Hissa Hilal Edits Controversial New Poetry Collection, Still Called ‘Saudi Housewife’

This is a two-part post.

Part one:

The award-winning poet Hissa Hilal, who ended up third in the most recent season of Million’s Poet, has recently edited a controversial collection of pre-1950s poems written by Bedouin women living in the Gulf. The book is titled Divorce and Kholu’ Poetry: A Reading of the Status of Women in Tribal Society, Nabati Poetry as a Witness.

According to The National, Hilal said she chose the poems because they were “strong female Bedouin voices, poems showing that women then had more say in domestic matters than they do now. It was easier for them to divorce and remarry. Their voices were heard.”

Apparently there is some debate about this. Hence, the controversy. Good.

The Middle East Online further notes that Hilal gives life to these women, whose voices have not elsewhere been heard:

The author has sought to identify each poet and her story with a short paragraph prefixing their poetry citation. The book also includes an explanation of unusual vocabulary, and details of the nomadic environment.

There’s no mention of these poems’ literary quality, but in any case they sound interesting culturally, historically, and from a feminist view. All good.

Part two:

Dear The National,

I appreciate your reporting on contemporary literature; I believe it has helped create a greater liveliness on the Arabic-lit scene. So, thanks.

However, if you should ever write about me—if I win the lottery, or am struck by lightning, or end up in one of Hosni’s hoosegows—please do not refer to me as “an American housewife” or as an “American-Egyptian housewife” or even just as a “housewife.” (It’s true, I have children! It’s true, I live in a home! Or, well, apartment.)

If I were to come in third in a major poetry competition, publish two of my own poetry collections and then edit another (controversial) collection, I probably would like to be called a “poet” or a “poet and writer” or a “poet and activist.” Or even, if you like, “a feminist poet.”

Perhaps Hissa Hilal prefers to be called “a Saudi housewife”; that’s great. Perhaps she’s re-claiming the term, elevating housewife status so that the rest of us can be proud of it. That’s truly fantastic.

Still, though. For accuracy’s sake, you might want to call her “a Saudi housewife…and editor and poet.”