James R. Grippo
you would swim on the bosom of the ocean of Truth, you must
reduce yourself to a zero.”
-- Mahatma Gandhi
When twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad were published
in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005, few
foresaw the violent backlash that transpired as a result of
their reissue in several European newspapers at the start of
2006. Beyond Danish Muslims, who soon mobilized protests in
response, the cartoons at first garnered little international
attention. By early February 2006, however, Danish Prime Minister
Anders Fogh Rasmussen was describing the situation as Denmark’s
worst international crisis since World War II, a statement brought
home by the 139 demonstrators dead and 823 wounded in chaotic
protests in Afghanistan, Kenya, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and
Somalia. The initial violent backlashes occurred after the cartoons
were reprinted in over 50 other countries. The Jyllands-Posten
Muhammad cartoons spurred global conflict and violence not only
because graphic depictions of both Allah and Mohammad are forbidden
for the majority of Muslims, but because the insult communicated
through the images was understood by many angry Muslims to be
part of a larger global conflict between a predominately Christian
West and a predominately Muslim East.
Just as the cartoon
controversy was at its peak, Egyptian sha‘bi superstar,
Sha‘ban ‘Abd al-Rahim released a song only in video
clip form called “Khalasna al-Sabr Kullu”
(We’re All Out of Patience). In February 2006, the video
played on Egyptian satellite channels (Melody Hits and Mazzika)
repeatedly for a few weeks, airing less frequently thereafter.
The mass-mediated broadcast of “Khalasna al-Sabr Kullu”
provided Egyptian and Arab Muslims with an audiovisual affirmation
of their outrage. This essay examines Sha‘ban ‘Abd
al-Rahim’s role in the tradition of dissent in Egyptian
sha‘bi music and his use of the video clip as a vehicle
for the rapid dissemination of political viewpoints. These topics
will be discussed within the context of ‘Abd al-Rahim’s
embodiment of two powerful cultural tropes: “The Fool”
and “The Hero.”
Sha‘bi, Cultural Authenticity and Dissent
present-day Egypt, popular music can be discussed as falling
into two overlapping categories: sha‘bi and shababi. Sha‘bi,
literally “popular,” but more accurately understood
as “of the people,” is the quintessential “music
of the people,” a sometimes populist and sometimes popularized
manifestation of urban folk music conventionally performed in
lower class life-cycle celebrations such as weddings and circumcisions.
Like many other “traditional” genres, sha‘bi
music is staged in leisure venues. Its associations are with
the lower rungs of the nightclub and cabaret business. The second
term, shababi means literally “of the youth,”
and its most common gloss is “youth music.” However,
this is a misleading appellation for the slickly produced and
highly commodified pop music that features ostentatiously glamorous
superstar singers. Although the shababi fan base is
indeed made up mainly of teenagers, as the label suggests, adults
of all ages enjoy it. Both styles overlap class and cultural
boundaries. For example, sha‘bi stars sometimes
perform at upper-class weddings (often in five-star hotels)
and shababi music is seen (on video clips) and heard
(on cassettes and radio) by almost all segments of the population.
Emerging from Cairo’s
nightclub scene in the early 1980s, Sha‘ban ‘Abd
al-Rahim is one of the reigning figureheads of sha‘bi
music culture. The term sha‘bi itself is a loaded
cultural trope that demarcates people, places, and things, as
well as modes of dress, behavior, and communication commonly
associated with traditional or popular class locales. However,
in the last twenty years sha‘bi’s reception
has transcended its proletariat roots and now fluctuates between
lower class folk and middle/upper class funk. Whether to get
a taste of the “streets” from a safe distance, or
fulfilling a desire to experience Muslim or Arab “rage,”
sha‘bi superstars like Hakim, Rico, and Sha‘ban
‘Abd al-Rahim have been able to expand their fan base
across class boundaries.
Although used by
all classes, this term carries different connotations depending
on who uses it. On one hand the word evokes a sense of asala,
or “authenticity,” a value explicitly steeped in
local Egyptian-ness. Asala is conventionally marked
with “lower-class” or “traditional”
diacritica, but it is of course a quintessentially modern concept
potentially invoked by all. On the other hand, to the upper-class,
infitahi (nouveau riche), and Egyptian intelligentsia
sha‘bi is also potentially associated with the
crowds of illiterate masses, backwards customs, and even vulgarity
of speech and dress. From this point of view, sha‘bi
is in contradistinction to the romanticized and essentialized
ideal of folk culture established by late twentieth century
Egyptian nationalism, modernist ideology, and cultural policy.
