Nobody’s perfect – and she knows it
The Kuwaiti poet Bader Bandar poet may have thought his performance ended with his verse.
After a confident recitation, he sat before a panel of three judges and a live TV audience, shifting from side to side on an overstuffed sofa, twiddling his thumbs.
It was the third round of Million’s Poet, a reality-TV show where poets across the Arab world compete in classical nabati poetry for prizes of Dh15 million. It is a chance to exchange verses on love and politics.
At the end of each show viewers from Yemen to Morocco vote by text message.
As the judges assessed Mr Bader’s prose, Nadia Buhannad watched from the front row, peering through her glasses and making notes in a thick file on the contestants’s psychological assessment.
“This guy, he was in a hurry and then he got bored, khalas [finish],” she says the day after the show’s taping, flipping through his file.
Ms Buhannad is the poets’ professional psychologist. The renowned columnist takes to the studio at the beginning and end of each episode to give a live analysis of the contestants.
As the sixth season gears up for the May 21 final, all ears are open to Ms Buhannad.
“It’s like you’re stripping people off,” she says. “But nobody’s perfect, no? That’s the interesting point.”
Ms Buhannad was already a TV personality when she received a call from producers asking her to join the show, broadcast by Abu Dhabi TV, part of Abu Dhabi Media, which owns The National.
“I had seen it once,” she says. “I didn’t like it. I said ‘it’s boring’.”
She watched it again. This time, she was fascinated by the contrast between the poets’ words and their movements.
She joined in the show’s fifth season. After a recruitment tour, the judges selected 48 contestants from the 20,000 applicants aged between 11 and 80.
Ms Buhannad sat down with each of the chosen poets to conduct a 90-minute personality analysis, which included the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, a personality test, and a signature analysis.
“They call me intimidating,” she says. “I say, ‘Queen of Intimidating’.”
The analysis not only gave clues to characteristics hidden by performance, it gave an indication as to whether the poets could handle the stress of a television show that attracts up to 15 million viewers.
After the final contestants were selected, Ms Buhannad joined the programme to assess their onstage behaviour.
“The first month, people in the [Arabian] Gulf didn’t like it,” says Ms Buhannad. “They said, ‘who is she? A female psychologist analysing us?’”
Psychologists also called in to complain.
“Men. All men. Psychologists saying, ‘we don’t think it’s a good idea a woman does this because the poets are all men’.”
After two weeks, Ms Buhannad proved she had the grit to deliver frank and honest assessment of men. The calls stopped and poets began to heed her advice.
“Of course, the first reaction from the poets was that they were not liking it,” she says. “You say signature and they say, ‘ego? me?’ My God, they don’t like it.
“Step by step, I started explaining it to them and they started to understand. We have to have an ego, an understanding and loving ourselves. Many men were not accepting that of course and read so many things into it.”
Analysis is intended to be constructive for a poet’s performance and Ms Buhannad does not mince words. On one occasion she said that a man lacked the proper skills to deal with women. A few minutes later, she learnt he had married days earlier.
“There are things you cannot say live, like I had suicidal personalities there.
“There was one person, they were in love with the UAE in a very mad way and I saw in their profile that they were a very sad person, and if they were eliminated from the last five last winners they would do something.
“Ethically I could not say, ‘they’re suicidal’. So I was just praying, ‘please, please don’t let her be in the finalists’.”
Ms Buhanna is accustomed to TV, having presented on the 2002 to 2003 show Sikologia, named after her Dubai clinic of the same name.
Raised in an opened-minded family, she moved to the United States in 1989 to do her masters at Indiana Unversity and her doctorate at the University of Arizona.
As a mechanic, her father had worked with all nationalities and her parents were fully supportive.It was her grandmother who was anxious about being so far from her granddaughter.
“We had to tell her I’m going to London,” says Ms Buhannad. “We told her London is only three hours.”
Now in her second season of Million’s Poet, poets know better than to question her, shake their legs or fidget with their ghutras.
“Really, in terms of content and the gift of poem, it’s much more advanced, and in terms of body language I think they’ve done their homework very well,” she says.
“They’re trying their best but so am I. They thought there was nothing I would be pointing at but no, it’s in their face.”
This season Ms Buhannad analysed 102 contestants in the initial stages. In any reality show, people give off unconscious signals to the judges and audiences who can make their careers.
One of this year’s favourites, the first Syrian poet to qualify for the third stage, was eventually voted off the programme.
Ms Buhannad believes it was because his solemn poetry, condemning both sides of the Syrian conflict, was at odds with his smiling delivery.
“What we don’t like to see is that body language has nothing to do with the content,” she said. “I said ‘Talal [Aloun], you did not live what you’re saying. You might believe it but you didn’t live it while you’re saying it’. I said, ‘be yourself. So what if you have a tear in your eye?’.”
Million’s Poet provides a platform for discussion that is rare in the region. When Iraqi Hilal bin Slfeej entered the stage last week, he prefaced his poem with a greeting “to both the Shi’a community and the Sunni community of Iraq”.
Earlier in the season, Talal Aloun received death threats for his condemnation of the violence in Syria.
“Politically there is no red line but they wouldn’t be speaking about someone in particular,” says Ms Buhannad, who is as open discussing personalities as poets are with their politics.
“When I talk and analyse, believe me I do not censor myself. People think I should be Dr Perfect who censors myself. Believe me, I cannot do that.”
Published: May 5, 2014 04:00 AM