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Hissa Hilal (Remia)

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  • Hissa Hilal (Remia)

    March 24, 2010 -- Abu Dhabi's version of "American Idol" features poets, not singers. Called "Poet of Millions," the program has amateur poets face off each week before judges, and a Saudi woman with a rebellious message has made it to the competition's final rounds. Hissa Hilal received death threats after her recent appearance, but the judges praised her poems, which criticize clerics. With her body and head draped in the black clothing worn by Saudi women, she didn't shy away from strong language as she read onstage. "He speaks from an official, powerful platform, terrorizing people and preying on everyone seeking peace; the courage ran away and the truth is cornered and silent, when self-interest prevented one from speaking the truth," Hilal recited, according to a translation by The National newspaper. Hilal won $270,000 for reaching the finals, and if she wins the competition, she would receive more than $1.3 million. Today on "The Conversation" John Berman talks with ABC News' Lara Setrakian about this brave, female poet who makes waves in the Middle East.

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        ABU DHABI, March 25, 2010 -- The female Saudi poet who received death threats after criticising “ad hoc fatwas” on Million’s Poet has urged her fellow competitors to use the show to stand up for what they believe in. Hissa Hilal, a mother of four, said the poets usually recited works praising “themselves, [or] a famous person of their tribe”. “But this is a platform that can help you to reach the world,” she said. “The ball is in your court. There are a wide range of issues to tackle. It is a platform with a wider horizon and higher ceiling.”

        Two weeks ago, Mrs Hilal recited a poem that took issue with “ad hoc fatwas”, including one by Sheikh Abdul Rahman al Barrak, a Saudi cleric who called on his website for the execution of anyone who said the mixing of sexes was allowed in Islam. The former journalist’s poem sparked controversy in Saudi Arabia and lively exchanges on internet forums. Many viewers hailed her “courage” – but others called for her death. She defied the threats on this week’s show on Wednesday by reciting a similar poem about the media, a topic chosen by the panel of judges. “I join the birds of light in a battle of enlightenment, we want to rise with a world that is fighting its ignorance.” She followed with a verse on how “the birds” defeat censorship, as their goal is to “cut the tongue of truth”. It included the admonition: “If our society keeps listening to extremists and would not stand up against them, it will not progress.”

        Mrs Hilal said her poems had been “very well received” in her native kingdom and had been praised by “poets, journalists and men of letters”. But, she conceded that “many people did not like them because [people] have an innate tendency to be hostile”. “There are some people who constantly look for a target and this is something I find prevalent in some societies but more in our society.” She added that while “everyone composes their poem according to their background, ability and character”, many of the competitors on the programme, which is immensely popular around the Arab world and carries a first-place prize of Dh5 million (US$1.3 million), “come here for the prize so they want to leave without any problems, they want to stay on the safe side”.

        Dr Haithan el Zobaidi, the editor of the London-based website Middle East Online, said the show was having a notable impact on Middle East media. “People will be keen to hear the other voice of the Middle East – the non-conservative, non-extremist, liberal side,” he said. Mrs Hilal is the former poetry editor for the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, which, the judges said, came across well in her work. She has also spoken out on other sensitive issues. She recently told the BBC’s World Service, for instance, that she wore the niqab mostly for the sake of her male relatives. “Covering my face is not because I am afraid of people. We live in a tribal society and otherwise my husband, my brother will be criticised by other men,” she said. “I know they love me and they support me. It’s a big sacrifice for them in such a society to let me go to the TV and talk to the media. I am hoping my daughters won’t have to cover their faces and they’ll live a better life.”

        Some poets on the competition seem have taken up the gauntlet, if somewhat gingerly. On Wednesday, Sultan al Assaimar’s poem was about terrorism. He started with phrases that hinted at the issue – “He claims that the land is his own, and sees that the universe needs change” – but only revealed his subject in the 10th verse. The judges praised his use of suspense. Currently, Mrs Hilal and Mr al Assaimar, a Kuwaiti, lead the rankings with 28 points each going into the finale, followed by Falah al Mowraqi, another Kuwaiti, with 27 points. Jazaa al Baqmi, a Saudi, and Nasser al Ajami, also a Kuwaiti, all have 26 points. The finale is scheduled to be broadcast next Wednesday.


