Verse Behind the Veil Saudi Woman Challenges Religious Order with Poetry


Part 3: 'The Only Faceless Contestant'

It is late in the afternoon on the day of the final decision, Wednesday, April 7. The Raha Theater is a gleaming palace a good distance from the city, with incredible cars parked outside. For the local elite, "The Million's Poet" is the social event of the week. The women are wearing black silk full-body veils with high heels, but their faces are uncovered, made up to the tips of their eyelashes. The men, without exception, are wearing gleaming white dishdasha robes. The sexes are divided at the entrance, so that the left side of the auditorium ends up looking like a sea of black robes and the right side a sea of white robes.

Hilal is sitting behind the stage with her daughter. She is smaller and older than the other four finalists. And she has a handicap: She is the only faceless contestant.

The male contestants don't have this problem. Their faces are young and likeable, smiling and looking simultaneously excited, proud and shy. The cameras zoom in on their faces. Even before the men sit down in the poets' seats, they wholeheartedly thank the sheikh and the jury, with a self-confidence that stems from centuries and generations of unlimited patriarchy. "I can't win," says Hilal. Then the show begins.

Applauding Metaphors

A clean-shaven youth from Kuwait recites an ode to the founder of the Emirates, Sheikh Sajid. The poem is meant to convey the wisdom of age and compares him to "a falcon controlling the sky." The audience applauds each metaphor, and the jury is impressed and asks the candidate to sing another song, this time in honor of the head of the Abu Dhabi government, which he does. A second Kuwaiti, surrounded by flashes of lightning, recites a conversation with his son: "With sunset and with sunrise of the great Eid / Look at my wounds well, for you are my healer."

Then Hilal walks onto the stage. She recites verses she wrote two days earlier in a city park. In her poem, a person under attack addresses her own poem: "You have a waving wing / You will not be betrayed by your open skies."

She speaks loudly, with a somewhat hoarse voice. The lines find their rhythm, the audience claps. There are even cheers, and not just from the black half of the auditorium. But something is missing.

'I Couldn't Win'

It isn't enough. In Nabati poetry, presentation and expression are crucial. Hilal comes in third place, with the first prize going to the young father who recited his poem during a thunderstorm. "I couldn't win," she says, once she is off-stage. Why not?

The poets, jurors and friends are crowded together on the stage, embracing each other and rubbing their noses together according to Bedouin custom. But there are only white robes on the stage -- all men, no women.

"I couldn't win. Not yet," says Hilal. Her daughter, standing next to her, is holding a stylized crown, the third prize.

But even the third-prize winner receives a substantial money prize of 3 million dirhams, which is more than €600,000 (over $800,000).

Hilal plans to use the money to find a doctor, in Germany or the United States, she doesn't care where. Her youngest daughter is handicapped and is unable to speak. It was the reason Hilal participated in the poetry spectacle. She says it was the most important thing for her: to give someone a voice.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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otropogo 04/17/2010
1. How to find the original story in German?
After reading the English version of Verse behind the Veil, I wanted to read the original. I've spent the better part of an hour searching the Spiegel archives in every conceivable way: author's name: Alexander Smoltczyk poet's name: Hissa Hilal poetry's name: Nabati local's name: Dubai I've even looked for (and found) the story of the sailplane crash that postponed the final session of the contest, to narrow down the possible publication dates of the story, then looked through all of the author's stories. I've found nothing! Has the original been removed from the archives, or was it never actually published? And is there some way to avoid wasting one's time this way in future?
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