Verse Behind the Veil Saudi Woman Challenges Religious Order with Poetry

Hissa Hilal was the first woman to reach the final of Abu Dhabi world-famous poetry competition, "The Million's Poet," which attracts a massive television audience across the Arab world. But the success of the veiled Saudi Arabian poet, who criticized fatwas in one verse, has also made her unpopular.


The show is called "The Million's Poet." It follows the same format as casting shows like "American Idol." The winners are eventually chosen from among several thousand candidates, and the program is broadcast live. There are also qualifying rounds, audience voting via text message and a jury.

But there are differences, of course. For instance, the jury consists of poets, not celebrities from the world of pop. Instead of looking at contestants' personal appearance or singing voice, the judges consider their use of rhetorical devices and metaphors. And in this show, it's not easy for the audience to clap along with the rhythms.

"The Million's Poet" is probably the only poetry mega-show in the television age. It attracts a TV audience of 18 million viewers, from Cairo to Muscat to Amman. The winner receives an unusually large cash prize of about $1 million ($745,000), which is more than the Nobel committee awarded the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature last fall.

Hissa Hilal knows what she would do with the money, but she prefers not to reveal that just yet.

Second-Class Citizens

Hilal is a 43-year-old woman, with dark eyes and -- presumably -- dark hair, who likes to wear floral dresses. Her exterior appearance doesn't permit a more detailed description than that. Her figure is hidden under a niqab, or full-body veil, although a bit of the dress she is wearing underneath is sometimes visible.

It is impossible to imagine the face of the poet.

She is the only woman who has ever made it into the finals of the "Million's Poet" competition. She is also a woman from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, where women are treated as second-class citizens and are not permitted to address men.

She stands a good chance of winning the contest. The jury awarded more points to Hilal in the qualifying rounds than to any other contestant. But she was behind in the text-message vote, perhaps because women in the Middle East are less likely than men to have mobile phones.

Poetry without a Face

It's the day before the final decision. On the following day, Hilal, invisible underneath her niqab, will be broadcast live to 18 million households. She will speak, while women at home are declared incapable of managing their own affairs.

Except to female friends and family members, Hilal has never recited any of her poems in any other way than through a piece of black material. Is this even possible, poetry without a face? "It's more difficult, of course," she says. "People want to see my expression. They want to know whether I am smiling. I would like that. I hope it changes."

Her voice, divorced from her mouth and facial expressions, also seems to come out of nowhere. Only her hands provide expression, fluttering up from her lap as she speaks.

Hilal is no heretic. She says that she is a simple woman who loves the music of language. "I come from a Bedouin tribe. I respect tradition. Otherwise I would lose everything," she says.

"Her strength lies in the invention of images," says Sultan al-Amimi, president of the Abu Dhabi Poetry Academy and one of the jurors. He believes that Hilal is the favorite. "Her poetry is powerful. She always has a message and a strong opinion, even on controversial subjects."


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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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