Or, Synchronicity Part 2; Why I looked for the UAE on a map
One day my friend Tucker Robbins called me, sounding like a kid who had just discovered fireflies and said, “Sara, you’ll never guess who I met on the train home to New York from Washington, DC!”. He explained that he had met an extremely charming young Arab man named Hussain Al Amry, who is the host of a program called ‘Million’s Poet’, a popular TV show in the Arabian World.
Blank response from me on the other end of the phone line. “It’s sort of like American Idol for poetry!” Tucker prompted.Poetry? I thought to myself while trying to respond enthusiastically.How popular could it possibly be?
Apparently QUITE POPULAR.110 million people tuned into the final episode of the last season.Let me repeat that: 110 million people.To put this in perspective, American Idol’s last episode was watched by “only” 50 million people. Tucker had met a Middle Eastern Celebrity.
Fast forward a few days. Tucker calls again, this time to tell me that he is bringing this beguiling human being Hussain to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where I live and he has a family farm that he visits regularly. Culturally, it’s the antonym of New York. He tells me he is arriving in a few hours and that I must immediately find interesting people to bring to a dinner party.
Most people plan ahead far better than Dave and me (and Tucker), and we showed up with only one other guest. No matter, Tucker is infinitely more persuasive and had rounded up a few lucky souls and we proceeded to be captivated by Tucker’s hospitality and Hussain’s engaging personality. By the end of the evening, Hussain had all of us referring to each other (in the Arab tradition) as ‘Brother Tucker’ and ‘Sister Sara’; ‘Mother Dede’, ‘Brother Hussain’, and ‘Brother Dave’. I couldn’t help but think that if everyone did this all the time, we might be, well, nicer to each other. Or maybe not.
With legendary Arab generosity, he invited all of us to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to visit.I really don’t think he realized what he was getting himself into. Within a month, Tucker and then Dave and I would take him up on that offer. (While there, it was very difficult to discern who were actually blood relations.)
“Million’s Poet” was launched by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH—remember this acronym for the test later). For the past four seasons, 48 poets from all over the Middle East have competed by reciting their own poetry—battling it out—for a prize of 5 million dirham (more than a million dollars), and the title of Million’s Poet, or “Poet of Millions”. There are judges, but anyone can vote using the SMS service on their phones. The Arabs take their poetry slams very seriously.
When I later googled my dinner companion, I found almost nothing. When I googled “Million’s Poet“, I found a few pages of articles, but they mostly chronicled a very brave and controversial female Saudi contestant. But almost no photos. It was astounding to me that a cultural phenomenon so enormous could go generally un-noticed in America in this day and age. (Part of the problem is that most PR for the show is written in Arabic. The rest of the problem is that we are so America-centric. I’m convinced it’s a disease.)
Once upon a time, there was a proud oral tradition in the Arab world. It included the arts of story-telling and poetry—very entertaining if sitting around a fire in the desert. (Imagine that! We actively entertained each other, instead of expecting an outside source to entertain us.) I assumed that those traditions had been passed on and that poetry writing and reciting had always been a respected and popular pastime in Arabia.Wrong again!
Before Millions’ Poet, the art had apparently been dying a slow death.Many Bedouins now have satellite televisions in their tents. Many tribal people have moved to the big cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. All in all, the youth of the UAE (and perhaps all of the middle east) showed very little interest in poetry in 2005.
Enter H.E. Mohammed Khalaf Al Mazrouei, Hussain’s boss (one of the most dashing men I’ve ever met–we will get to know him when visiting the UAE, and he will appear regularly in the next few posts), the Director General of ADACH.He confirms this observation. “Poetry was not popular when we planned this show. Everyone thought we were crazy.” (I don’t know about you, but I love stories when, after an organization achieves a random incredible accomplishment, the leader says “everyone thought we were crazy”.)
Mohammed Khalaf’s job is to preserve, protect, and continue to develop the culture and heritage of the people of Abu Dhabi.His accomplishments in this capacity are legion, but one of the most impressive is his championing of Million’s Poet. He personally chose our friend (brother) Hussain to be the MC, or “presenter” when the show was launched in 2006. Hussain has hosted every episode since then.He has a female side-kick, but she is replaced every season.
Hussain got his start in show business when he appeared on a Survivor-type reality TV show in Egypt, where several dozen contestants lived together. “They had cameras in every room of the house except the toilet room,” he reported. Hussain’s unflagging good nature and mischievous charm won him a finalist spot, and later garnered him his current hosting role. I haven’t seen either show, but I can personally attest to Hussain’s hosting talents. He was unfailingly gracious to us when we showed up on his doorstep, and I have never experienced hospitality as generous as the Abu Dhabi version–but more on that later.
So to sum up (so far), Tucker’s and my synchronous meeting meant that we became friends; Tucker’s synchronous meeting with Hussain meant that Dave and I were then introduced and invited on a wonderful adventure.
Doesn’t this make you want to strike up conversations with fellow train or plane passengers?
(Random aside: I sometimes wonder what would happen if humans behaved more like dogs when they see each other…”OH MY GOSH OH MY GOSH I can’t BELIEVE it, another HUMAN!!!! How ARE you? What are you doing? Do you wanna PLAY? Oh, how AWESOME to see another PERSON!!!…)
Oh, and if you’ve read this blog and haven’t gotten a tile/stone/mosaic fix, check out New Ravenna’s Silk Road collection here–much of it was inspired by far away lands such as the UAE.
Update: I’m finally posting (2/15) from California, and during the flight out I met a friendly woman named Gigi who is a paraglider in her spare time. You know, folks who launch themselves off cliffs while using a parachute for lift, and then float around in the updrafts? It’s the closest thing to flying short of a squirrel suit and I’ve always wanted to try it. Guess what Dave and I did yesterday at the Torrey Pines Gliderport? Thanks Gigi, it was a pleasure meeting you! Who knows what chains of events our chance meeting might spawn?
To be continued…
Exmore, Virginia, United States
New Ravenna Mosaics founder and Creative Director, Owner, Sara Baldwin Design, Bass guitar player, Envisioner, Appreciator of the Sublime and Ridiculous.