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Middle East, The

A star is born …

A star is born …

Andrew Hammond

A row has erupted in Egypt over who penned the anti-Israel lyric that has made a superstar of a previously little-known working class singer. Andrew Hammond reports from Cairo.

Shaaban Abdel Rahim became the toast of the nation when his song I hate Israel and I love Amr Moussa — a reference to Egypt’s then pro-Palestinian foreign minister — came out some time after the Palestinian Intifada erupted last September. It was even rumoured in political circles that Moussa’s move from the office of foreign minister to head of the Arab League, made on the instructions of President Hosni Mubarak in May, had something to do with the popularity which the song suggested Moussa enjoyed with the ordinary man on the street.

Now Awad Badawi — a poet and lyricist for several major Arab stars, including Warda — claims he came up with the popular hate lyric. Badawi says that in late October he was playing around with a phrase in colloquial Arabic that goes something like “I hate Israel and I love Ezrael (Angel of Death). If he took the Jews he’d be a really cool guy.” That evening Abdel Rahim was present at a Cairo music soiree where the lyric was bandied around by Badawi’s composer friends. The next thing he knew his lyric had become something akin to the national anthem.

According to Badawi: “Abdel Rahim is a working-class, illiterate singer, so how could he write about politics and Israel? It was my idea, he would never have thought about a subject like that.” Even the official arts censor, who has the power to censor lyrics deemed politically or religiously offensive and is not shy to use it, has joined the fray, claiming some credit for the golden lyric. “Originally it was ‘I don’t like Israel’ but I made a recommendation that they choose another word equal to the state of people’s feelings (because of the Intifada),” Madkour Thabet said.

The interesting thing is that Abdel Rahim’s claim that he hates Israel has not endeared him to the country’s intellectual elite. Abdel Rahim’s sudden stardom — achieved after 20 years of crooning in the slums — has rattled Egypt’s cultural elite, who see themselves as the true guardians of Egypt’s resolve not to normalise relations with Israel.

The literary weekly Akhbar Al Adab noted, after it received howls of protest over its comparison of Abdel Rahim to Sheikh Imam, the blind singer whose subversive music of the 1970s gave sustenance to a whole generation of anti-government student activists: “There is another culture that we don’t know anything about, and that is the culture of the lower classes, which encompasses millions of Egyptians. It is a culture marginalised by resentment and arrogance from the cultural elite.”

For a while after the Intifada broke out in September, it was open season in Cairo for venting all the things you might think about Israel but had been afraid to say for fear of annoying the government, which has maintained peace with its neighbour since 1979 despite popular antipathy for the Jewish state. ‘Hate’ for Israel came out of the closet. But it was an illiterate singer from a dirt-poor village on the edge of Cairo that first pushed back the boundaries and made the most of the moment. For your dyed-in-the-wool pan-Arab anti-Israel intellectual, that was a little hard to handle.

Abdel Rahim symbolises everything the government and its massive state media does not want Egypt to be. In one of his two television interviews he said he made his shirts out of the same material covering the family sofa. Many Egyptians might do the same, but are expected to be ashamed to say so, not least if they take themselves seriously as singers. While that honesty endears him to the masses, who first heard his songs on the pirated tapes which are played throughout the sprawling poor districts of the Egyptian capital, the authorities were distinctly unimpressed.

There have been working class singers before, but at least they paid lip service to the official version of what high culture is: people like Ahmed Adawiya in the 1970s and Hakim in the 1980s eventually found their way onto state television and openly aspired to emulate the greats such as Abdel Halim Hafez, who died in 1977, or today’s Hafez clone, Hany Shaaker.

As TV presenter Amr Al Leithy said in disgust: “Abdel Rahim is illiterate and has no culture, of course we can’t show him on television. It’s not real art. Why don’t people listen to Hany Shaaker?”

All of which suggests that, sometimes when Egypt looks at itself, it doesn’t like what it sees.

COPYRIGHT 2001 IC Publications Ltd.

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