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Pop crooner hits sour note with Egyptian elite

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Newspaper columnists in the Egyptian dailies have been lining up to join in the condemnation, with one darkly demanding that the powerful minister of information put an "end to the farce."

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But Shaaban himself is stoic in the face of mounting criticism. "I'm really happy that our politicians feel it's so important to talk about a simple man like me," he said gazing at the two chunky gold watches that he has taken to wearing on each wrist. "These people say that I'm a rough man. But who cares. Every time they talk about me I sell more records."

Although he doesn't have a government "license," which officially allows artists to have their songs broadcast on state radio or television, Shaaban's fan base keeps getting larger. A combination of word-of-mouth; guest spots on chat shows, and more recently a locally made film and stage play have helped cement his success. He has even had a variety of potato chips named after him; and his chubby face is a regular on cheaply made T-shirts.

"The presenters like to make fun of me when I appear on TV because I'm an ironer, but that's OK with me," Shaaban insists. "Who am I to complain when the same people hire me for their weddings because I'm fashionable, then pay me thousands to open my mouth."

Although Egypt's highbrow arbitrators moan about the singer's corruption of culture, a few independent voices whisper that he is in fact a class warrior who has cleverly constructed an everyman personality.

One enlightened writer in an Egyptian weekly, described Shaaban's "supposedly trivial and vulgar lyrics as direct translations of the vernacular of Cairene street life."

In the meantime, the anti-Shaaban movement is building momentum. Earlier this month, the country's censor announced that he would like to stop the singer from making live guest appearances on television shows. Although currently powerless to do so, he publicly hinted that politicians insist that singers appearing on television should have university degrees.

Such pronouncements, obviously aimed at Shaaban, have caused the rumor mill to go into overtime. The most recent gossip, which spread like wildfire across Cairo and was even reported in some of the state-run media, claimed that Shaaban's latest album had been banned.

Certain Egyptian dailies quoted an official as saying that the singer had released a pro-bin Laden song, which the authorities had found distasteful.

"There never was such a song," said the singer when asked about the claim. "Bin Laden is a terrorist. To say that I support him is a lie put about to hurt me. But whatever the government say, people always find out the truth in the end."

For an illiterate man who has proudly made millions from his unlikely fame, protestations about his personal destruction of Egyptian culture have yet to dim a desire to make music.

"I've a right to sing. I'm a patriotic man and popular with the people. Just because I'm an ironer, it doesn't mean that I can't speak out about our life," he says.

"And now, thank Allah, I have the money to keep on singing."