Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Middle Eastern Pop-Culture Poetry

If you ever really want to know just how different American pop-culture is from, say, pop-culture in the Arab world, just take a gander at some of the top rated TV shows in each land and you'll notice some startling differences. Actually, forget "shows" plural. How about "show" singular? Top rated show in America these days? American Idol. Top rated show in the Arab world? The Million's Poet. That's right. Poet.

Here's the gist of the show: While on American Idol, contestants get on stage and sing a song of their choice (which falls under the guides of whatever the ridiculous theme is that week), on The Million's Poet, contestants get on stage and read a poem. My. That sounds...well...simply awful.

First of all, I had no idea that the Arab world was so into poetry. Is that new? I can't think of many things that I would rather do less than go somewhere and listen to someone read their poetry in front of a microphone. Oh, no, wait, wait! I thought of something. Going somewhere to listen to someone read their haiku in front of a microphone. I'd rather hang myself than do that. It's not that I'm specifically against poetry or anything. It's just that I don't think I get it. Maybe it sounds nice, I don't know. But it certainly isn't going to make me all weepy or anything. Now, when some of those American Idol folks try to hit those high notes and they're screaming like someone just nailed both of their feet to the floor, that can get me a little weepy (but that's only because it feels like both of my eardrums are bleeding). But poetry? I think not.

Bottom line here is that I'm not a fan of poetry. But that's not what this is about. No, this is about how the Arab world has found their very own Susan Boyle, so to speak, through their hit show The Million's Poet. They have found this poet whose poetry really resonates with a lot of the folks who are doing the voting, both in the audience and by text message, just like American Idol. (Yes. There is voting. By text message. For a poetry show. This story is so modern and yet, so backwards all at the same time. And this gets weirder, believe me.) There are even three judges, but if you're thinking that you're going to be seeing the Arabian equivalent of Paula Abdul, you're completely mistaken. Here's one of the judges now. Behold!

(I said it got weirder, what did you expect?!) According to an article over there at The Huffington Post, a one Hissa Hilal "...recites poetry that brazenly calls out for women's rights and the end of Islamic extremism." Wow! That's pretty gutsy of...um...Hissa? Yes. Yes, it is. Even more gutsy considering that Hissa is a woman. And even more weirder when you see the show in action. Behold!

Oh, what the hell is that? THAT is a one Hissa Hilal, "...a housewife and mother of four from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia." She's dressed like that because "As is required of Saudi women appearing in public, she is covered from head to toe in a traditional abaya." Now, I realize that "traditional abaya" is a hard phrase to remember. I have a different name for it which will be much easier to remember. I call it "the beekeeper's uniform". Can you believe that's just a regular part of a hit reality show over there in Dubai and wherever else? Totally expected. Totally "normal". Not a problem for them. Not a problem. Wow.

I'm kind of thinking that she has to be a little bit relieved to be in the beekeeper's uniform, as "Hilal's poetry has, not surprisingly, led to death threats by Islamic extremists." Ah, yes. The ever predictable death threats by Islamic extremists so that they can, once again, show just how completely reasonable they really are. Hilal says of the death threats "Killing a human being is so easy for them, it is always an option." Granted, there have been days when I could only wish that killing a human being was an option. But for it to actually always be an option? It's barbaric to say the least (but I can see the handiness in it all if you don't let it go to your head).

Last week in the voting, "...she received the highest overall score in last week's semifinals, pushing her through to this Wednesday's final (and its $1.3 Million prize for the winner). " Holy crap. 1.3 million bucks?! What do you get if you win American Idol? A record deal? Is that record deal worth 1.3 million bucks?! I guess in some cases (Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson) it could be, but am I really to leave this conversation thinking that Taylor Hicks and Fantasia ended up with anything in the freaking neighborhood of $1.3 million? I don't think anyone could be expected to believe that, really.

Hissa Hilal claims not to be afraid for herself, but says that she is kind of worried about her children. Seems reasonable, considering the beekeeper uniform wearing society that she lives in. I'd be worried as hell about my kids. But she does what she does because "I am hoping my daughters won't have to cover their faces and they'll live a better life." You know what lady? Me too.

Seriously, how insecure must some folks be (Translation: How small must their penis actually be?) that they have to make up some sort of crazy rule for their crazy lifestyle that says that women must wear the beekeeper's uniform? And it is a crazy rule that was made up. The beekeeper's uniform came into existence right about the same time that Star Wars came out. I think some of those Arab folks saw Darth Vader in his little outfit and thought that seemed like a good thing to implement for the women folk. Since that mask and all of that hissing would have been tricky to pull off, they just went with the beekeeper look instead. Darth Vader, the beekeeper uniform, both extremely similar to each other.

I'm hoping that this chick wins the $1.3 million and uses it to get herself and her family the heck out of Dodge. I'm afraid that if she wins and sticks around for very long that she's going to find herself sans head one day. I can understand her wanting to hang around and further her cause, but it's really hard to further much when you're dead. I'm just sayin'.

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ac condenser said...

i never been to the middle east even for once but i've heard about their top rating shows, they are leveling with the Japs or even better.

Mare said...

I just find it so interesting that it's not just a top rated show, but it's a top rated show where people stand up and read their poetry that they've composed. It doesn't even sound vaguely stimulating, let alone something that would have potential to be a smash hit.

Thanks for reading!

~ Mary

Ahlam said...