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            Hamida Ghafour:

            April 2, 2010 -- As a young girl she was forced to write in secret and hide her poems under the bed from strict Bedouin parents who did not believe it was a socially acceptable activity for girls. But now Hissa Hilal, 43, has become a cause célèbre for her passionate and scathing attacks against the oppression of Arab women which have earned her admiration – and some scorn – from millions of people around the world. The Saudi poet, a finalist on the hit show Million’s Poet to be broadcast on Abu Dhabi TV next week, appears overwhelmed by the global attention. “I feel really happy to be here. I didn’t expect this. I always knew a poem could affect people but I didn’t know one poem could do all of this.”

            A month ago, Mrs Hilal was an unknown housewife living in Riyadh, a mother of four children who, like many Saudi women, are angry about the discrimination they face, but feel powerless to change anything. Since then, her compositions for the semi-final rounds which criticised “ad hoc fatwas” and compared those who veil the truth to the explosives belts worn by suicide bombers, have spread like wildfire around the world. Even the American channel Fox News, hardly the voice of sympathy for Arab causes, called her “brave”.

            “Arab society has the ideas I have and the feelings I have, but nobody wants to talk about it,” she says. “So I am breaking the silence and being the first to talk.” Mrs Hilal speaks in a low, deep voice. She does not take off her niqab, the face veil, even though she is in a room with women only. She is conscious that if she wins the Million’s Poet final next Wednesday, the media attention will intensify and her family will lose even more privacy. In the Middle East, she has become a household name, with websites applauding and denouncing her. She has even received death threats.

            For the moment, she is hoping to find some peace over the weekend to prepare for the final, in which she goes head to head with four other contestants for the Dh5 million (US$1.3 million) first prize. If she wins, Mrs Hilal will be the first woman do so. Million’s Poet focuses on the Nabati style of poetry popular in the Arabian peninsula. Mrs Hilal’s husband and four daughters, aged seven to 11, travelled with her to Abu Dhabi, but they will not be sitting in the Al Raha Beach Theatre because they fear harassment. “My family do not want me to involve them in all of this,” Mrs Hilal says. “They prefer to watch from the hotel room.”

            Her life story is remarkable. She was born in a tent, in the vast desert between the borders of Saudi Arabia and eastern Jordan. Her family were Bedouin and are from al Malihan tribe. Her parents settled in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, when she was young. “I was born and grew up in the desert. I used to like reading and writing. It is my nature. When I first heard poetry and music as a young girl in the desert, it attracted me. I was immersed and would think of its meaning, its feeling.” But she rebelled against conservative, nomadic culture by expressing interest in writing. “When I reached the age of 12, I started to write about the scenery around me, life in the desert. My family did not encourage me. It is not accepted in Bedouin society to have a poet. It is like a shame, because women must be quiet, not speak or write in public. I used to write and hide it in my room, under my bed. I took the risk from my heart.”

            She has a high-school level education and was not allowed to go to university. But her talent for poetry was so remarkable that she got a job as a journalist and, for years, was the poetry editor for Al Hayat, the pan-Arab daily newspaper popular with intellectuals, which has its headquarters in London. “I wrote my articles at home and sent them by fax to the office.” Mrs Hilal is interested in other female poets who deal with women’s struggles, in particular Nadia Anjuman, the Afghan who wrote about women’s oppression and was beaten to death by her husband in November 2005 for supposedly bringing disgrace upon the family. “I loved to read about her. It is so sad what is happening to Afghan women. It is heartbreaking. It can happen to another lady very easily what happened to Nadia.”

            Mrs Hilal does not see a contradiction between speaking up on behalf of women and wearing a niqab. “This is tribal culture,” she says, tugging at the black veil. “Maybe tribal culture will change over time. Who knows? Maybe the next generation of girls will not wear it. What matters now is the behaviour of people and the law, not cloth.” For the first three seasons of Million’s Poet, Mrs Hilal tried to persuade her family to allow her to participate – Saudi women need written permission from their male guardians to travel abroad – but they were not convinced. “My husband was not refusing but he was hesitating. For him it is also a risk because men in such a society, to allow women to appear in public and speak in front of millions of people, is shameful. But he is open-minded. He is also a poet. He is a highly thinking man. When the fourth season came he said, ‘If you want to go, go’.”

            She is confident that she has a strong chance of winning next week. “I was always a very strong poet and everyone knows that. Some of my colleagues at Al Hayat said, ‘Hissa is going to the Million’s Poet? Wait until the world sees what she will say’.” She shocked the world with her poem on the episode aired last month in which she took on the powerful Salafi religious establishment in Saudi Arabia by denouncing them as “angry and blind”. It propelled her into the penultimate round in which she tackled censorship: “I join the birds of light in a battle of enlightenment, we want to rise with a world that is fighting its ignorance.”

