Is Hissa Hilal’s Poetry Good (and by What Standards)?

Applause for Hissa Hilal was heard ’round the world after her most recent Million’s Poet performance. Her fatwa-criticizing poem, a rough translation of which originally appeared in The National, became instantly popular. Perhaps not as many blogged about Hilal as about Susan Boyle, but, yanni.

The praise was unadulterated—a Saudi woman! standing for peace and love!—until the Angry Arab News Service (née As’ad AbuKhalil) came along to adulterate it. He asserted that Hilal’s poetry “is not good, by the way, from a literary point of view.

Yes, the praise of Hilal has been a little brainless. After all, (we) Westerners do love to feel we’re subverting/screwing with the dominant Arab paradigm by supporting Arab women writers. So I’ve been rolling this around in my mind: How would I judge Hilal’s poetry?

The Angry Arab likes Said Aql and the old Adonis (from back “when Steve Martin and ‘Adil Imam were still funny”) and Mahmud Darwish and Tawfiq Zayyad. I like Mourid Barghouti’s definition, where he says, “The poet strives to escape from the dominant used language, to a language that speaks itself for the first time.” But nabati poetry—the sort invented and performed on Million’s Poet—is something different.

An official explanation of nabati poetry doesn’t clarify much, at least not for me. Chris Wright’s piece about nabati for The Boston Globe helps a little:

The Arab world has a classical, bookish poetry tradition that is renowned for its litany of migraine-inducing formalities. Nabati is to this tradition what break dancing is to the minuet. It’s meant to be loose-limbed and spontaneous, recited in everyday language, expressing common concerns. Its rules are negotiable; if it sounds good over a plate of al harees, you’re in.

So before I judge Hilal’s poetry, I need to find a vegetarian version of al harees. Got it.

More specifically, criteria for the “Million’s Poet” show include: use of novel language (similar to Barghouti’s definition), difficulty in rhyme (okay), and passion. I don’t know much about rap, but nabati seems more akin to how rap is judged than contemporary highbrow poetry. Yes, the language is important, but also the spontaneity, the passion.

The nabati poem by Muhammad al-Manhali, posted here (at the bottom), would be judged fairly trite by the standards Barghouti lays out. But perhaps it’s good nabati? Again, the rough translation of Hilal’s poem:

I have seen evil from the eyes of the subversive fatwas in a time when what is lawful is confused with what is not lawful;

When I unveil the truth, a monster appears from his hiding place; barbaric in thinking and action, angry and blind; wearing death as a dress and covering it with a belt [referring to suicide bombing];

He speaks from an official, powerful platform, terrorizing people and preying on everyone seeking peace; the voice of courage ran away and the truth is cornered and silent, when self-interest prevented one from speaking the truth.

As to the use of novel language and difficulty of rhyme—well, I can’t say. This is, after all, a rough translation, eschewing rhyme. I’ll have to trust the judges here. But the poem does seem to have opened up the nabati form in a new way, and its imagery feels more vivid than other nabati poetry I skimmed online.

Of course, many of us may have suspended judgment because Hilal seems so perfect: a Saudi woman! against suicide bombers! in favor of peace and love! And, too, it’s a little wonderful to feel that this is art exists outside our Western-ish ways of judging it. Judgment is so often embarrassing, and difficult.

The next episode of Million’s Poet has been postponed until April 7. Surely a large international audience (in addition to millions in the Arabic-speaking world) awaits Hilal’s next performance. And applaud it, regardless of whether the poem is “good.”

Also: Why didn’t Hissa Hilal win the finals? Was the title of “Million’s Poet” bought?


  1. .:.

    Hissa Hilal
    Saudi female poet
    whose verse inflames and inspires

    BBC News : Thursday, 25 March 2010

    I have seen chaos created
    by ad hoc subversive fatwas
    at a time when what is lawful
    is condemned as unlawful

    When I reveal these facts
    a savage beast emerges
    from his hidden den
    vicious in voice,
    barbaric, angry and blind
    wearing death as a robe
    cinched with a belt (of bombs).

    He preaches from a platform
    of official authority
    terrorizing everyone
    targetting those who would seek peace;

    the voice of courage had fled for cover
    Truth has been cornered and gagged,
    self-preservation prevents us
    from speaking out.

    by Hissa Hilal


  2. What Hissa Hilal said is untrue and purely defines her intention to add fuel to the flame against Islam. The devil in Hijab cannot denounce Islam and Islamic law. What she can be is the female version of Salman Rushdie and might become a western pet and might eventually win Knighthood!

  3. Can’t say’s I have the skills necessary to read poetry in any language other than English – though I’ll attempt an occasional Spanish or Portuguese poem. So I have to depend on the skills of translators. I’ve read beautiful poems of Sappho, say, or Du Fu, then I’ve read the same (?) poem rendered in painful doggerel, trite and ugly.

    For what it’s worth I like the version offered by Yunus. It’s better than a lot of political poems written in English, poems by well-regarded poets, I mean.

  4. Hi,
    I am a connoisseur of “nabati” poetry (or as I like to call it, modern Arabian poetry). I find Hissa Hilal’s poetry unlistenable.

  5. Regarding the issue of suicide bombings… It’s not rare the opinion that qualify these actions as non-permissible. Actually, the scholars of Saudi in their fatawa (religious rulings) always say that. So, the vast majority of Muslims think like that! So, don’t surprise if she deemed suicide as prohibited! It’s the correct ruling.

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