by Jill Leininger
Last night I went to a going away party for a friend who’ll soon be moving to Oman. Personally, I have limited cultural exposure to this region, so I’m fully aware of how my perceptions about life in the Gulf have been skewed and shaped by whatever news channel happens to be on at the gym.
Consequently, I was delighted when I got an unexpected glimpse of pop culture in the UAE: The Million’s Poet, a popular reality TV show in Abu Dhabi, freely adapts the format of American Idol to cull top poets from thousands of hopeful contestants. The Saudi poets earn up to 5 million dirhams (approximately $1.4M USD) if their verse is deemed to be best by a panel of scholarly judges. The show, at one point, reportedly had more viewers in the Arab world than soccer. Poetry > Soccer!
I was thoroughly tickled. My friend sent me the name of the TV show and I immediately typed it into YouTube. Do this now. What you will see is a mix of poetry slam and poetry glam. Music and lights. In short, you will be rewarded with some awesome cheese. Poets were the stars, and I was thrilled.
So I continued scrolling, surfing and watching, despite the fact that I didn’t understand the meaning of the poems themselves. It was tantalizing, but my fascination with this cultural phenomenon shifted—actually, it stopped short–when I came across a 2008 recitation of Aydah Al Aarawi Al Jahani, a poet dressed in her full burka.
Suddenly, the fact that I had treated this as a cultural curiosity was appalling to me. This woman was probably risking her life to speak her poem–and here I had been thoroughly and uncritically devouring the glitz of the show like it was some sort of poetry novelty item, some factoid I might divulge over beers with other poets.
Through Al Jahani, I found Hissa Hilal, who in 2010 recited a poem against the fatwas of fundamentalist clerics and received death threats following the airing of the show. Of course, their competitions are long past, and for some of you this retelling won’t be news. But, for me, discovering the show has been a sobering reminder of how women’s voices can be strong, compromised, suppressed and courageous—and how reading and writing have the power to both honor and combat this reality. That is, in the simplest of terms, what being a feminist poet looks like to me.
This is the first of a few posts I’ve agreed to write for So To Speak on the intersections of poetry and feminism in my life, and I felt compelled to start with this story—despite its lack of currency as “news”– because it has so deeply humbled me.
However, I’ll end with a story that is a bit more current. At the Vital Voices celebration in DC last week, which honors women from around the world for their courage to change and improve the lives of others, I was especially struck by the story of Manal Alsharif, another Saudi woman who has been insistently and defiantly speaking her truth. Sadly, Alsharif wasn’t able to travel to accept her award (which is ironic given that her protest video, now gone viral, relates to freedom of mobility). When this activist had traveled previously, the power to her house had been cut off. This time, I was told, there were other, more significant pressures on her family, and she elected to stay home.
Such are the choices to speak or remain silent.
As a feminist, I understand my own freedoms and limitations through stories like these. As a poet, I try to write them down in ways that won’t let me forget.
Postscript: I’m calling these posts “poetry cables” because I want them to be connective—linking news about poetry and poetry about news. I hope they might connect us through a conversation as well. Feel free to add your thoughts about the links I’ve shared or share them with your friends to start conversations among your own circles.