            In an Arab context, those words are not for the faint of heart. “I thought I could reach millions of people. It is a famous programme and everyone can see it,” she says, simply. But why use such strong, provocative language? “Because extremism is so strong and you cannot talk about it in any other way.” She continues: “I want the Arabs to take a chance. There is open media now. We can show the world we are good people, that Arabs have generosity, mercy, compassion, kindness. It is a chance to improve our image in the world.”

            Real change, however, will happen when laws are reformed because a poet can only do so much. “The written laws must change. It is not just fathers who should have the right to decide what happens to their children, to have custody. A girl under 18 should not be forced into marriage. Women should be given a chance to choose whom they want to marry.” Mrs Hilal does not believe women should have to get permission from their husbands before they can travel either. “I am not saying girls aged 15 or 16 should be allowed to travel alone abroad. A girl that age does not have experience or judgement. I wouldn’t allow my daughters to do that. But if she is over 30? An adult woman has judgement, she knows what is good and bad.”

            Mrs Hilal says men’s support will be critical in reforms. “My colleagues, my husband, my brother, the judges – without the support of men, good men, we cannot do anything. I have a very good relationship with my husband.” She is worried, however, about the controversy she has unleashed. “Maybe nothing will happen. It will be silent and peaceful, I hope. I knew there would be such a reaction, but I believe they are a small minority, maybe 20 or 30 per cent. The majority of society is supportive of what I say.” She sounds confident.


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              Lundi 5 Avril 2010 -- Les militants des droits de l’homme, venus des territoires occupés pour la célébration du 34e anniversaire de la RASD, ont laissé entendre qu’ils s’attendent à être arrêtés par les autorités marocaines dès leur descente d’avion à Casablanca. C’est l’aveu fait hier par le co-président de l’association France-RASD Enâama Asfari, lors d’une conférence de presse tenue à Alger. En abordant leur retour aux territoires du Sahara occidental via Casablanca prévu pour aujourd’hui, les activistes sahraouis ont souligné qu’ils s’attendent néanmoins à deux scénarios. Le premier est que le Maroc commette «l’imprudence» de les arrêter comme ce fut le cas pour les sept militants aujourd’hui emprisonnés et en grève de la faim. Le second est que les autorités marocaines les laissent entrer sans restrictions vu que le dossier sahraoui sera sur la table du Conseil de sécurité de l’ONU ce mois d’avril. En tout cas, la délégation a remis une lettre sous forme de testament au président du CNASPS, Mahrez Lamari. Ce dernier devra la rendre publique dans le cas où ces derniers seraient arrêtés à leur retour.

              Par ailleurs, la délégation a salué le courage des milliers de réfugiés sahraouis dans les camps de Tindouf qui mènent une dure résistance malgré l’hostilité des conditions de vie qu’ils endurent depuis 34 ans. Et c’est à ce sujet que cette délégation, la troisième, a affiché sa désapprobation quant à la campagne médiatique menée contre le Front Polisario par certains grands médias arabes. «Les chaînes arabes se sont malheureusement alignées sur les positions marocaines. Elles sont allées jusqu’à dire qu’une minorité de réfugiés reste fidèle aux dirigeants du Front Polisario», a déclaré dans ce sens Sid M’hamed Dadache, l’homme aux 25 années d’incarcération en citant notamment la chaîne qatarienne Al Jazeera. De ce fait, les militants sahraouis lancent un appel aux pays arabes pour reconnaître la République arabe sahraouie démocratique (RASD) ainsi que pour œuvrer en faveur de l’autodétermination du peuple du Sahara occidental, et de se conformer ainsi à la légalité internationale.


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                April 5, 2010 -- Maghreb television audiences have been following the saga of a Saudi housewife whose televised recitation of poems blasting extremist preachers and "evil" fatwas has brought her death threats. Several militant Islamist sites have posted messages menacing Hissa Hilal, who has used her appearances on the popular televised competition The Million's Poet to deliver verses condemning clerics "who sit in the position of power".

                The burkha-clad Hilal, a mother of four, has become a sensation in a region where poetry is revered. Her poetry has been well-received by both the judges and audiences of the show, which is broadcast on satellite television across the Arab world from Abu Dhabi. Audiences have cheered Hilal's denunciations of those she says are "frightening" people with their fatwas and "preying like a wolf" on those seeking peace. And the 43-year-old, who was previously a poetry editor for a Saudi newspaper, has even won a place in the competition's April 7th final. The climactic showdown in Abu Dhabi will bring together five finalists from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, with the winner receiving 5 million UAE dirhams.

