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Cairo Dispatch

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In early February, as Egyptian markets were emptying shelves of Danish butter cookies and Lebanese and Syrian crowds were burning embassies, Arab satellite TV stations began playing a song called "We're Out of Patience." In Cairo, the song blasted out of stores, taxis, and gas stations, ordering the Danish illustrators and publishers of the Mohammed cartoons to go to hell, where "fire will be everywhere, burning your faces." Preceding the eternal damnation line was a friendly reminder in the form of a lyric: "Islam is a religion of love, not injustice and terrorism."

The singer of "We're Out of Patience" is a 51-year-old Egyptian named Shaaban Abdel Rahim. Shaaban's other hits--including "I Hate Israel," "Bin Laden," and "Hitting Iraq"--have catapulted him to stardom. As the Arab world's best-known "political singer," he appears regularly on chat shows and variety hours and has hosted TV specials. In 2001, McDonald's tried to capitalize on Shaaban's popularity, hiring him to sing a jingle promoting its new McFalafel. ("If you eat a bite,/you can't stop/before finishing the whole roll.") Although Egyptian radio, which adheres to a long-standing rule not to air political music, won't play "We're Out of Patience," wealthy fans can hear Shaaban sing live six nights a week at the Casino Laile, the closest Cairo gets to Vegas.

On an April morning at four o'clock, Shaaban walks onto the stage in a three- quarter-length red coat with gold buttons that barely conceals his round torso. His hair is in Jheri curls, and he wears two large gold medallions around his neck. Although he looks like he is one giant Swatch watch away from a Flavor Flav imitator, in the Arab world Shaaban is unique. Most of the tunes offered by satellite stations and websites are saccharine love songs. Popular Islam- influenced pop--such as that of Sami Yusuf, whose songs praise Mohammed and the ummah, or Islamic nation--does not venture into geopolitics. Shaaban's lyrics, however, are the musical form of "Law & Order" episodes--political controversies ripped from the headlines.

But Shaaban does not express views out of the mainstream--in fact, his songs are accurate indicators of Arab public opinion. For example, right after September 11, when there was sympathy for the United States in the Arab world, Shaaban sang in "Bin Laden":

I hate terrorism of all kinds.
I hate to see victims and blood.
No matter Sharon or Barak.
People want to live without destroying.

But, by early 2003, when opinion was turning against the United States on the eve of the Iraq war, Shaaban sang in another song called "Hey, Arab Leaders":

Two faces of the same coin, America and Israel.
They made the world a jungle and ignited the fuse.
America spread its wings, doesn't care at all.
No one can stop her, no one can catch her.
Soon he will say Iran, then he will say Syria,
but he is silent about Korea.
About the Towers, Oh, people, definitely:
His friends were the ones who brought it down.
What terrorism!
How many years are left for America and Israel
to act as bullies?

Despite being a political singer, Shaaban is no dreary bard. As dance music, his songs are irresistible. Twenty seconds into "Bin Laden," Shaaban starts chanting, low and throaty, "binbinbinbinbin," to establish the song's tempo. After every fifth "bin," a chorus of children sings, "bin Laden." Underneath the call and response, the rhythm is established by a line of doff drums, handheld snares equipped with small cymbals that give each beat a shimmer. And then, after the first chorus, a whirlwind of string lines and trumpets establish the counterpoint. It starts and stops, but it doesn't matter, because the listener is already bobbing his head to the "bin Ladens."

For a man who has seduced much of the Arab world with his politically resonant dance tracks, Shaaban is a surprisingly uncouth figure. Born into a working-class family, he is fond of telling interviewers that he used to iron shirts for a living in a laundry. (Shaaban's agent turned down my interview request unless I paid him more than $500. He hinted that the interview could also be obtained if I procured the services of one of Casino Laile's prostitutes.) And, although his songs reflect the opinions of a typical Arab newspaper reader, Shaaban boasts about his illiteracy. The reason for this discrepancy between the man and his music is that Shaaban is actually just a mouthpiece. Shaaban's lyrics are the genius of someone entirely different.

 

Prior to Shaaban, there were two kinds of political songs in Egypt, according to Kamal Mougheeth, a historian who has written extensively on Egyptian popular music. The first were sincere patriotic songs praising the leader, such as those by Abdel Halim Hafez, who, in the 1950s, wrote songs with choruses like: "Hugs to my beloved country"; "Oh, Gamal [Abdel Nasser], you are loved by millions"; and "Let's take a photo for this victorious nation." The second type, which appeared after the country's defeat in the 1967 war, was often sarcastic, underground music that was critical of the regime. Sheik Imam Eissa, a blind singer and composer who sang patriotic and popular songs before the Six Day War, recorded a blistering satire following the 1967 defeat called "Thank God," in which he sarcastically chided:

Welcome the defeated soldiers after war.
It's no matter we have been defeated in the Sinai,
this defeat will not deprive us of feeling free.

Emam's music was banned in Egypt, and he had to earn his living touring other Arab countries, but he became a cult figure among college students. He was arrested in 1969 and served a brief jail sentence until Nasser died and his successor, Anwar Sadat, released him.

