Bringing poetry to reality TV

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Ziyad Hijab bin Naheet felt like he was in a dream. Standing on the stage under bright lights and a storm of confetti, he raised his long arms in victory. The audience of 2,000 — many of whom had driven eight hours to be there — applauded wildly. Across the Arab world, another 17 million viewed his televised triumph from home.

The moment climaxed a long, grueling competition over several months. And now, Naheet, 34, had emerged an Arab hero, walking away with the Abu Dhabi TV program’s top prize of $1,361,207.64.

“It’s like the ‘American Idol’ of the Arab world,” observed journalist Tala Al Ramahi.

But Naheet’s talent was not singing or dancing. He did not survive weeks on a tropical island populated with deranged creatures, nor endure months of rooming with neurotic housemates.
His artistry, rather, is poetry. More specifically, Nabati poetry.

An ancient form of storytelling in rhymed verse, Nabati is a product of the Arabian peninsula’s Bedouin culture. Unlike classical Arab poetry, it is recited in tribal dialects.

“It’s the most famous genre of poetry in the Gulf,” explained Muhammad Ayish, a professor of communications at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, the seven-state nation nestled between Saudi Arabia and Oman.

Historically, Nabati poets “are the mouthpieces of their tribes,” usually singing the praises of tribal leaders, Ayish said. They also use their verse to raise issues of social concern. One of Naheet’s rival contestants, for example, recited a poem about the gap between rich and poor.
Poetry, whether traditional Nabati or modern verse, is revered in Arab culture.

“The WORD has always played an important role in our lives,” wrote Nashwa Al Ruwaini, the producer of "Millions’ Poet," the television program on which Naheet recently appeared.

“Arabs have often used the poetry form of expression in all aspects of life, from asserting an idea to mobilizing the masses,” Al Ruwaini added in emailed responses to questions from GlobalPost.

The live audience at this season’s final installment of "Millions’ Poet" included many young people — a heartening sight to elders concerned about the influence of western pop culture on their children.

A major reason for this interest is the active support of the regional governments in the United Arab Emirates for reviving Nabati poetry, Ayish said. “It’s a very important way to promote indigenous culture and to preserve local culture and heritage, especially in this time of globalization when people feel that their own culture is under threat,” he said.

The governments' efforts have included poetry festivals, the recently opened Sharjah Center for Popular Poetry, and the Abu Dhabi Poetry Academy, a new facility where poets will offer courses in the ancient art form.

But it is the popular "Millions’ Poet," which just completed its third season, that has done the most to renew interest in Nabati.

Al Ruwaini, the CEO of the Abu Dhabi-headquartered media production company Pyramedia Ltd., recalled that "Millions’ Poet" arose from a concern at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) that with globalization and satellite television, many young people were “becoming engrossed in popular music channels and foreign TV shows [and] slowly forgetting their cultural roots.”


Pyramedia designed "Millions’ Poet" to address this concern. Now Abu Dhabi TV’s highest-rated prime time show, its popularity is due to several factors, Al Ruwaini said.

First, there is the interactive element, which allows viewers to participate during the 16 weeks of competition. Winners of each round are chosen not only by the judges of experts in Nabati poetry, but also by the theater audience, which is polled electronically, and by viewers at home, who vote through text messages sent from cellphones.

The program is also a hit because it showcases indigenous, rather than foreign or western, talent. It is “as if we were looking at ourselves in the mirror as opposed to seeing others from the window,” Al Ruwaini wrote. “The show’s a true reflection of our popular culture that had not been capitalized on before.”

Finally, Al Ruwaini credited the show’s success to the support of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who donates the prize money and sometimes attends the program’s tapings.

Contestants are drawn from a pool of several thousand who show up at local auditions held in four Arab countries over a six-week period. A jury of Nabati experts whittles these would-be entrants down to the 48 who appear on the program.

As in the past, the topics of their poems tend to focus on nationalism, love, anger, pride and the “honor of one’s tribe,” Al Ruwaini observed. But new subjects are popping up, she said, including “politics, especially on the Palestinian struggle, or money matters.”

Seated in his Riyadh office, Naheet recalled how as a child he had listened to his father, a noted Nabati poet, recite poems, and how he wrote his first poem at age 13.

Now a businessman, Naheet said he enjoys poetry because it is “a link to my people. When people listen to my poetry and memorize it, and ask, ‘Who wrote this?’ it’s like a connection between me and the people.”

Naheet, who stands 6-feet-4-inches and wears rimless glasses, said that winning “was like a dream.”

The afterglow is not bad too.

Before "Millions’ Poet" began airing, he said, “a poet was just a poet.” But now, “a poet becomes a star, a celebrity” with fans, endorsement deals and television appearances. Naheet’s even had strangers pick up his restaurant tabs.

For the first time, the finalists in this season’s "Millions’ Poet" included a woman. Ayda al Jahani, 39, a mother of six and history teacher from the Saudi city of Medina, came in fourth, winning $544,507.816.

In a telephone interview, Al Jahani, who wrote her first poem at 12 and who calls herself “a simple Bedouin girl,” said that her tribe was opposed to her competing because they did not think it modest for a woman to appear on television.

But when they saw her in full covering, with even her face obscured, she said, “they eventually accepted it and some even sent me messages wishing me the best ... I not only managed to solidify the support of my ancestral tribe, but also the otherwise terribly dispersed ‘women tribe.’"

Like Al Jahani and Naheet, five of the final contestants in this season’s show were Saudi. This tasted sweet to the many Saudis who’d made the long drive to be in the live audience because last year the top prize went to a poet from Qatar, who beat out a popular Saudi rival.

“Saudi Arabia was up in arms,” said Pyramedia’s press coordinator Mira Nasser. “Articles in Saudi newspapers were written daily for weeks denouncing the win and saying the voting was tampered with,” she related in an email.

Now that Naheet has redeemed Saudi honor, a visit with his leader is in order. The kingdom’s new celebrity said he expects to meet soon with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who is said to be a big lover of Nabati poetry.

“All of royalty loves it,” Naheet said.

“It’s unacceptable for someone to stand up and say ‘I love you,’” he explained. “Whereas to use the channel of poetry to convey praise, loyalty and love, it’s acceptable.”

Editor's note: this story was updated to on April 13 to correct a spelling error.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Saudi Arabia:

How bullet proof is the Saudi economy?

Saudi driving ban a burden on men, too