                The Million's Poet, launched in 2006 by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, is now in its fourth season, and has featured 48 contestants from 12 Arab countries in this series. This year's public bout between a poet and fundamentalists is keeping Maghreb crowds spellbound. "I've been following the programme since the first episode, and I really admire the talented and distinguished poet Hissa Hilal," a Nouakchott University art major, El Alia Mint Mohamed, told Magharebia this week. "Hissa Hilal is the voice of millions of women in the Islamic world who have been affected by narrow interpretations of religion."

                Hilal's poetry is widely viewed as a reply to Sheik Abdul-Rahman Barrak, a high-profile Saudi cleric who recently issued a fatwa calling for the death penalty for those who advocate the mingling of men and women. But according to Mint Mohamed, Hilal "has never, in any of her poems, deviated from the official position of her country, Saudi Arabia, which calls for deliberation on the issue of individual fatwas and for reviewing the concept of intermingling of [the sexes]".

                Oum El Vadel Mint Sidi, a Mauritanian housewife, echoed many who spoke with Magharebia when she asked: "Why should the life of poor poet Hissa Hilal be threatened just because she expressed her convictions about the personal ijtihad of some clerics in our Muslim world? The woman has challenged neither the Holy Qur'an, nor the sunna, nor the consensuses of the nation. Why, then, all this harshness?"

                Saudi women have made inroads in the public arena in recent years, Tunisian lawyer and feminist activist Saida Garrache told Magharebia in a statement. "They are usually concerned with cultural affairs, such as writing, whether prose or poetry," said Garrache. "The position of that poet may have been the bravest and most daring, given that she has made direct charges against the authority of hard-line clerics [who] don't have the right or sufficient knowledge to appoint themselves as guardians of human beings and to call for killing those they consider deviants from the path of correct faith and truth".

                Samira Kassimi, a Tunisian sociologist, said that "bravery" of the kind demonstrated by Hilal could lead to a change in women's status in the Arab world. "It is women who must rise up against discrimination," she told Magharebia, "so that they can gain support from all quarters and thereby create a movement to protect women's rights."

                Beyond the expected praise from feminists, Hilal's poetry has even won her fans in religious circles. "Fundamentalism, whether religious, political or cultural in nature, is rejected. If this Saudi woman is taking a stand against fatwas of hatred and those that portray women as a sworn enemy of men and society, I am in complete agreement with her," an imam at Algiers' Casbah Mosque told Magharebia. "We must all fight fundamentalism, but we should never confuse Islam, which protects and defends women's basic rights, with the fundamentalists who try to stir up social discord in the name of a religion they know nothing about."


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                  April 8, 2010 (AFP) -- A veiled Saudi housewife who stirred controversy for bashing extremist clerics in verse has failed to win the top cash prize in the popular "Million's Poet" programme on Emirati television. Although Hissa Hilal impressed the jury, she did not garner enough audience votes to win the title and its five million dirhams (1.36 million dollars) prize. That sum went to her Kuwaiti rival, Nasser al-Ajami. Another Kuwaiti, Falah al-Mourki, was second and was awarded four million dirhams (1.08 million dollars). But Hilal does not return home empty-handed - she still received three million dirhams (817,000 dollars) for coming third. Wearing the Saudi traditional head-to-toe black abaya cloak, with a veil masking her face, Hilal recited her last poem in the contest, a defence of the freedom of thought.

                  The sole woman among five finalists, Hilal rose to stardom after a series of poems blasting "evil" extremist fatwas (edicts) by Muslim clerics, a challenge which resulted in death threats being made against her on the Internet. The annual competition in the United Arab Emirates capital, Abu Dhabi, draws masters of bedouin dialect poetry, known as Nabati, which is highly appreciated by Gulf Arabs. Hilal has drawn the wrath of Islamist conservatives in her country after criticising its strict segregation of the sexes and blasting fatwas that reject an easing to allow women to take on jobs that are currently for men only.

                  The contest's panel, whose voting accounted for 60 percent of the final score, gave her the highest score and praised her courage for expressing her opinion "honestly and powerfully." But Hilal lost out after the audience vote, which accounted for the remaining 40 percent, was not enough to give her the crown.


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