Egypt’s “ideology of transformation” underscores
the manipulation of “traditionalism” for the institutionalization
of “modernity” as Egyptians struggle to define themselves
based on an imagined past (Armbrust 1996). It is precisely these
ideological tensions that have led to the official castigation
of Egyptian sha‘bi music despite official appropriations,
in other circumstances, of “sha‘bi-ness”
as a marker of authenticity.
Since the beginning
of the twentieth century, specific performers of Egyptian sha‘bi
music have exploited this double meaning of the word sha‘bi—as
both a marker of authenticity intrinsic to national identity,
and at the same time as a marker of social traits undesirable
for a modern sensibility—to create a rich tradition of
public dissent and cultural commentary. For example, Sayyid
Darwish (1892-1923), known for his vivid songs about the everyday
life practices of Egyptians, was canonized as “the artist
of the people” (fannan al-sha‘b). Darwish
was one of the pioneers of Arabic music, a leader of the “cultural
renaissance,” and bard of the 1919 Revolution (Ghazaleh
1999). He was a seminal influence for later singers, such as
Anwar il-‘Askari and Abu Dra‘a, concealing scathing
commentary on the British occupation by singing in double entendres.
The next generation of singers, such as Mohammed Taha, Mohammed
Rushdi, and Mohammed al-‘Izabi, emerged after the Egyptian
Republic was declared in 1953 and conjured vivid sha‘bi
images and often salacious social commentary now directed at
a postcolonial state controlled by Egyptians rather than by
foreigners. By the late 1970s, sha‘bi lyrics
became more brazen and representative of the lived experiences
of an ever increasing working-class labor force and urban folk
culture. After Egypt’s 1967 defeat to Israel in the Arab-Israeli
war, and the loss of the nation’s most beloved canonical
singers, Umm Kulthum (d. 1975), ‘Abd al-Halim Hafez (d.
1977), and Farid al-Atrash (d. 1974), widespread depression,
insecurity, and anger plagued a nation faced with increasing
poverty and overpopulation. The stage was set for the “godfather”
of contemporary sha‘bi music, Ahmad ‘Adawiya, to
create the soundtrack for a new working class, a class that
was created but disgruntled by Sadat’s controversial economic
Open Door Policy (Gordon 2003). ‘Adawiya sold over one
million copies of his first commercial release (Bortot 2000).
He was aided by an increasingly cynical populace and a burgeoning
“cassette culture” (Manuel 1993) that allowed consumers
to bypass the state’s cultural gatekeepers of an earlier
generation, who had carefully controlled and manufactured superstars
through the state’s monopoly over the “big media”
of radio and TV. , Beloved by millions but censored from television
and radio, ‘Adawiya set the standard for hundreds of sha‘bi
performers after him, including Sha‘ban ‘Abd al-Rahim.
‘Abd al-Rahim, also known affectionately to his fans as
Sha‘bola, lived in relative obscurity for nearly 20 years,
dabbling in locally controversial songs in the 1990s. He burst
into international notoriety with the song, Ana Bakrah Isra’il
(I Hate Israel) in 2001, establishing himself as a socio-political
commentator of humble origins. He proudly states in interviews
that he still lives with his mother in the village (Mit Halfa)
and comes from a lineage of foot-operated laundry pressers (Atia
2001). Wearing his trademark attire of two gold wristwatches
(one on each arm), gaudy shoes that match either his belt or
his outfit (which he says often matches his upholstery and curtains),
‘Abd al-Rahim is a clown-like bard who rarely takes himself
seriously in public interviews. But it is this same clown-like
persona that causes many to dismiss him as a bad joke. “I’ve
a right to sing,” ‘Abd al-Rahim says, “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” (Veash 2002). In Egypt, where public protests
are rarely tolerated, ‘Abd al-Rahim has not only managed
to eschew censorship but has also secured a profitable position
as one of the most famous Egyptian sha‘bi singers
by specifically singing about socially and politically controversial
Claiming to know
nothing about politics (Bar’el 2005), Sha‘ban ‘Abd
al-Rahim sits coolly in the face of a public response that ranges
from ridicule to adoration. Because ‘Abd al-Rahim’s
humble sha‘bi background and his matter-of-fact
songs, many accept his words as truth and see him as a hero
who has broadened margins of social acceptability by echoing
the sentiments of the popular class. However, because
of his culturally contested sha‘bi identity and his “dishonorable”
career in professional wedding/nightclub entertainment (Nieuwkerk
1995), high-culture pundits, government officials, and members
of the intelligentsia routinely chide and disparage his “art.”.
