Using poetry to take a stanza

Hissa Hilal shot to fame in the Million's Poet competition. Her work since 2010 might well stir some further interest in aspects of Bedouin culture, writes Marcel Kurpershoek

Poetess Hissa Hilal from Saudi Arabia, on stage during the 2010 Million's Poet competition in Abu Dhabi. Ali Haider / EPA
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In the 2010 Million's Poet competition, the Saudi poetess Hissa Hilal cut a striking figure. Clad in a black abaya and her head covered by a niqab, she fearlessly mounted the rostrum. Facing the packed hall and millions of television viewers, she created a sensation by lambasting extremists who abuse their authority by issuing fatwas encouraging violence and even suicide bombings. Among the finalists, she came in third. But Hilal's impact went beyond poetry. She drove home a truth that is not always fully grasped in the western media: that there is a fundamental difference between conservative religious values and violent intolerance.

A year later, Hilal's prize-winning poem, Evil Fatwas, appeared in her new collection Tanwir (Enlightenment) with the opening verses: "I saw evil leer in the fatwa's eyes, as they impregnated right with wrong. Just lift the veil to inspect the truth, and you'll see the monster lurking there all along."

As a conservative moderniser, where does Hissa Hilal look for inspiration? The answer is given in Divorce and Kholu' Poetry - A Reading of the Status of Women in Tribal Society - Nabati Poetry as a Witness, her remarkable anthology of verse by women in situations of crisis in their marital life. Published by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, the title mentions talaq and kholu, two different forms of divorce: the first is the repudiation of the wife by the husband, the other is the woman purchasing her freedom. The examples given, as expressed in verse, show that in the case of separation, Islamic law is a flexible instrument. While the right of repudiation belongs to the husband, women are not necessarily just passive bystanders at their own divorce. They can negotiate their repudiation or redeem themselves financially and so on. Law even offers the possibility of "mandating", conferring on the wife the power to repudiate herself.

In Hilal's view, the wife should be an equal partner in marriage. She denounces what she sees as "the silence imposed on women". She contrasts the situation in former times, when women had considerable freedom to speak their mind, even in the presence of rulers, and make their own decisions with "a society that cannot even tolerate a woman's voice expressing her anguish".

How is it possible, she asks, that a 10-year-old girl is married to a 70-year-old man, and "the mother doesn't dare to protest even in half a verse?" By way of contrast, she quotes from a century-old poem by Sayha Al Shammaria, whose brother forced her to marry a man she called "my uncle" as a child. She ran away to someone she trusted and told her tormentors: "I swear, as long as my tresses are black, I'd rather have my blood shed than return."

This, and most other examples, are from Bedouin Poetesses (Sha'irat min Al-Badiya), two volumes of verse collected by Abdallah ibn Raddas in the 1950s and 1960s when he travelled throughout Saudi Arabia as a school inspector for the ministry of education. In the late 1980s, I had the opportunity to discuss some of the poems' intricacies with Ibn Raddas in the backyard of his house in Riyadh. Thanks to him, these poems survived. Now this unique social and artistic document has been rediscovered by Hilal. Through it, she reminds us how social realities have changed. She seems genuinely amazed by how these women could be so bold and speak so freely about their likes and dislikes. As individuals they will remain unknown and faceless, but their voices have an authentic ring, even through the thicket of Nabati stock images. Vivid and direct in expression, the poems touch the heart across barriers of time, culture and tradition. And like Hilal, we cannot fail to be moved by words so gentle, full of feeling, sometimes desperate, caustic and ridiculing the men who are the cause of their misfortunes.

In Arab history, poetry has been wielded as a weapon as effectively as a sword. As Hilal points out, poetesses are more likely to get their rights than ordinary women because their words are feared. Among them are women she looks up to as role models. Women who would think nothing of stepping up to the stage of the Million's Poet.

For instance, it is hard to believe the 19th-century story of Mudi, the daughter of Saad Ad Dahlawi, the headman of ar-Rass, a small town in the central Arabian highlands. Against her parents' will, she married a Bedouin chieftain, though she continued to live in the town and did not accompany him. In verse, she urged him to visit her: "I have readied for you a cushion of ostrich feathers, and my soft belly, my hero, is yours to tread."

