Pop crooner hits sour note with Egyptian elite

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?"

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."

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."

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."

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