Thu, Mar 25, 2010 - Page 14 News List

[ SOCIETY ] Saudi woman takes aim at clerics during TV contest

Mother of four Hissa Hilal says Muslim preachers are ‘preying like a wolf’ during a poetry recital aired on live television

By Barbara Surk and Hadeel Al-Shalchi  /  AP , DUBAI

It was a startling voice of protest at a startling venue. Covered head-to-toe in black, a Saudi woman lashed out at hard-line Muslim clerics’ harsh religious edicts in verse on live TV at a popular Arabic version of American Idol. Well, not quite American Idol: Contestants compete not in singing but in traditional Arabic poetry. Over the past episodes, poets sitting on an elaborate stage before a live audience have recited odes to the beauty of Bedouin life and the glories of their rulers or mourning the gap between rich and poor.

Then last week, Hissa Hilal, only her eyes visible through her black veil, delivered a blistering poem against 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.

Her poem got loud cheers from the audience and won her a place in the competition’s finals, which was to be aired yesterday.

It also brought her death threats, posted on several Islamic militant Web sites.

Hilal shrugs 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 programs, university positions or Web sites.

“Killing a human being is so easy for them, it is always an option,” she said.

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.

The program, 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.

Hilal’s 15-verse poem was in a form known as Nabati, native to nomadic tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. She criticized extremism that she said is “creeping into our society” through fatwas.

“I have seen evil in the eyes of fatwas, at a time when the permitted is being twisted into the forbidden,” she said in the poem. She called such edicts “a monster that emerged from its hiding place” whenever “the veil is lifted from the face of truth.”

She described hard-line clerics as “vicious in voice, barbaric, angry and blind, wearing death as a robe cinched with a belt,” in an apparent reference to suicide bombers’ explosives belts.

The three judges gave her the highest marks for her performance, praising her for addressing a controversial topic. That, plus voting from the 2,000 people in the audience and text messages from viewers, put her through to the final round.

“Hissa Hilal is a courageous poet,” said al-Amimi. “She expressed her opinion against the kind of fatwas that affect people’s lives and raised an alarm against these ad hoc fatwas coming from certain scholars who are inciting extremism.”

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