Her husband's tribesmen were scandalised by this breach of decorum and he felt compelled to divorce her. He did so by verse, conveyed by messengers who had memorised his rhyme, ending with the words: "Tell her that I have loosened her rope, she whose verses are on the lips of all men."

In exchange, these poetic postmen of the desert took her reply in which she protested her innocence: "So what if my verses about you are the talk of town, my honour is clean and without reproach." Upon hearing these words, her husband regretted his rash action and wished to remarry her. But it was too late. She felt let down by his weakness of character. Adding insult to injury, she told him: "Now that you have laid me low I will throw you flat, as the antelope is brought down by the hunter's shot. I will not enter my husband's home again, unless the sun will set where it rises. Or when the dead are heard to call out to the living, or snake poison is swallowed as spittle. Here I am, waiting for another chief of repute, a nice man who spends freely from his largesse."

Indeed, another tribal sheikh married her, but their sons all died and he divorced her. She married still another chief, and again she divorced. As fate would have it, her first and second husbands met in battle shortly after her first divorce, and she celebrated when her ex was defeated and wounded. But when he was killed in yet another raid, she lamented him in a dirge and called on his wife to do likewise.

Hilal concludes that alpha males have trouble coping with beautiful, smart women who have gained fame through their poetry. Strong-willed and independent-minded, they may attract curiosity, and even earn grudging admiration. But in the end they are just too much trouble for the lords of the house. Yet page after page of Hilal's choices and comments inform the reader that many women enjoyed greater freedom of expression in pre-modern tribal society than today. It is a remarkable statement, arguably of even greater consequence than her poem against extremist fatwas of her Million Poet's performance. It runs against the common view of former tribal society as backward, illiterate, and uncivilised. Indeed, some of the poetry's outspokenness may strike us as rough-hewn.

For instance, impotence is given as a reason for loathing a husband. After remaining childless for eight years, the poetess asked him for divorce by presenting him with a riddle: "How about a man who bought a set of coffee-pots and mortar, but did not pound the beans in it for eight years now. Either he does as men should do, or let him leave them for someone else's use."

This straightforwardness about biological realities lends a "natural" flavour to these poems. Not only when speaking about men, but also about the women themselves. An embittered divorced mother, who scolds her son for not visiting her, says about herself: "Even if the floods leave pools of water behind, I will remain as barren as a folded, dry goatskin." And the famous Mwedi Al Barazia makes a fool of her husband for criticising her tall, lanky frame. For why does he see that as a quality in his horses and not in her? "Just sit in your tent and get lost, let it collapse on you! I hope I bear you no child, no kid playing with young jerboas."

The same Mwedi of the Mutair tribe tells her sister, who is in thrall with he-men, that she prefers a quiet man around the house. "If I give him a tongue-lashing his heart flutters, and he asks 'My flat-bellied beauty, what is your command?' And if I say, 'Bring firewood!' he says 'Of course, at once', and hurries to fetch a cauldron and pots. And if I hit him hard on his legs, no whimper betrays us to others' ears." Her preference became proverbial. Such men are now called rijal Mwedi, Mwedi's men.

The poems run the whole gamut of family relations from the perspective that counts most: the wife's. Domineering and jealous mothers-in-law; fathers, uncles and brothers who treat their female wards as goods to be bartered for bridal money; Bedouin women who cannot stand to live between four walls, and village girls who hate the nomadic lifestyle; incompatibility of tempers and character and how to negotiate a break-up - it is all there with refreshing immediacy and often striking imagery.

Much of this orally transmitted heritage cannot be taken as literal, or even as original, versions. Also, Hilal seems overly positive in her assessment of past social norms. Still, much of it jibes with what we know from other sources, such as Snouck Hurgronje's scholarly work Mecca and Charles Montagu Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta.

Ibn Raddas' anthology is about poetesses in the desert. For practical reasons, the social code of the Bedouins left more freedom and responsibilities to women. They had to work in partnership and a division of labour with the men. For the same reason, this code was seen by townspeople as somewhat lax. The outcome is known. The desert lost, the towns won. It may be as simple as that. Therefore it is significant that Hissa Hilal's collection may signal a renewed interest in those social aspects of the Bedouin heritage.

Marcel Kurpershoek is the author of Arabia of the Bedouins (in Arabic translation: Al-Badawi Al-Akhir) and Studies on the Oral Poetry of Central Arabia. He is currently the Dutch ambassador in Warsaw.