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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Lesson on freedom from Saudi Arabia

Here’s something that will never happen in America: A woman in Saudi Arabia is poised to make at least $270,000 and maybe as much as $1.3 million in a televised poetry competition for her politically-charged works in criticism of suicide bombers and extreme clerics.

Hissa Hilal is a contestant on Saudi Arabia’s “”Million’s Poet,”” an American Idol-like television program. She has advanced to the final round after receiving high scores from the show’s judges for expressing her opinion “”honestly and powerfully.”” Hilal, who delivers her poems in a traditional abaya that leaves only her eyes exposed, delivered a poem condemning the “”subversive”” fatwas (religious opinion concerning Islamic law) given by extreme Saudi clerics, calling them “”vicious in voice, barbaric, angry and blind.””

According to The National, an English-language, United Arab Emirates-based newspaper, Hilal is facing death threats for her poetry. The National reported, “”Hilal said yesterday: ‘Like anyone who receives a threat to scare him or her, I take it seriously but only slightly.'””

The article continued, “”She said her family had asked her to restrict her poems to ‘ordinary’ issues. But she added: ‘I want peace for everyone, Muslims and others. We are all living in a global village, so we cannot live without each other.'””

Though it does a disservice to the eloquent Hilal to not consider her as a protagonist, it is impossible for an American to consider this situation and not consider what a foil she is for American culture. Hilal and her poetry provide a stark and unflattering reflection of what American culture values.

The UA has one of the best poetry-writing programs in the U.S. and a renowned poetry center, but even in Tucson poets make almost no money and do not have nearly the cultural respect of poets in Arab culture. In an interview with the The New York Times, Arab media expert Lina Khatib explained, “”The show is at the heart of cultural conversations in the Arab world. Because it’s poetry, one of the most respected forms of expression in the Arab world, you can push the boundaries much further than you might with popular music.””

In the U.S., the cultural conversation (if one can call it a conversation) skews much more toward the sexual hijinks of celebrities, famous for being drug addicts, than toward housewife-poets who speak out against religious violence. American culture rewards young, beautiful people who sing songs written by others relatively decently, and calls a contestant “”brave”” when she wears a loudly-colored dress. Americans are so entrenched in the muck of which “”actress”” is sleeping with which athlete that they fail to consider either poetry or politics as very important, to the detriment to our culture and our consideration of others. 

Why are we so en-mucked? Most people in the U.S. are free to do nearly anything without fear of a death threat, and yet the culture focuses on young alcoholics from New Jersey who are effectively illiterate in comparison to Hilal. That it generates good poetry is hardy a justification for limiting freedom, but there is a corollary between societies who are socially repressed and the creation of good and brave art. Like Anna Akhmatova in Soviet Russia, Hilal expressed her opinion through poetry, presenting a critique of particular extreme clerics with beauty and grace. She will be targeted for her actions, shouldering threats on her family and her life as a result of her strong, decisive statements.

In America, political commentators have almost nothing to fear, and yet the arguments they make are nowhere near as eloquent as Hilal’s words, even in translation. Popular art, too, is characterized by making money and being shiny far more than it is about promoting art or furthering liberty. Perhaps the relative freedom of the U.S. has dulled our capacity for beauty and bravery and replaced it with a capacity for gym/tan/laundry. Perhaps Americans think they have nothing about which to be brave. But the fact remains that while American poets are largely marginalized, a country like Saudi Arabia that most Americans view as extremely repressed has a television show in which one may earn millions of dollars for poetry.

There is no corollary to Hilal in American culture. Rather than the brave and eloquent, American culture values the young and the irresponsible. More freedom should not make us more stupid. Americans have to remember the American cocoon of (relative) safety does not nullify our ability to be eloquent, socially piercing or politically active. Just because speaking out against the government in the U.S. doesn’t make you as much of a badass as you would be in other places does not mean you should refrain from political life.

Hilal has said, “”My message to those who hear me is love, compassion and peace.”” Rather than bedazzling that phrase on the backside of a tracksuit, Americans would do well to consider the lesson about freedom we can learn from a Muslim poet/activist/housewife in Saudi Arabia who is not even granted the liberty of showing her face.

— Anna Swenson is a sophomore majoring in English. She can be reached


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