"I'll say it again, a word of truth, the people choose Mubarak," sings Egyptian rapper Shaaban Abd al-Rahim, through a gigantic loudspeaker attached to his van, plastered with enormous pictures of the Egyptian president.
Shaaban, nicknamed Shaabouleh, developed in four years from a professional ironer to the most popular political singer in Egypt, and perhaps the Middle East. His big break came in 2001 when he recorded his hit song, "I Hate Israel." Israeli diplomats who pondered the best way to censure Shaaban's song came to the conclusion that Israeli interference would only add to the song's popularity.
They were aware that Shaaban fills two voids in Egyptian, and Arab, society, where patriotic and critical political songs have been missing for quite a while. On the eve of recent presidential elections, the Egyptian Radio Service, a government authority that approves and occasionally produces new numbers, released two new songs: The first highlighted the theme that, "Egypt is one big family - The Copts love the Muslims, and the reverse," while the second reminded listeners that, "It is a national duty to go to the polls."
But the effect of both songs was negligible in comparison to Shaaban's song in support of Mubarak. Egyptians do not buy "government" songs, but they purchase Shaaban's songs in thousands, and every taxi and minibus driver has a stack of his tapes sitting on the dashboard.
And Shaaban's earnings match his popularity. Shaaban, the "ironer," is a multimillionaire with a fleet of limousines staffed by private drivers and personal bodyguards. He wears diamond-studded shoes, and his silk shirts, according to witnesses, match the upholstery in his home - all of this despite an admission in an interview a few years ago that, "I am actually not a singer, at all, and I don't have a good voice."
Anyone who hears his songs on the radio might agree, but that does nothing to thwart the burgeoning popularity of the subject matter he chooses to sing. The highly abbreviated list of his songs, which appears on the homepage of his Internet site, provides an apt picture of the man behind the music. He sings of the dangers of smoking (despite the fact he smokes), and has succeeded where the government failed to attach a negative image to that vice. He sings against the war in Iraq, against the United States and against poverty, and in favor of the Palestinians, in his song, "I Want to Be a Shaheed."
Yet, despite the weighty lyrics of his songs, he admits he knows little about politics. He opposes the U.S., but appeared in posters advertising McFalafel. When asked about this "ideological" duplicity, Shaaban said he had no idea that McDonald's was an American firm.
Banal and high-strung
His lyrics are banal, his music is high-strung and disorganized, but none of this bothers the pop sensation whose earnings exceed those of the finest singers in the world. In addition to this hefty take, he has actually achieved the status of a poet laureate in the eyes of some Egyptian critics, who compare him to classic Egyptian singers, like Abdel Halim Hafez, and celebrated political songwriters, like Ahmed Fuad Negm and Sheikh Imam.
The latter two are best known for strident satire and penetrating songs directed against Gamal Abdel Nasser, especially in the wake of the resounding defeat in the Six-Day War. Both poets were imprisoned by Abdel Nasser, and released by Anwar Sadat. Sadat hoped they would continue to write critical poetry pertaining to his predecessor following their release, but both chose to take his administration to task and were later returned to prison.
Shaaban, careful to protect his status and freedom, steers far clear of attaining the status of a politically critical songwriter. This is aptly illustrated by the pro-Mubarak song he composed on the eve of elections. He appeared in an insignificant dramatic play and even played a cameo role in a movie.
Intellectual Egyptians sneer when asked about Shaaban's stature, and express dismay that this particular songwriter now represents Egypt. But when Adel Hassnin, a leading music critic and author of books about Egyptian political songs, was asked to analyze Shaaban's popularity, he explained, "Despite reservations regarding Shaaban, he is exceptional. Because while none of the famous voices were speaking out about what is happening in Palestine, Shaaban knew how to express the emotions of the Egyptian people, and even wrote a popular song about the boy [shot dead in the intifada], Mohammed al-Dura."
This conclusion is not entirely accurate because famous singers, like Amr Diab, who is enormously popular in Egypt, wrote songs about Palestine during the intifada. But their songs were quickly forgotten, and, unlike Shaaban's, did not become part of the national folk repertoire. The reason for this is apparently Shaaban's image, in contrast with that of Diab.
Despite limousines and diamond shoes, Shaaban is considered a man of the people, while singers like Diab are considered to be part of the artistic elite, whose video-clips, songs and deep pockets are far removed from the lower classes. Despite that, young (and hungry) Egyptians prefer to imitate Amr Diab rather than Shaaban. Their concept of the direction that Egyptian song should take includes rap - but not rap for the poor; and it includes protest, but only if it can revive Egypt and, mainly, provide money.
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