Saudi who shatters barriers with poetry

Hissa Helal has taken the region by storm by reciting her poetry on Abu Dhabi TV's The Million's Poet show. (SUPPLIED)

You wouldn't recognise her on the street, but Hissa Helal is somewhat of a celebrity across the Middle East.

The Saudi mother of four has taken the region by storm following her participation in Abu Dhabi TV's top-rated programme, The Million's Poet. And judging from her popularity, Helal could be on her way to become the first female winner in the show's history.

The Million's Poet, which has a following of 70 million viewers, has been dubbed the more traditional version of shows such as American Idol. Contestants are required to recite their own works of Nabati poetry, a native Bedouin style of poetry similar to the classical ode and recited in colloquial Arabic. The art dates to fourth-century Arabia, where poets were revered as people inspired by God who elevated their tribe's sense of pride.

Part two of the show's grand finale is set to take place live from Al Raha Theatre this Wednesday, with five finalists reciting poems in order to win the judges' and public's vote. A maximum of 60 points can be given by the jury panel, while the voting public accounts for 40 per cent of the vote.

In part one of the show's finale, Helal – who appears wearing a niqab – recited a poem about the media and how it can be used to spread both good and evil. She received the highest points in the episode – 28 out of 30 – beating the four other male finalists: Kuwait's Sultan Al Asaimar, Fallah Al Moragi and Nasser Al Ajmi, as well as Jazaa Al Boqami from Saudi Arabia.

Wednesday's finalists have the opportunity to obtain 30 more points, plus the public's votes are also revealed. The poet with the highest score will walk away with the grand prize of Dh5 million.

If Helal does win, it will certainly create a fair amount of controversy – and not just because the world of Nabati poetry is highly male dominated. Despite her work having won praise from the judges, Helal has also reportedly received a few threats from conservatives for her opinions.

Saudi Arabia's Al Watan newspaper reported that after Helal recited a poem that denounced fatwas, which reject an easing to allow women to take up jobs currently reserved for men in an earlier episode of The Million's Poet, extremist websites allegedly threatened her.

However, Helal continues to stand up for what she believes in, vowing to "fight extremism". On the show, she said: "This is a platform that can help you to reach out to the world. If our society keeps listening to extremists and will not stand up against them, it will not progress.

"[As women] we are always told: haram [prohibited in Islam]; and the dangerous extremism is no longer limited to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, but has spread to other countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Syria."

When Emirates Business contacted Helal, she said she was busy writing her poem for the finals and would rather speak once she was finished.

Meanwhile, in an interview with the BBC World Service, Helal revealed she wore the niqab for the sake of her male relatives.

"Covering my face is not because I am afraid of people. We live in a tribal society – so my husband and my brother will be criticised by other men if I do not wear it," 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 on 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."


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