Sunday, April 11, 2010

National Poetry Month -- Arab Style

April is not the cruelest month, it's the coolest month, so...Welcome to National Poetry Month! For a full 30 days (was it an accident that The Powers That Be chose a short month for poetry?), we celebrate poets. But we Americans are not the only ones who celebrate poetry. In fact, in other parts of the world, poetry is celebrated even when it's not April.

Consider the brave poetry written by Hissa Hilal, a 43 year old Saudi woman pictured above. Hilal was a finalist on the most popular TV show in the Arab world, a reality show called "The Million's Poet." The show is so popular, 70 million viewers tuned in for the finals.

Before I consider Hilal's extra-ordinary courage, let's take a minute to think about 70 million viewers watching a Poetry competition. (To give a rough point of comparison 48 million viewers watched "at least part of" the national championship game pitting Butler University against their opponent). Look: I like the Justin Bieber as much as the next guy (i.e., not at all), but putting aside questions of taste these staggeringly different viewership numbers alone suggest a profound cultural difference in the way language is valued in our two cultures, don't they?

Back to Hilal: Despite being the first woman finalist ever, and hailing from a religiously conservative country, she used her poems to lash out against extremism, radical clerics, and terrorism. She received death threats against her own life and those of her four children. Yet, she refused to back down.

According to the Daily Guardian, this is a rough English translation of one of her poems:
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.

Spoiler alert: Hilal finished third and took home $817,000. (So, don't enroll in business school just yet, kids. This month at least think seriously about poetry!).


nathans said...

Besides the impressive numbers that tuned in to this poetry competition, it is incredible that in a country in which women are still treated as second class citizens, Hilal was able to thrive. Saudi Arabia has historically been known as deeply traditional in the Islamic world. A passage I found exceptional was:
"terrorising people and preying on everyone seeking peace; the voice of courage ran away and the truth is cornered and silent."

This almost makes me think that this force of terrorism that plagues the Middle East is a sort of monster that "preys" and is disabling the country to live in peace, a simply frightening thought.

I also thought it was fantastic that there was such financial compensation for Hilal in the country, this could serve as a sort of beacon of hope for the youth in Saudi Arabia to pursue poetry, or anything in the arts for that matter.

I thought I'd do us all a favor and clear up that a fatwa is a ruling on a point of Islamic law that is given by a recognized authority

Sarah. said...

I think the most compelling part of the interview snippet with the Abu Dhabi Daily journalist was when he said that not only was Hissa Hilal fighting terrorism, violence, and extremism with her words but she was also fighting those who remained quiet in their presence. The interviewer goes on to ask "Where were these views for the past 9 years?" and the journalist went on to say that they have always been there. I think we have forgotten to consider people's feelings towards Islamic regimes and assumed that the terrorist and extremist populations present in the Middle East and Persian Gulf are representative of the societies they take over. We have been so quick to condemn the sexist views that accompany the Muftis and Fatwas but not until now are we actually watching, and seeing why 70 million people want a woman, an average mother to be on TV. We as a nation put on this helping, free front in our Iraqi affairs but we'll turn our heads away from people like Hilal because we are too busy hating the extremist populations in her country and surrounding countries. We as a nation have managed to hate terrorists but I don't see why that means staying quiet, as well.

DPark said...

I totally agree with Hilal, when she said that the right way to fight extremism was with extremism; "because extremism is so strong and you cannot talk about it in any other way.” I believe that if one tries to defy a highly opinionated belief without a harsh counter argument, the argument cannot be won.

The fact that she put her own family in danger is incredible. But I'd imagine that they supported her throughout the competition. But it disturbs me that her husband could have prevented her to compete, but luckily he is also a poet who greatly supported her.

This is a pretty big step to changing male guardianship and the rights of women.

StoneA said...

This is an impressive story, mostly the part about 70 million people watching poetry on tv. I think that the viewer numbers are evidence that our cultures value language differently. However, I think one thing to keep in mind is that these days the average American has about 100 channels to pick from (probably more). I think it's safe to assume that that isn't the case for most people in the middle east. If the viewers of the poetry competition had the vast amount of program options many of us have to chose from, the numbers might not be as impressive. That said, Hilal's poems were both bold and beautiful and I hope she doesn't get killed/ spend all her winnings on some fancy radio.

Claire m said...

After our class discussion today Hilal's poems are even more inspiring and powerful, despite an extrinsic motivation in the Middle East to not speak out against terrorism. During these perilous times in her country and surrounding area, intrinsic movtivation takes an even greater moral importance. Hilal wrote that, "what is lawful is confused with what is not lawful", and that observation shows that she should trust herself to do what is right. Her motivation to speak about the evil and corruption in Saudi Arabi is reflected by her persistence despite the threats she received. It's great to see the power of intrinsic motivation at work!

Maeli G. said...

It's amazing to me that someone could so bravely stand up against an oppressive society and speak out through art the way Hilal did. Moments like this ought to remind us of how lucky we are to live in a country where we have the opportunity to express ourselves artistically without fear of persecution (at least, not to the extent to which others are targeted for their beliefs in other parts of the world). However, even in our own history, oppression has stifled the messages of the masses except in the art that they created. Remember the old spirituals sung in the plantations of the deep south? As we spoke about in class, there was more to them than a religious theme and a familiar, bluesy feel. They were the only ways in which the enslaved of America could make their pleas for freedom! During the Viet Nam war, the youth of the nation expressed their discontent with the governmental policies of the time through their music (granted, they weren't being repressed in the same way that the African Americans were, but it's another example of art as an important communication tool). Such legends as Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Marvin Gaye, and others rose up to speak for peace and freedom. Art is more than just a pretty picture or a catchy theme. It gives voice to the population that may have been unable to speak otherwise. Very cool.

Anonymous said...

I found it interesting how the Abu Dhabi journalist described te importance of poetry to Arabs. He said "everyone in the street would tell you their favorite lines of poetry. In arabic we say, poetry is ... a means to tell stories to talk about social, political and religous issues" I think that poetry to Arabs is like music to Americans. Like Maeli said, Americans in the past have used songs for the same reasons; to express their views on issues in America. However, I think that music today doesn't hold the same meaning. Some of the most popular music (and by popular I mean mainstream) are no longer about sending a message, they are made only for the singer to make money. I think some of the best songs are those with meaning behind their lyrics.

SamGot said...

I caught that use of "orwellian" there!

In my house our "rewards" for good grades or test scores are much less extrinsic. I've never been directly offered anything for doing well yet there is always that pressure that my family gives of "I know you can do better". However, if I do do very well there is always a possibility it will help me in the future if I want something or if something else goes wrong.

Around New Trier I think there is definitely some of these types of motivators going on. I hear kids all the time saying they needs straight As because then their parents will get them a car, or they can get that new phone, etc. Many times however, this seems to have no effect on kids who know that doing well might earn them something, but they are how they are.

I think there is also that aspect of culture. In the Asian culture for example, although I'm stereotyping, there seems to be a much greater pressure on kids from their parents, always wanting their children to do better. So the kids have the pressure to do better, but never a tangible award.