04/07/2010, 00.00
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The poetry of courage: Hissa Hilal challenges Islamic extremism

The final round of ‘Million’s Poet’ is scheduled for tonight in Abu Dhabi. For the first time, a woman could win the Arab world’s foremost poetry competition. A homemaker and mother of four, the Saudi woman has received death threats. In her poems, she slams suicide bombers and the segregation of the sexes.
Abu Dhabi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Five Arab poets will compete tonight in Abu Dhabi in the fourth edition of the Million’s Poet, a competition for the most talented poet in Arabic poetry. This year’s finalist has three Kuwaitis and two Saudis competing, including Hissa Hilal, a woman whose presence has focused the international spotlight, especially since she has received death threats for her poems.

Originally scheduled for 31 March, the show was postponed by a week because of the death of Sheikh Ahmed bin Zayed al Nahyan, 41, who lost his life in an airplane accident in Morocco. The competition is organised and sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH).

Broadcast live from Al Raha Beach Theater on Abu Dhabi TV, the weekly show (on Wednesday) presented 48 poets, carefully selected by a panel of experts from thousands of applicants after a six-week tour of Gulf countries and Jordan.

Much of the Middle East will grind to a halt tonight as an estimated audience of more than 20 million is expected to gather round television sets across the Arab world for the final.

The five finalists are Hissa Hilal and Jazaa Al Boqami from Saudi Arabia, who will contend for the five million dirham (US$ 1.3 million) prize with Sultan Al Asaimar, Fallah Al Moragi and Nasser Al Ajmi from Kuwait. However, most spectators will keep their eye less on the prize than on Hissa Hilal, a Saudi homemaker and mother of four, whose participation has become a cause celebre in the Arab world.

Wearing a niqab with only her eyes visible behind her full-length black gown, Hilal is the first woman to have reached the final. More importantly, it is the manner in which she got there that has captivated the judges and the public.

Three weeks ago, she stormed into the penultimate round with a blistering attack on extremist Muslim clerics. Her poem, The Chaos of Fatwas, denounced those who issue hard-line religious decrees, comparing them to suicide bombers as “monsters wearing belts”. She attacked the segregation of the sexes maintained by preachers who “prey like a wolf” on those who seek progress and peace.

Her poems were met by open hostility from the most radical and conservative segments of Saudi society.

In the blogosphere, some have come to her defence full of admiration for her courage. Others have called for death. Her family has received death threats, whilst on Islamist websites she has been denounced as un-Islamic.

“Like anyone who receives a threat to scare him or her, I take it seriously but only slightly,” she said recently, adding, “I want peace for everyone, Muslims and others. We are all living in a global village, so we cannot live without each other.”

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