THE POETESS – A voice from behind the veil

Hissa Hilal is a forty year old woman from Saudi Arabia with a husband and sons. She is not only a folklore scholar, a writer and a poetess, but also a feminist activist. In Saudi Arabia, a country where women are rigorously banned from public life.

A voice from behind the veil, strong and powerful, Hissa has become a star in the Arab world (and even beyond) and with the “simple” strength of her poetry she has denounced through verse the Jihad fanaticism and the Fatwas which the Imams use to isolate women in society. A very talented poetess of Bedouin origins, Hissa has given voice to the conditions of oppression and obscurantism that affect women living in the reign of the young crown prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud.

We get to know her, admiring her extraordinary courage in THE POETESS, the documentary of Stefanie Brockhaus and Andreas Wolff premiered at the Locarno Festival we follow her on her way to fame, from her decision to participate in the audience for the Million’s Poet (the Middle Eastern version of Who Wants to be Millionaire), the sparkling Hollywood-style talent show launched to revitalize the traditional Bedouin poetry called Nabati.

Reaching an audience of some 17 million across the Arab world, the two-year broadcast, Million’s Poet, sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture, attracts writers of verse from all over the Arab world – Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait. Among the 48 candidates selected by the jury, there is only one woman,  Hissa. At stake is 15 million dirhams (approximatively 3 million euros) for the winner of The Flag of the Poet, a precious drape embroidered with gold.

«I was exposed to poetry since my childhood as my parents loved poetry», Hissa tells. She is the fortunate wife of a writer – «[…] half of the problems are overcome if a woman is to be accepted or not in the world of writing when a writer asks for your hand in marriage, it makes it all much easier.» Hissa Hilal, for her fans is Remia.

«She chose the pseudonym Remia because her mother is a very strict Bedouin who wouldn’t allow her to use her real name, so she published under Remia.When she came to live with me, I told her to use her real name.»  (Hissa’s husband)

Interviewed in 2015, Hissa tells how she got to be a finalist in the highest-rated show of the entire Arab TV world. «[…] The first time I heard about it was from the newspaper, but I wasn’t interested. Later I watched it broadcasted and I found it a fascinating show ..a new style a new technology, but then I realized that there were no women reciting Nabati poetry […].»

First round of the three dedicated to the Middle-Eastern poetics. Hissa, on the stage alone amidst many men, speaks out against religious rigor, violence, terrorism in the name of Islam. She is wearing the niqab and for throughout the entire documentary we only see her eyes. However, we hear her resolute voice lashing out, as a blade, at the packed audience (men and women, segregated), bouncing up into the ether and then down into millions of family homes.

«[…] men are women’s protectors. When they come into your life, they fill it with light,  but then after they soon take it away and you become the last, when they leave they crush you with their tails.  A new wife replaces memories of the old […] collectors of wives who taking their honor, leave them helpless and weak […]. Dignified women of great descent replaced with new triumphs.»

In the second round, with her second poem, Hissa harasses, fearlessly taking on the clergy, the male chauvinist world of Saudi society, striking down the pillars of its cultural structure. «[…] my poetry destroys, seriously destroys, it strikes out at people’s thoughts with claws […]»

In the third round, with her poem against the Fatwas, Hissa crosses the red line.

«I have seen evil in the eyes of the subversive Fatwas in a time when what is lawful is confused with what is not lawful; […] a fierce monster, barbaric in thinking and action, wearing death as a tunic tied with a belt.»

One journalist at the show writes an article about her. Hissa’s fame grows not only amongst women but also in the international media hunting for an interview. Inevitably, death threats arrive. «Could anyone give me her address?» is seen on the social media. Millions of supporters stand up for her. Hissa wins 82% of popularity votes (viewers vote as well as the audience).

«I have criticized the extremist and terrorist Fatwas and the murderers. I broke the taboo and all around me, a big explosion. My poem is straight-forward, it is clear to anyone familiar with Nabati poetry. I am a moderate Muslim woman, I am passionate about Islam, about its great history. These Fatwas want to isolate Arab society declaring everyone else enemies.»

Saudi Arabia had not always been that way. Hissa reminds us that her country had been different before the movie theaters had been shut down and the niqab and “tutorship” had been imposed on women. Archive footage shows us the downward spiral of Saudi society back to the fatal 20 November 1979, when a group of extreme Islamic insurgents led by Juhayman al-Otaibi, a young Sunni man from an influential family, led an attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca full of worshippers  during the Hajj, the annual purification pilgrimage. 270 dead, more than 550 injured, a two week siege.

An Islamic commando force, counting more than 300 hundred men against the decay of Islamic values and the corruption of the Saudi monarchy ‘polluted by petrodollars’. A watershed in the history of the al Saud reign, unveiling its weaknesses and putting the dynasty on the defensive, fearing to be ousted by the Ulema, the Salafi clerics.

«Before then, Saudi society had been conservative like the entire Arab world, but not so rigid. Women wore the burqa to protect themselves from the sun and from men in the desert. During the Seventies, writers, poets, artists, painters, musicians, intellectuals had flourished. On TV you could see Um Kulthum and Fairouz with no special dress codes imposed. Women’s rights to drive or work or study, whatever they wanted to, had all been openly discussed.»

The decade of modernization of the great cultural liberalization of Saudi society emerging, thanks to oil, from the rural era. In 1979, a shift into reverse, completely changed the Middle Eastern map, drastically pushing it towards the Greater Middle East, Central Asia. From the Khomeini Revolution to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan passing through Saudi Arabia. Anxious about reasserting Riyadh’s key role within the great Umma after humiliation of the Great Mosque and the prestige won by Khomeini, King Khalid  al Saud was prompted to financially support the anti-Soviet Afghan Jihad and, even worse, to place the country in the hands of the Wahhab conservative establishment with its most purist version of Sunni Islam. Two moves with repercussions up to the present day.

«Everything changed after Juhayman, religious inflexibility began. Education, justice, media, culture, everything was controlled by the clerics. The entire management of the society. Women from childhood were subjected to a much stricter dress code by the religious police. Before girls under 15 were considered children, but later it was different.»

The final round. Hissa’s poems are the strongest, the most acclaimed, and not only by women. She is the favorite by far. However, not for the public that, unlike the jury, assigns her to third place.

«I knew from the beginning the Flag of Poetry was out of reach for a woman.» (Hissa Hilal)

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