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Pop crooner hits sour note with Egyptian elite

By Nicole VeashSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 18, 2002


You know, I can't sing. And look at my face - it's ugly, really ugly. But for some reason, people keep throwing their money at me.... Who am I to say no?"

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Shaaban Abdel Rahim has a point. In little more than two years, he has become Egypt's biggest and most unlikely pop star.

The overweight singer, who favors a wet-perm look and sequined suits, has sold millions of records and is so popular that TV hosts are queuing up to get him on their chat sofa. Mr. Shaaban has also released hit record after hit record, building up such a following that some of Egypt's leading political figures now feel compelled to act against the singer's swelling support.

A recent parliamentary debate saw the bemusing spectacle of the nation's elected leaders spending precious time discussing Shaaban's ruinous influence on Egyptian society. Abdel Salem Abdel Ghaffar, head of the parliamentary media committee said: "Shaaban does not represent any artistic or cultural value. In addition, his weird attire, which is far from good taste, affects our youth, who are influenced by what they see on television."

The singer's sensational rise to fame is an unusual Egyptian story. In a class-ridden country, the poor rarely get the opportunity to escape humble origins, especially if they don't have good looks or striking talent.

Shaaban started singing while working as an ironer, a traditional profession for Cairo's working-class men.

A few of his neighbors liked his hearty renditions of popular songs and asked him to appear at their weddings. Over the years, Shaaban juggled his day job with an ever-expanding circuit of working-class venues. He even began to sell cheaply made cassettes of his songs to taxi and minibus drivers.

By chance, one of Egypt's top TV presenters heard his music and thought it would be fun to have someone "local" on her show.

After his first television appearance, success followed quickly. Shaaban seemed to capture something in the hearts and minds of Egypt's predominantly impoverished society: He was one of them and, unusually, had a public platform to sing about their lives.

"Success was a surprise to me," explains the father of five. "I never expected to eat meat every day, but Allah has blessed me.

"My songs are simple and that's why people love me. They understand the words, because this is how we talk on the streets. You don't need to be educated to enjoy one of my songs."

Shaaban's growing popularity soared when, shortly after his initial TV appearance in 2000, he released a so-called patriotic song entitled "I hate Israel." The catchy subtitle "But I love Amr Moussa" (Egypt's former Foreign Minister and now head of the Arab League) catapulted Shaaban's ditty into the consciousness of the entire Arab world.

The song became so popular that a widely reported story in the Arab press said Palestinian teenagers would play cassettes of the track near to Israeli army checkpoints then run away, leaving the annoyed soldiers listening to Shaaban drone.

But it's the Egypt cultural elite who seem most put out. Leading actress, Madiha Youssri, says: "Men of letters and culture who have given a lot to our country appear only occasionally on television, whilst this Shaaban is there all the time. The man should be banned from the airwaves."