Shaaban's music bridges the gap between these two traditions. On the one hand, he presents himself as a truth-teller for the common man in the Emam tradition. And, yet, the message of his songs is no different than what one would find in the columns of the state-funded newspapers. Darkly alleging that Israel was responsible for September 11 in Egypt is the equivalent of railing against the evils of smoking in the United States--it's not dangerous, it's banal. Shaaban almost never attacks Arab political leaders. In fact, last year, during the presidential elections, the opposition group, Kefiya, issued a press statement blasting Shaaban for a song called "What We Know Is Better Than What We Don't," which encouraged Egyptians to vote for President Mubarak. In short, Shaaban is the Egyptian Bob Roberts.

The man who figured out how to make Shaaban's songs both popular and politically acceptable is a 39-year-old songwriter named Islam Khalil. Khalil is the opposite of the flamboyant Shaaban, the Bernie Taupin to his Elton John. When I meet him at a local theater in Cairo, where he works on musical theater side projects, his hair is uncombed and he wears a knockoff American-style sweatshirt jacket. Where Shaaban is big and jiggly, Khalil is lean and fit. During the interview, we are interrupted eight times by well-wishing actors, who hug him and kiss him on both cheeks.

Khalil met Shaaban in 1992--shortly after the first Gulf war--at a wedding. Shaaban was singing Shabi, a rhythmic and repetitive folk music, and he'd had a modest hit with "Kheisha, You're a Liar," a song about a dishonest woman whose name is the same as the burlap sacks for carrying grain. Khalil was working for the state-funded regional theater. He had written most of the songs for the original 1992 production of "Bye, Bye Arabs," which he says was a criticism of Arab disunity in the wake of the first Gulf war. Shabaan approached Khalil with an idea for a project that wasn't exactly political. "He wanted me to write a song called, `Kheisha, You Are Truthful,'" Khalil says with a laugh.

Khalil says he originally wanted to write songs for Amr Diab, one of the biggest stars in Arabic pop music, rather than Shaaban. "He was not very famous, but he was the first famous singer who asked me to write for him, so I did," Khalil says. It took eight years for him to persuade Shaaban to go political. The catalyst was the shooting of Mohammed Al Dura, a twelve-year-old Palestinian boy who died in his father's arms during a shootout between the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian gunmen at the beginning of the second intifada in 2000. Khalil says the images of Dura's death inspired him to do something he says he almost never does: He wrote an entire song straight through. In the late evening, he called Shaaban and sang the song's first lines, "I hate Israel, and I will say so if asked. Even if I'll be killed or imprisoned." Shaaban, according to Khalil, liked it immediately and memorized it for weddings. "People were moved by it," Khalil said of the initial response. "It was Ramadan, and everyone knew about Mohammed Al Dura." By the end of the Muslim holy month, Khalil and Shaaban went to the studio and recorded the song, "I Hate Israel," with phony crowd noises.

"I Hate Israel" became an underground sensation and is reported to have sold more than one million copies on cassette. It created a new archetype for Egyptian political music. It was far blunter than any of the pro-Palestinian music that was coming out at the time. The successful 2000 song "Jerusalem Will Be Ours Again," by a Live Aid-style benefit of Egyptian actors and pop stars, treats Dura as follows: "This was a little Palestine child in his house. Is it his sin? This is his history and his ancestors and his land and sky." Compare that with Shaaban, who gets right to the point:

I hate Israel, and I hate Ehud Barak,
since he is repugnant,
and all of the people hate you.
All of the time, Egypt forgets,
and has a lot of patience.

"'I Hate Israel' is my favorite," Khalil says. "It is the reason for my success."

 

Since "I Hate Israel," Khalil has written more than 100 songs for Shaaban, most of them inspired by current events. When an assassin killed Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Khalil wrote a song grieving his death. When the United States and Great Britain were on the eve of war with Iraq, Khalil wrote "Hitting Iraq." Sometimes, his songs feel more like public service announcements than political statements. As Egyptian restaurants removed chicken from their menus in response to fears of bird flu, Khalil wrote a song about the bird flu pandemic in which he urges farmers to "keep your sickly hens at home."

Khalil says he writes his political songs because Arabs "should wake up and open their eyes for the dangers coming to them." But, most fundamentally, Khalil's lyrics are animated by a sense that the Arab nation is under constant threat and is being humiliated. This pan-Arabism, once articulated by Nasser, may seem at odds with the rise of Islamism in the region today. But the view that Danish illustrators and American imperialists have humiliated the Islamic nation plays on these same fears. And, just as the supporters of Nasser felt he was speaking both to them and for them, so do the fans of Shaaban. Hany Hassan, a 27-year-old office assistant, says, "I like Shaaban, because he is honest, courageous, and spontaneous. In every single situation, I feel as if he is speaking on my behalf." A 43-year-old taxi driver says, "We are standing behind you, Shaaban, against all who insult our Prophet Mohammed."

Khalil bristles at the suggestion that lyrics like "I hate Israel" or "fire will be everywhere, burning your faces" are incitements to violence. And, while he concedes that "We're Out of Patience" contributed to the Arab world's boycott of Danish products, he refuses to believe that the sentiments of his music could have had anything to do with, say, torching a few embassies. "These songs calm people," he says. "They help people get their anger out instead of burning things." Khalil is focused on the future, anyway. His next project is a musical that will sum up his political philosophy. Its working title? "Life Is A Farce."

Eli Lake is a Cairo-based writer for The New York Sun.

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