01/06/2012 04:05 pm ET Updated Mar 07, 2012

Arab Tensions Play Out in Verse on This Season's Million's Poet

The fifth season of the American-Idol style poetry competition Million's Poet premiered this past Tuesday in the Middle East, and it seems that the Arab world's most-watched TV show is only getting more popular: in the run-up to this season, it attracted more than 20,000 applicants from more than 20 countries.

Over the next few months, 48 pre-selected finalists will battle it out on a weekly basis on the UAE TV station AD Emarat TV, with the winner receiving a prize of five million dirhams (more than a million dollars). As with American Idol, contestants are scored for their performance by a panel of three judges (one each from the UAE, Kuwait and Jordan), though, in a new twist this season, a psychologist will also analyze each contestant's personality.

I've written about Million's Poet before. It is evidence, not just of the popularity of poetry in the Middle East, but of its power -- particularly as a mouthpiece for progressive thinking in the region. The show is born from the region's tradition of Nabati poetry, a tribal poetry that often focuses on social concerns; and competing poets are thus allowed a sort of immunity to voice social/political opinions. Sultan Al Omemi, one of this year's judges, explained, "This here, this stage, is where a poet has a chance to send the message of his community to the world."

Last season, a Kuwaiti poet won the competition, but the third place finisher garnered the most attention. Hissa Hilal, a 43-year-old mother of four from Saudi Arabia, boldly took the stage week after week to promote women's rights and denounce political corruption and fatwas.

Despite Hilal's success, there are just two women competing in this season's competition. The controversy, however, has already begun. In Tuesday's season premiere, two Saudi poets stood out for their condemnation of cultural and religious extremism. One of them, Saqqar Al Ouni, memorably denounced terrorism, stating, "And no, there are no keys to heaven dangling over the homes of whom you terrorized." Hajes Al Haroubi, a poet from protest-stricken Yemen, brandished a golden khanjar on his belt and demanded the world's attention. "I am lucky to be a poet," he said, "for I get to create words that are made of gold and silver." The crowd gave him high marks, but the show's psychologist deemed him "arrogant."

It will be interesting to see how this season's contestants choose to handle the region's volatile political situations, and, perhaps more importantly, to see how the region reacts to them.

You can watch highlights from the first episode here.