Are you seriously criticizing a television show that broadcasts intellectual and reflective poetry while defending the circus that is American Idol? Does entertainment have to be extremely dumbed down/blatant/cheap for you to find it stimulating?

I mean, seriously?

Or no, wait...the fact that she is dressed funny must OBVIOUSLY mean she is a dumb, backwards broad, so naturally:
Miss California's Opinion > Strangely Dressed Arab Poet's Opinion


Mare said...

Hey, Ahlam.

Am I criticizing the show? I don't think so. I find it interesting when comparing it to the absolute circus that is American Idol. AI is a freak show, absolutely.

I don't need my entertainment dumbed down for it to be interesting. I just need it to be interesting. Do I find poetry readings to be interesting? Hardly. Do I find the shrieking on American Idol to be interesting? Absolutely. It's just a matter of different tastes and different cultures (which I thought I pointed out more clearly than it came across to you, apparently).

And she isn't dressed "funny". I find absolutely NOTHING funny about the way she is dressed. It is sad and backwards and wrong. She isn't dressed that way because she WANTS to be dressed that way. She is dressed that way because women in the sand countries are oppressed.

The woman is doing what she does in the hopes that one day her children will not have to go around in the beekeeper's uniform like she does. She DOES NOT like the way she is dressed, and yet, she's still dressed like that. No, I don't find anything funny about that AT ALL.

How can you possibly defend that get up? She's not "strangely dressed". She's FORCED to cover up her entire body. Like I said in the post, I hope she wins that $1.3 mil and gets the hell out of Dodge so that she can feel the sunlight on her face, so that her children can look upon the face of their mother and so that she can have a life that is free of oppression.

And I'm pretty sure that I'd feel the same way about this whether I was in California or elsewhere. Forcing women to cover up like that is just wrong.

Thanks for reading.

~ Mary

Ahlam said...

Hey Mary,

You criticized the "gist" of the show throughout your piece. I really don't understand what there is to criticize about it. It's essentially a televised open-mic night, just not at some rowdy college bar or dimly lit hipster hangout.

I agree with you in that it is very sad and upsetting that she has to wear that black abaya against her will, but you really should educate yourself about your subject matter before you go all out...like that judge, for example? You introduce his picture as though he is undoubtedly some nutty Islamic cleric. He is, in fact, just wearing what all youth in his country wear--the head scarf and long kaftan are just CULTURAL and have nothing to do with his religiousness/lack thereof...it's pretty much equal to worn-out Levi's and a Billabong tee. Think of it that way.

PS. You sound shocked that us "sand people" have cell phones. I'm going to go out on a limb and say you haven't seen much of this world. And you absolutely haven't seen any of the world that is the focal point of this writing.

PPS. Great poetry should have the ability to make you "weepy". I feel sorry that you are a writer yet have not been that touched by words.

Mare said...

Hey, Ahlam.

I re-read my post just for clarity on what I had written that came across as my being critical. My thought that I was trying to convey was how amazed I was that a show that featured people reading poetry was so darn popular. Mockingly, of course. I still find it amazing.

I will admit to a lack of knowledge that the --the head scarf and long kaftan are cultural and not having to do with religion. That's good to know and I appreciate you pointing that out to me. That being said, I can't and won't understand why the beekeeper's uniform is forced upon women.

And I wasn't shocked that folks in the sand lands have cell phones. What I am shocked by is how something (like that show) can be so modern (ie, cell phone voting) and yet, at the same time, be so archaic (ie, the beekeeper's uniform and the oppression of women). They're polar opposites of each other, but yet there they are together. It's just an interesting combination to me is all.

Thanks for commenting back. I appreciate the intelligent discussion.

~ Mary

PS Where do you live? I ask because you mentioned "us sand people" and I was curious as to which sand land you were residing in. You seem like a reasonable guy that I could learn some stuff from.

Ahlam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ahlam said...


Your reply was both thoughtful and respectful, thank you for that.

I’m a young woman, currently living and working in Libya. Having been born and raised as a proud Canadian and yet being Arabic, I’m what you would call a “3rd culture” child—I don’t really fit in anywhere, and I’ve been pretty much everywhere. My ‘type’ are flocking to cities like Dubai, where the economic boom of the past half decade has created a mixed society where these “3rd culture” families are tolerated and comfortable. I have never been to Saudia Arabia itself, but I can tell you this much—you can write a few justifiably critical pieces about Saudian society (after doing the research, of course)—because there indeed MANY things wrong with it—I just don’t think this show or this poet is one of them.

Having said that, I am all too familiar with the subject of female oppression and the duality of genders in cultures—and please believe me when I say that the treatment of women in Islam DOES anger me to no end. I was only offended by your article because in addition to taking a very condescending, critical approach, you didn’t bother to question the actual story behind what makes the show such a hit and Hissa Hilal so controversial, you didn’t bother to learn about the culture before offering your opinion to the rest of the world.

Other Muslim Americans/Canadians/Europeans my age struggle with gender/culture/religious stereotypes constantly, because we are being pushed and pulled to both sides and because both sides are extremely hypocritical and judgmental both of we the individuals and of other “ideologies,” if you will. I really dislike seeing either side sling mud at the other, yet unfortunately it’s all we seem to do.

In the end, I was and am pleasantly surprised to find that you know a bit about the world abroad and took time out of your day to write about it--whether I agreed with your article or not. Your plain awareness of the show and this woman is appreciated.

Regards from Tripoli,