Since February 2014, over 100 million viewers across the world have turned on their televisions to watch a certain talent show. But it’s not rock stars or would-be models they’re watching: it’s poets. Abu Dhabi-based Million’s Poet is a unique talent show that is revolutionising a traditional art form for the modern era, revitalising Nabati poetry for a young Arab generation and reconnecting them with a heritage that stretches back more than five centuries.
In the West, the television talent show has become synonymous with a sort of cultural stagnation. This is particularly true of singing contests. Whereas at least the …’s Got Talent allows for local colour and the occasional revival of traditional forms of entertainment (if only, occasionally, to simply mock them,) acts within singing shows, such as the worldwide Idol and X Factor formats are increasingly stuck in the same hackneyed series of sub-par big band numbers and pop divas’ hits from the early 1990s. Compared to this, the United Arab Emirates’ Million’s Poet has revolutionised and revived a traditional art, creating a spectacle that brings traditional poetic forms to a primetime audience.
Over 100 Million Poetry Fans
What is truly remarkable about the programme, however, is its success. It has reached its sixth series now, and attracts audiences not just in the UAE but all over the world. Their third series had worldwide viewing figures of over 110 million, and the series has gone from strength to strength in the two years since then. As these figures suggest, what seems a fairly unglamorous and niche activity — oral poetry recitation — is actually big business.
And Over $1 Million Prize Money
This is most clear when you consider the prize money for the show. For this year’s competition, which ended in May, the prize money was five million UAE Dirhams, or approximately $1.3 million dollars. Prizes are also given up to fifth place, who receives 1 million Dirhams. To put that into context, $1.3 million is $200,000 more than the Nobel Prize for Literature, and $300,000 more than the winner of American Idol won in 2014. This is even more amazing when you consider that Million’s Poet is a competition for amateurs, compared to the greats of world literature who have received the Nobel.
That is not to say, however, that the poets of Million’s Poet are in any way amateurish. The selection process in rigorous. Not only do they have to perform their unique compositions to the audition judging panel of respected academics and poets, but are tested on their metre, rhyme and diction on a far more academic level than can be found in the wannabe Whitney vocal gymnastics of the average contestant on, say, The Voice. This is also reflected in the judging itself during the live shows, which is on a similar level to the auditions and far removed from the pithy putdowns and staged petty squabbling of the average talent show.
Despite the differences in levels of superficiality, Million’s Poet actually has a lot in common with the format of these programmes, which is arguably what makes the whole experience so strangely compelling. On the one hand, the process is about the celebration of tradition. Contestants wear traditional costume, and poems are in the Nabati form, a form that originated in the 16th century.
Poetry has always had an essential role to play in Arab literature, and the tradition is thriving in unexpected ways. Shahidha Bari travels to Abu Dhabi to join the audience of ‘Million’s Poet’, a massive televised competition to find the best poet in the Middle East.
Every year this huge contest takes place under the spotlight of the television cameras in Abu Dhabi. Million’s Poet is broadcast live across the Middle East and has a huge following, with judges and viewers both having the chance to vote for their favourite poet. There’s plenty at stake, as the top prize is an eye-watering five million United Arab Emirate dirhams, a figure getting close to one million pounds.
So how did this TV contest get started, and why do people tune in to hear poets reading their work? It’s not the sort of show that would be likely to take off in the west. Shahidha Bari talks to judges, competitors, and the audience to find out the secret of Million Poet’s success.
Poetry, she finds, has a particular role in the Middle East as a valued art form in a changing world. an outlet for expression for anyone from the ruler to the doorman, all of whom are free to enter Million’s Poet.
Continue reading at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ymxz9
It is the Middle East’s answer to Pop Idol. Now in its third season, the weekly, live, three-hour programme makes celebrities out of its contestants and reaches an audience of some 17 million across the Arab world. The show features text message voting and a glitzy presentation, and people queue up outside the 2,000 seat Al Raha Beach Theatre in Abu Dhabi to be part of the audience.
The show may have all the hallmarks of a shiny, western talent show but it is very much of the Middle East. Entitled Millions’ Poets, contestants recite their own poetry, composed in a traditional Bedouin style called Nabati which dates back to the fourth century. The live audience in the theatre is segregated, with men and women seated in different sections, yet women poets compete alongside men on stage.
“When we designed this show we had in mind the grandness of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and the suspense of Pop Idol, ” says Nashwa Al Ruwaini, Millions’ Poets producer and head of the show’s production company, Pyramedia. “The idea was to create a new format that would appeal to this part of the world without offending this part of the world.”
Poetry is a reality TV hit in the Middle East
It has been called the ‘American Idol of the Middle East’ but in this showdown contestants recite poetry.
And while that may not sound like a winning formula for reality TV, it has actually proved an unlikely hit across the Arab world.
Imagine an American TV network deciding to take the American Idol format and apply it to poetry; lining up poets to read their poems in front of temperamental judges while the nation gets out its mobile phones to vote for its favorite poet. One can be sure the show would not survive the first commercial break before the chastened executives pull the plug on it and replace it with yet another series on the Life and Times of Nicole Ritchie. Yet, that was exactly the formula for the latest TV sensation to take Arab countries by storm.
Perhaps the only thing that is as hard as translating Arab poetry to other languages is trying to explain to non-Arabs the extent of poetry’s popularity, importance and Arabs’ strong attachment to it. Whereas poetry in America has been largely reduced to a ceremonial eccentricity that survives thanks to grants and subsidies from fanatics who care about it too much, in the Arab world it remains amongst the most popular forms of both literature and entertainment. Whereas America’s top poets may struggle to fill a small Barnes & Noble store for a reading, Palestine’s Mahmoud Darwish has filled football stadiums with thousands of fans eager to hear his unique recital of his powerful poems. And while in America a good poetry collection can expect to sell some 2,000 copies, in the Arab world the poems of pre-Islamic era poets are still widely read today in their original words, as are those from the different Islamic eras leading to the present. The late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani had a cult following across the Arab world, and his romantic poems have for decades constituted standard covert currency between lovers.
The Arab World has had its own enormously successful pop music answer to American Idol in Superstar which has concluded its fourth season with resounding success, unearthing some real stars of today’s thriving Arabic cheesy pop scene. But a few months ago, the governors of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi took a bold move by organizing a similar contest for poets. This comes as another step in Abu Dhabi’s ambitious attempts to use its petro-dollars to transform itself into the capital of Arab culture, and one of the world’s leading cultural centers; a Florence to Dubai’s London.
The show, named Prince of Poets, was an enormous success. Some 4,000 poets from across the Arab world sent in submissions to be considered. 35 were chosen for the show, and millions of viewers from across the Arab world tuned in to watch them recite their poetry, get criticized by Arab poetry’s answer to Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson (5 older poets and professors), improvise verses on the spot, and address wide-ranging issues from women’s rights, Iraq, love, democratization, Palestine and the old staple of Arab poetry: self-aggrandization. The winner would not only gain fame, but also a grand prize of 1,000,000 UAE Dirhams ($270,000).
The success of the show was wilder than anyone could’ve expected. The Arab press has had reports about how it has achieved the highest ratings in its spot, overtaking football matches and reality-TV; and millions have paid for text messages to vote for their favorite poet.
Why does Nigeria need a Reality TV Poetry Competition of her own? Let’s talk about it….!!!!