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Hissa Hilal, Saudi Woman, Blasts Muslim Clerics On Live TV

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — It was a startling voice of protest at a startling venue. Covered head-to-toe in black, a Saudi woman lashed out at hard-line Muslim clerics' harsh religious edicts in verse on live TV at a popular Arabic version of "American Idol."

Well, not quite "American Idol": Contestants compete not in singing but in traditional Arabic poetry. Over the past episodes, poets sitting on an elaborate stage before a live audience have recited odes to the beauty of Bedouin life and the glories of their rulers or mourning the gap between rich and poor.

Then last week, Hissa Hilal, only her eyes visible through her black veil, delivered a blistering poem against Muslim preachers "who sit in the position of power" but are "frightening" people with their fatwas, or religious edicts, and "preying like a wolf" on those seeking peace.

Her poem got loud cheers from the audience and won her a place in the competition's finals, to be aired on Wednesday.

It also brought her death threats, posted on several Islamic militant Web sites.

Hilal shrugs off the controversy.

"My poetry has always been provocative," she told The Associated Press in an interview. "It's a way to express myself and give voice to Arab women, silenced by those who have hijacked our culture and our religion."

Her poem was seen as a response to Sheik Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak, a prominent cleric in Saudi Arabia who recently issued a fatwa saying those who call for the mingling of men and women should be considered infidels, punishable by death.

But more broadly, it was seen as addressing any of many hard-line clerics in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region who hold a wide influence through television programs, university positions or Web sites.

"Killing a human being is so easy for them, it is always an option," she told the AP.

Poetry holds a prominent place in Arab culture, and some poets in the Middle East have a fan base akin to those of rock stars.

The program, The Million's Poet, is a chance for poets to show off their original work, airing live weekly on satellite television across the Arab world from Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. Contestants are graded on voice and style of recitation, but also on their subject matter, said Sultan al-Amimi, one of the three judges on the show and a manager of Abu Dhabi's Poetry Academy.

Hilal's 15-verse poem was in a form known as Nabati, native to nomadic tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. She criticized extremism that she told AP is "creeping into our society" through fatwas.

"I have seen evil in the eyes of fatwas, at a time when the permitted is being twisted into the forbidden," she said in the poem. She called such edicts "a monster that emerged from its hiding place" whenever "the veil is lifted from the face of truth."

She described hard-line clerics as "vicious in voice, barbaric, angry and blind, wearing death as a robe cinched with a belt," in an apparent reference to suicide bombers' explosives belts.

The three judges gave her the highest marks for her performance, praising her for addressing a controversial topic. That, plus voting from the 2,000 people in the audience and text messages from viewers, put her through to the final round.

"Hissa Hilal is a courageous poet," said al-Amimi. "She expressed her opinion against the kind of fatwas that affect people's lives and raised an alarm against these ad hoc fatwas coming from certain scholars who are inciting extremism."

Fatwas are not legally binding and it is up to individual Muslims to follow them. Clerics of all ideological stripes pronounced fatwas on nearly every aspect of people's lives, from how they should deal with members of other religions to what they can watch on television.

Hilal said she had heard about the death threats posted on Islamic extremist Web sites and was concerned, but "not enough to send me into hiding."

What's more on her mind is how sudden fame will change her quiet family life at home in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

"I worry how I will be perceived after the show is over, when judgment is passed and people begin to talk about my performance and ideas," said Hilal, a mother of four who has published poetry and previously was a poetry editor at the Arab daily Al-Hayat. "I worry the lights of fame will affect my simple and quiet existence."

The Million's Poet was launched in 2006 by the government's Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage to encourage poetry.

In this, the fourth season, 48 contestants from 12 Arab countries competed, including several women along with Hilal.

On Wednesday, Hilal will be joined by five other poets in the final round. The winner of the $1.3 million grand prize will be declared a week later on March 31.

Their topics are already known. One of Hilal's rivals will address terrorism. Another woman in the finals, Jaza al-Baqmi, will reflect on the role of women.

Hilal says her poem will tackle the media, but wouldn't elaborate so as not to spoil the surprise.

"My message to those who hear me is love, compassion and peace," Hilal said. "We all have to share a small planet and we need to learn how to live together."