Forget ‘American Idol,’ Tune into ‘The Million’s Poets’

by Elizabeth Hoover    /  April 6, 2010  / 5 Comments



OK, I admit it, I don’t really know what they are saying on “The Million’s Poets,” one of the most popular television shows in the Arab world. But I have been obsessively trolling YouTube and whatever English-language Arab newspapers I can find to follow the show. It’s an American Idol-esque poetry competition in which competitors recite their own poetry to a television audience of seven million, who then vote for the winner.

I am rooting for Hessa Hilal, a Saudi journalist and mother of four, who recites fearless poetry criticizing the violent messages of hard-line Muslim clerics, the isolation of women in Arab society, and the American involvement in Iraq. She performs her poems in a traditional head-to-toe abaya. Listening to her read challenges my preconceptions of Arab society and the significance of the veil. Like a lot of Westerners, I hold a stereotype of Arab women as cowed in silence under their covering. Seeing Hissa, I realize it is possible to speak—and to speak powerfully—from behind the veil.

Since the show’s beginning in early February, she has regularly received death threats.

My scavenging for information turned up a real gem this week: A BBC interview with Hissa in English.  In the interview she talks about why she wears the abaya, what her victory would mean for Arab women, and her love for Charles Dickens.

We find out tomorrow if she will win the million dirhams prize (about $270,000). I’ll try to keep you updated!

Here are some of the other YouTube clips I found of poets reciting their poetry on “The Million’s Poets,” including last year’s main female challenger. Again, I can’t understand the language, but I am blown away by the rhythm of the words and I love how the audience participates.

Poet Aydah Al Aarawi Al Jahani

A beautiful call and response

Poet Fraanah

Again, I stress I don’t know Arabic, so I’d love to hear any insights folks have in the comment field!

Click here to read Elizabeth’s bio.

About the Author

Elizabeth Hoover earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Indiana University, where she received a Project on African Expressive Traditions grant and the Won-Joon Yon Scholarship for Racial Tolerance. She has written for American Heritage, Life, and Poets and Writers. Her criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She has published poetry in The Adirondack Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and the Atlanta Review. Recently, New Letters nominated her for a Pushcart Prize. Hoover is a former associate editor at Sampsonia Way.

View all articles by Elizabeth Hoover

5 Comments on "Forget ‘American Idol,’ Tune into ‘The Million’s Poets’"

  1. Chad April 6, 2010 at 8:44 pm ·

    This is so, so cool, in so many ways. First, it is so powerful to hear and see such strong women activists and to breakdown both Western and Muslim notions of Arab culture, femininity, religion, and art. Second, I wish the US had a show like this–I’d totally watch it over Project Runway. :)

  2. A Simmons April 6, 2010 at 9:13 pm ·

    Yes, it is amazing to hear Hissa’s story. Thanks for the link to the BBC interview. I am excited for tomorrow!

  3. Jenny April 6, 2010 at 9:59 pm ·

    I wish my Arabic were better! (Much better.) But this is fascinating. I would totally watch a program like this in the US. I wish more people would.

  4. Amy N April 8, 2010 at 9:35 am ·

    I recently watched more reality tv over a weekend than I have seen in my entire life, and I must agree with Chad – I’d watch people reciting poetry over Top Chef or America’s Top Model Who Can Also Drive A Tanker Truck Across an Iceberg…. whatever. Go Hissa!!!

  5. Marcus March 4, 2011 at 12:22 pm ·

    This made my day. It would be nice if more Americans realized the usefulness of poetry. It sounds like Hessa does, and her fans too.

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