Arab audiences tune into new reality show

BAGHDAD — It drew a television audience of millions and a lively cheering audience of several thousand. No, this wasn’t the final of “American Idol” or its local equivalent. It was the crowning of the Arab world’s poetic champion.

Run by Abu Dhabi Television and produced and supervised by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, the popularity of the “Prince of Poets” television contest took even organizers by surprise.

Around 4,000 poets from across the Arab world sent in their poems, of whom 35 were chosen for the show, run along the lines of “American Idol.”

Contestants stood week after week before live studio audiences, while five established poets acted as critics.

Viewers at home, meanwhile, used their mobile phones to vote for their favorites.

Contestants read their own works and then were made to improvise on the spot on subjects ranging from love, women’s rights, Iraq and Palestine.

Newspapers reported that the show was so popular that its ratings overtook those of football and reality television, while millions sent in text messages to vote for the bard whose words moved them the most.

The show is unlikely to be successful in anything but a Middle Eastern setting. Still one of the most popular forms of literature and entertainment, classical Arabic poetry, which dates back to pre-Islamic times, is considered the ultimate art form by Arabs.

The winner was named at a ceremony at Al Raha Beach on Sept. 7. Emirati poet Karim Maato gained fame and a prize of 1 million dirhams ($270,000).

Mohammed Wald Al-Talib from Mauritania took second spot, Saudi national Jassim Al-Sahih was third, while Sudanese poet Rawdha Al Haj, the only woman to reach the finals, took fourth.

Fifth place went to Palestinian poet Tamim Al-Bargouthi, who ended up with a take-home packet of $27,000, having gained immense popularity in Gaza, the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Palestinian newspapers dubbed him the Poet of Al-Aqsa, and his posters hung on the streets of Palestinian cities. He was hailed by both the Fatah and Hamas Palestinian factions — one of their few points of convergence in their ongoing bitter and bloody rivalry.

Sections of Bargouthi’s poem have even reportedly become popular ringtones on mobile phones across the Arab world. Many felt he was the real poetic champion of the evening.

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