Poetry drives the top-rated Arab TV show

The World

Throughout much of the Arab world, millions of television sets are tuned to a wildly popular show. Think of it as the Arab version of "American Idol." The producers scout out talent from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to Kuwait. A panel of jurors hand-picks 48 contestants. The competition is stiff.

For 16 weeks, the contestants battle it out for a grand prize. By the way, one big difference between "American Idol" and this program? The contestants aren’t singing Elton John or Rihanna. In fact, they’re not singing at all. They’re reciting poetry. The show is called “The Millions’ Poet.” Mona al Ruwaini is a producer on the program out of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. She tells us the show is now in its third season.

Mona al Ruwaini: It’s third season of the competition, yes.

Host Lisa Mullins: But there’s a first this time around, huh?

Ruwaini: There is, actually. A female poet. Her name is Ayeda al- Jahani. She’s from Saudi Arabia and she’s the first female poet to reach the third stage of this competition. She entered this competition to win, so she’s not a force to undermine at all.

Mullins: Well, let’s hear a little bit from here. This is in Arabic. This is Ayeda al-Jahani of Saudi Arabia – first woman to make it to the semi-finals of the program called “The Millions’ Poet.” Tell us about this competitor.

Ruwaini: Ayeda is a mother of six. She’s a schoolteacher. She teaches primary and secondary school. Both her two elder brothers write poetry, and her eldest brother is actually the one that got her started writing her own poetry. He’s the one that sort of taught her the basics.

At first, people were a bit skeptical, considering that a Saudi woman would actually go into the competition and reach the final stages. But right now she’s getting a lot of support. Her husband, for example, is always with her. In all her rehearsals, he’s always there sitting in the front row, cheering her on. So she is getting a lot of support from her fans and from her family.

Mullins: Does that surprise you?

Ruwaini: It doesn’t surprise me, but it just makes me – I’m very happy for her. I’m very proud of her. I can feel the pride that she feels being supported in such a way – both by her tribes and the other tribes in the Gulf, because a lot of people sort of warned her against doing this – going on TV in front of millions and competing among men. But she held her ground, in a sense, and decided that she will move forward with this and she will take part in the competition.

We’ve had other poets from Bahail and from Sudan and from Jordan compete before – female poets – but they weren’t from such a conservative family’s such as Ayeda’s. So I think the fact that she’s done something that wasn’t expected of her is the reason she’s getting all this support now.

Mullins: By the way, what does she look like when she’s up there on stage?

Ruwaini: All covered – completely. You can only see her bare hands. Everything else is completely covered. She is very passionate about her poetry and she’s very passionate about the way she performs.

Mullins: You said you can see her hands. Can you see her face or her mouth?

Ruwaini: No. Everything’s covered. She’s covered completely.

Mullins: Where’s the mic? As a producer, where do you have the microphone put?

Ruwaini: Well, it’s very tricky but it’s under some of those layers of black cloth. The mic is there, and her voice carries off in the theater.
Mullins: So in terms of the overall competition, what happens tomorrow night?

Ruwaini: Well, Ayeda will be competing as one of four poets in the competition. She will be presenting a main poem, and then she will be asked to improvise on the spot to the judges. The judges will be giving her a topic and she will be asked within 2 minutes to recite two lines of poetry about that topic, on the spot.

The other three poets will then be asked to respond to her, using the same rhythm that she has chosen and using the same topic – also on the spot, given two minutes.

Mullins: That’s great. Like an improv poetry slam.

Ruwaini: Exactly.

Mullins: You’re not voting, are you?

Ruwaini: No. No. I’m actually very proud of her for what she’s done, and I think a lot of people are so proud of her for doing this and sort of standing her grounds and being able to do this, because I’m sure it was very difficult for her. It was not easy. So yeah, I think it’s wonderful.

I think it’s wonderful, and I think it sort of gives us an inclination that this can be the start of something very big in the next season. I expect much more women such as Ayeda to get the courage to be able to participate in such a show next year.

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