Poetic Bay'a: Allegiance Performance and Patronage Dynamics in the Televised Poetry Competition Sha'ir al-Milyun

By Katrien Vanpee
Submitted to Session P4991 (Poetics of the Political, 2017 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
This paper examines the performance of political poetry on the stage of the popular televised nabati poetry competition Sha‘ir al-Milyun (“Millions Poet”). Current scholarly understandings of this program as primarily an experiment in the wedding of local tradition to modern technology fail to explain not just the continued appeal of the program to poets from the Arabian Peninsula and beyond, but particularly the significant amount of regime-affirming, patriotic verse termed “wataniyya” that is performed on stage. What accounts for the prominent place of this poetry on a talent show?
As a backdrop to my analysis, I discuss the emergence of wataniyya poetry, which unlike the praise, boast, love poetry and invective of the nabati tradition, is intertwined with the rise of the nation-states in the Gulf. I offer a framework for understanding the functionality of wataniyya poetry by situating it amidst various practices – literary and otherwise – of bay‘a, or allegiance performance. This framework highlights the privileged role wataniyya poetry plays, compared to other thematic categories of nabati poetry, in the negotiation of the relationship between rulers and ruled in the Gulf states. The application of the bay‘a model to the context of Sha‘ir al-Milyun enables us to direct our attention to the patronage dynamics that inform the program’s identity.
Based on my analysis of wataniyya verse recited during different seasons of Sha‘ir al-Milyun in addition to judges’ comments and the presence and interventions of the program’s princely patron and his representatives, I argue that the appeal of Sha‘ir al-Milyun is to a large extent rooted in its providing a platform for the public performance of loyalty and allegiance. Rather than just being a successful experiment in wedding tradition and modern technology, I suggest that Sha‘ir al-Milyun is better understood as a political technology, one which continues to produce rulers and ruled alike.