I caught an astonishing story on the BBC News website this morning: it’s about Abu Dhabi reality TV show Million’s Poet. That’s right: a reality poetry show, featuring performers competing with live recitals of original poetry in classic arabic forms for a top prize of a million dirhams.
The video on that website begins by looking like any reality TV show: it’s got the lights, the triumphant scoring, the screaming crowds. Then you see that there’s a woman in a full black body veil, and the judges are all wearing keffiyeh. And then you find out it’s about poetry.
Have a look at the google news results for Million’s Poet and you’ll discover that this show is serving as a really complex lens through which to view a whole range of essential contemporary issues: reality culture, the decline of literature, Western perception of the Middle East, the meanings of the veil, the ludicrous wealth and glitz of UAE, the globalisation (or perhaps glocalisation) of popular culture, cross-cultural understandings . . .
What do we think when we see a woman in full body veil? If it indicates oppression then in this case it’s internalised oppression, because the hostesses on this show are wearing revealing brightly-coloured dresses with plenty of jangle. And then things get complicated by the fact that this contestant, a woman in the grand final of the show, which got 17 million viewers across the Arab world, is reciting passionate political poetry against religious fundamentalism, and has persevered with the performance despite receiving death threats.
In fact, politics dominated the whole final. The winner recited a (slightly saccharine) poem about charity and social engagement; another poet was writing about divorce. One could conclude that the viewers of this show are demonstrating an enviable level of social and literary engagement that puts the Western world to shame. But then, what do we, or I, really know about this show? How does it fit into the wider landscape of Arabic popular culture and entertainment? Are the shows as fixed and the narratives as scripted as in America’s Next Top Model or Big Brother? What’s the quality of the poetry? — is it as dumbed down and sugary as the pop music on the X Factor?
And what about these audiences. Are they so different from our own? If we were to televise a properly glitzy reality show about poetry, would we be able to get such high viewing figures? I wouldn’t be surprised. Relegate the BBC Poetry Slam to a shortened late night slot on Radio 4 and of course it won’t get many listeners, of course they might think twice about giving it another go. But I’ve long thought that broadcast media (and the liberal middle classes) patronise mass audiences. If performance poets are as energetic, exciting and engaged as we claim to be when performing for our own crowds in pubs and, if we’re lucky, theatres, then a mass-marketed program of performance poetry should be a roaring success. If we really are voices of the people, or if our events really do give people voices, then we should be putting that to the test outside our own cultural ghetto. That’s what Million’s Poet has made me think about. I’m a bit daunted by it, a bit afraid by it, and not a little inspired by it.