Examining the once
vivacious gathering place for low-class entertainers on Mohammad
‘Ali Street where ‘Abd al-Rahim used to perform,
Nieuwkerk describes the contested position professional entertainers
maintain between prestige and ambivalence:
entertainers are central to the most important occasions in
people’s lives, such as births, engagements, and weddings.
A celebration without performers is not a real celebration.
Entertainers are necessary because they make people happy (biyifrahu
innas)—they bring out people’s happiness. Besides,
performers are objects of prestige and competition. The more
performers or the more expensive and famous the entertainers,
the more prestige the host family gains. Yet, despite their
importance, entertainers are generally not honored or accorded
much prestige (Nieuwkerk 1995: 2).
Once he achieved success
in the late 1990s, ‘Abd al-Rahim, began to appear on Egyptian
TV talk shows and newspaper interviews, where he is commonly
portrayed as a comic relief act (the fool) who mispronounces
words, misses the point of questions, and sings about topics
he appears not to understand. Often, his physical appearance
is disparaged, as disclosed in the following Egypt Today
article, an English-language magazine:
. . Shaabola (as he is known to his devoted fans) has proven
he’s no one-hit wonder, having become a regular fixture
at the five-star weddings of Egypt’s elite. This despite
the fact that his knife-scarred face, greasy hair, strange taste
in attire—not to mention his lack of real singing ability—makes
him a questionable pop idol at best and a laughing stock at
worst (Moll 2004).
described ‘Abd al-Rahim as “a pudgy man with a wet-do
curly mullet perm and broken yellow teeth inexpertly repaired,”
with “small deep-set eyes set over an attempt at a smile
that doesn't quite make it past a leer” (Beldon 2003).
He writes, “one can't really imagine him composing a love
song or expressing unity of any sort. His music is a reflection
of himself and his upbringing of deprivation: an illiterate
ironworker, the son of another illiterate ironworker, raised
in the small village of Mit Halfa in Egypt” (Beldon 2003).
Al Ahram’s Khalil is more diplomatic when describing ‘Abd
al-Rahim as a “flamboyant singer” with a “comic
demeanour (sic), glazed-over eyes, and hallucinatory style”
(Khalil 2003). Although he is considered “the voice of
the masses,” Khalil suspects the ‘Abd al-Rahim may
be “leading the people down the proverbial garden path”
The notion that
‘Abd al-Rahim is a people’s hero, the voice of the
people, has been discounted on the grounds that he capitalizes
on current socio-political events and pseudo-extremist viewpoints
that are largely consensual among the wider population. Charles
Paul Freund, the senior editor of Reason Magazine,
criticizes ‘Abd al-Rahim by calling him a “pathetic
cultural bottom feeder, one who puts to music the kind of paranoid
sentiments that are only too commonly heard in the Mideast,”
and “has cornered the subgenre of paranoid hate pop”
(Freund 2003a). Antiwar.com columnist Bargainier takes
issue with Freund’s harsh criticism. Referring to ‘Abd
al-Rahim’s anti-war song al-Darab X al-‘Iraq
(Bombing X Iraq), Bargainier writes, “What's paranoid
about reciting the facts? The US invaded Afghanistan and will
soon do the same to Iraq; Israel occupies the West Bank and
the Golan Heights” (2003). Further highlighting the issues
surrounding “Sha‘bola’s delicate balance,”
Freund also suggests that Abdel-Rahim
is less of a folk hero than a megaphone on the lips of Egypt's
leaders. Yet, Egyptian state radio has banned his songs and
officially declared him a no-no. This may be a clever effort
to boost the singer's radical chic, but a guy who scored two
years ago with the bluntly titled “I Hate Israel”
would not seem to need any such help (2003).
