Egyptian singer's mood music


Singer: Shaaban Abdel Rehim's hit song "I Hate Israel" appears to have tapped a shift in public sentiment since the outbreak of violence in Gaza and the West Bank.

May 03, 2001|By Ashraf Khalil | Ashraf Khalil,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CAIRO -- As Egypt's pop music sensation, Shaaban Abdel Rehim is a good barometer of the public mood. His hit song? "I Hate Israel."

It has made Abdel Rehim an unlikely flashpoint for political debate. Critics decry the song as vulgar and divisive, but it has touched a deep, emotional chord. Reliable sales figures for Egytian releases are hard to come by, but an informal survey of music store owners finds "I Hate Israel" selling as well as any of the latest releases from Egypt's established stars.

Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, but the Egyptian public has never warmed to Israel. Anti-Israel sentiments have again become a staple of movies and mass-circulation newspapers.

The situation has "never been worse," says Abdel Monem Said, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "The general public mood in Egypt has shifted drastically," beginning with the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence last September.

"In times of violence," says Said, "you get a kind of national hysteria."

Angered by the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, audiences have embraced the song's strongly anti-Israel sentiments. The songwriter's success was boosted by the song making its debut within weeks of the beginning of the violence and the televised death of a young Palestinian, Muhamed al-Durrah.

The songwriter? "He just appeared at the right time and the right place," says journalist Tarek Atia, who has written extensively about Abdel Rehim.

The song makes repeated references to al-Durrah, bad mouths Israeli leaders Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak in a series of rhyming couplets and praises Egypt's decision to withdraw its ambassador from Tel Aviv last fall. "I hate Israel," Abdel Rehim's song declares, "because of South Lebanon / and Jerusalem and Iraq /and Syria and Golan."

Israeli officials hear nothing entertaining in the song and consider it evidence of the lost opportunities for warmer relationship between the two countries.

Abdel Rehim is a "third-rate singer" who has "ridden a wave of hatred," says Ayellat Yehiav, spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. The song is a product of the hatred preached by the Egyptian mass media, she says, and evidence of lost opportunity for warmer relations.

"It was a chance to grow a whole generation with a different view of Israel," Yehiav says.

The song's success reflects public attitudes. Even supporters of warmer relations with Israel have voiced disapproval of Israeli policies.

The Cairo Peace Society, a group of journalists and intellectuals who risked vilification several years ago by pushing for normalized relations with Israel, recently suspended operations.

After a landmark 1999 joint conference in Cairo with its Israeli counterparts, the group had been planning a follow-up conference in Tel Aviv. But the plans collapsed last fall amid disagreements over how to react to the new violence. "A large number of the group felt disillusioned," says Said.

Abdel Rehim, meanwhile, shrugs off the label of political agitator. He is an illiterate former clothing ironer who toiled for years as a "shaabi" singer -- a working-class folk singer -- before encountering mainstream success. He paints himself as a simple voice of the people.

"Personally I don't care about politics. I sing about life," he says. "I sing about whatever's happening. If there's an earthquake, I'll do a song about that."

Another person, Islam Khalil, writes most of the lyrics, but Abdel Rehim insists he has influence over the topics.

The blunt lyrics and raucous sound have shaken up Egypt's music scene. His previous songs have dwelled on drug use and smoking, and his music evokes the raucous sound of a working-class wedding in full swing."This is a real person; he's not a product," says Atia, the journalist.

The Israeli-Palestinian violence has inspired several high-profile pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian anthems, but they are uniformly bland statements of eternal support for Jerusalem. None has come close to the intensity and directness of "I Hate Israel."

Abdel Rehim's success has been compared to the emergence of rap in the United States.

"Rap is a street culture," says Hani Sabet, head of Sonar records, one of Egypt's leading record companies, "and what Shaaban represents is definitely street culture."

His song may mark the beginning of an era of more raw, reality-based compositions, supplanting songs of romance.

Or Abdel Rehim may prove to be a novelty act with little staying power. "It's a little bit of a gimmicky thing," says Kevin Ridgely, representative for Sony records in Cairo. "It could last or it could be this year's Macarena."

Abdel Rehim's recent breakthrough to a middle- and upper-class audience may be a result of his outlandish appearance -- he favors loud clothes -- and the novelty of his approach, Ridgely says. "It's not clear whether his new audience is laughing with him or laughing at him. If this is rap, he's more MC Hammer than Public Enemy."

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