Low blue lights illuminate only the center of the stage, onto which characters step up, one after the other, wearing dresses so beautiful that they seem to be costumes fit for a theatrical performance. They sit on a throne, and recite poetic texts in Arabic, loudly, with a passion and an emotion that professional actors would envy. The atmosphere there seems to bring the audience into a tent, lost in the desert, and perhaps even a few hundred years back in time. To remind us that we are in 2017 and live from the stage of the Al-Raha Beach Theater in Abu Dhabi are the latest smartphones in the hands of the audience, ready to televote.
The poets come from all over the Arab world, and they are all young – 40 years old at most – and with their rhymes they are able to enchant the audience in the theater and at home. The talent show, a kind of Arabic poetry X Factor, received very high ratings and is watched not only in all Arab countries but also by the many Arab communities in Europe and America.
This is Prince of Poets, in Arabic Amīr al-shu‘ara’, the talent show that has been broadcast on the Abu Dhabi TV channel since 2007, initially annually, and now every two years. The program is funded by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), a government agency that promotes cultural activities in the Arab Emirates’ capital. Among the twenty selected competitors, the top five receive money awards, which vary according to the position reached. The winner also receives a ring, a golden cape and a parchment which symbolize the prestige of the position reached, that of prince of poets.
Before walking on stage, the young poets are presented to the audience through videos that portray them in their daily lives: they are dressed in ordinary outfits, t-shirts and jeans, and are sometimes even talking in their national dialects instead of classical Arabic. But when a few moments later they appear on stage, men are often wearing white tunics and headdresses (the traditional emirate dresses, dishdasha and ghutra), while women – more and more numerous in the latest editions – don elegant Sultan dresses. Each one recites his own verses in classical Arabic, immerging him or her self in the scenario of a television studio where calligraphic art adorns an environment that is elegant, classic and modern design at the same time.
The poems recited can run for tens of minutes without the poet losing the attention of the audience for even a moment. Through the eyes of a Western viewer it is hard to think that this very slow format can in any way run on European or American television channels. During the declamations, silence is interrupted, in between verse and the next, only by applause of the audience which shows how poetry can still be exciting today even in a television studio.
The competition also includes compositional challenges: the competitors have only a few seconds to improvise verses, in a more erudite version of our freestyle rappers challenges.
There is no limit to the poems’ contents, except for that of shame and decency. Political issues are often discussed in the texts. An emblematic case was that of the Egyptian Hisham al-Jakh, who in 2011 missed an episode to take part in the protests in Tahrir Square. At his return he was welcomed by an audience waving Egyptian flags, singing the national anthem as he recited his poem: “A look from up high on Tahrir Square”.