monday, April 5, 2010

Saudi Woman Hissa Hillal a Finalist on Middle East "Idol"-Like Contest--For Poets--Monday Journal

Listening to a news item on NPR last week, I heard a story about a TV show in Abu Dhabi that is simillar to our "American Idol".  If that were not surprising enough, all of the contestants are...neither singers nor dancers but... poets. 

And the most startling and encouraging bit of all, about this program called "Million's Poet", is that for the first time, one of the finalists is a female. 

Hissa Hillal is the courageous Saudi housewife who stunned audiences and wowed judges with her short poem about "ad hoc subversive fatwas".  In particular was a recent fatwa calling for segregation of the sexes, and calling for executions of those who support modern ideas.

Hillal, wearing a traditiona niqab, shielding her entire face and body from viewers, delivered a scathing critique of  the clerics who call for killing those who stand against their system of thought and religion.  Hillal's brilliance is evidenced by her choice of language.  She believes that modern critics cannot engage audiences because they use modern language rather than the centuries-old language that still impresses people with deep-seated religious imagery.

Hillal, 43, has written poetry since the age of 12.  She was one of six finalists out of 48 contestants, praised by judges for her courage in expression of her opinion.  While she has gained millions of followers, there have been harsh criticisms and death threats from conservative Saudis.

(The final was temporarily postponed following the death of Shaikh Ahmed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Zayed Foundation for Charitable and Humanitarian and Managing Director of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, in Morocco.)

The winner of the competition wins over 1.3 million dollars.  Whether she triumphs or not, Hillal has made her mark and given hope to women and writers in all repressed countries, and elsewhere.

The mysterious reasons why artists create have been discussed and written about since man first drew or sang or told a story.  Some are convinced, as musicians like Mahler and Beethoven were, that creativity was a portal to the divine mystery of life's infinite meaning.  Others feel a need to express their unique humanity, and leave something of themselves to the world.  Some have a craving for the most complete and unexplainable of satisfactions by entertaining or impressing those who appreciate their artistic medium.  Others believe it is a way to make sense out of, and soothe the pain of, a world out of control, before the finality of life's end. 

Whatever the motivation, the best of creative work, for me, allows me to see the world differently, and brings me in touch with the better part of myself.  I also get inspired to use my own wings in creative flight.  I write because I want to make people feel something, even change something for the better.  This unusual story of Hissa Hillal has stuck with me.  I am reminded that ordinary people of modest backgrounds can inspire.

Here, then, is a sample of Hissa Hillal's winning poetry, translated into English:

“I have seen evil from the eyes of the subversive fatwas in a time when what is lawful is confused with what is not lawful;

When I unveil the truth, a monster appears from his hiding place; barbaric in thinking and action, angry and blind; wearing death as a dress and covering it with a belt [referring to suicide bombing];

He speaks from an official, powerful platform, terrorising people and preying on everyone seeking peace; the voice of courage ran away and the truth is cornered and silent, when self-interest prevented one from speaking the truth.”


  1. It amazes me that the simple at of writing a poem can cause entire communities look into themselves and begin the process of change.

    As you say it is hardly relevant whether Hissa Hillal wins or not now, the mere fact that she has had such a huge impact is wonderful and I hope that future generations will see it a major landmark in the liberalisation of the society in Saudi Arabia.

  2. Ben,
    Thanks for your great comments, and I am sorry it took me so long to acknowledge....

    You very eloquently summed it up! I was very inspired by her story.

    I appreciate your visit, as always!