In my own experience,
attitudes toward ‘Abd al-Rahim often align along class
lines. I regularly bring up ‘Abd al-Rahim in my casual
conversations with Egyptians from all walks of life, especially
if they inquire about my research. When I mention that ‘Abd
al-Rahim is one of the topics of my research there is usually
polite chuckling, but this is immediately followed by their
statements of approval or disapproval of ‘Abd al-Rahim,
statements that commonly reflect their socio-economic class.
For example, most of the microbus and taxi drivers I speak with
approve of ‘Abd al-Rahim and the conversations usually
evolve into discussions of his songs and other sha‘bi
singers, while the majority of middle to upper class Egyptians
disapprove vehemently of him. For example, a staffer at the
Egyptian Fulbright Commission told me, “He’s an
embarrassment,” and my banker stated, “He’s
the epitome of bad taste and a vulgar man.” One television
presenter complained that “Abdel Rahim is illiterate and
has no culture. Why don’t people listen to Hany Shaaker?”
(Hammond 2001) and as one blogger put it: “Shaaban is
only a clown. Shaaban doesn't speak for the people, he speaks
for money. He actually has no clue about what's going on Egypt”
(Egyptsearch.com). Mais, a University of Jordon student, after
being asked if she likes ‘Abd al-Rahim’s, feigned
vomiting on the floor and said, “He's just too low-class—he's
gross!” (Beldon 2003).
seems merely being associated with ‘Abd al-Rahim
can be stigmatizing enough to warrant legal action. Egyptian
singer, Shireen Wajdi has filed a lawsuit against two journalists
who compared her to ‘Abd al-Rahim, an association she
says damages her career (Freund 2003b). Another example of ‘Abd
al-Rahim’s notoriety manifested itself when he was turned
down by five actresses unwilling to appear with him in an upcoming
film based on “I Hate Israel” (ibid). And finally,
no one seems to be able to forget the McFalafel fiasco where
‘Abd al-Rahim was contracted to compose a song for an
advertisement for McDonald’s new McFalafel sandwich. The
ad was broadcast for only three weeks after McDonald’s
received complaints from the American Jewish Committee (AJC)
whose spokesperson called ‘Abd al-Rahim a “known
sponsor of hate” (Dabbous 2001, Associated Press 2001).
In the face of all
this castigation, ‘Abd al-Rahim sits quietly on his nest
egg, never lashing out at his detractors or refusing televised
interviews. Nor has he diluted any aspect of his persona or
craft. On the contrary, his songs and videos have become markedly
bolder, as if to pour fuel on the flames that seek to engulf
him. Perhaps ‘Abd al-Rahim’s “delicate balance”
is mutually inclusive, and that which attempts to hurt, or discredit,
him makes him stronger. In other words, bad press is good press
for Sha‘ban ‘Abd al-Rahim, as his “nonsensical
demeanor” has both made Shaaban the "butt of intellectual
jokes and preserved his image as the voice of the people”
Being in touch with the people is full
of contradictions, which may be why Shaaban is so good at it.
He represents everything that's mixed up about our lives. He
is the living embodiment of our inability to achieve our dreams—the
underdog we want to win because of how simple and honest he
seems to be (2001).
to Video Clip
Shortly after the
phenomenal success of Ana Bakrah Isra’il, ‘Abd
al-Rahim released several overtly political albums: Amrika
Ya Amrika (America O America), al-Kurah Shai’
Qalil Ya Isra’il (Hate is a Trivial Thing O Israel),
and al-Darab X al-‘Iraq (Bombing X Iraq). Unlike
his diatribe against Israel, the tone of the album-title song
Amrika Ya Amrika is more of an appeal to the US to
be self reflective about its war-mongering policies than a simple
angry rant. The next album, al Kurah Shai’ Qalil Ya
Isra’il,a veritable rallying cry for the Intifada
(popular uprising). It was released immediately after outraged
Egyptian and Arab television audiences were exposed to TV footage
of the murder of 12-year-old Mohammad al-Dura by Israeli snipers.
The third album, Al-Darab X al-‘Iraq (Bombing
X Iraq) criticizes the US for invading Afghanistan, threatening
to invade Iraq, supporting the Israeli occupation of West Bank
and Golan Heights, and also demands that Israel be inspected
In addition to his
albums, ‘Abd al-Rahim also has released a number of songs
direct to video clip about the dangers of smoking cigarettes
and marijuana (‘Abd al-Rahim admits to smoking both),
unjust taxes, pollution of the Nile, the al-Aqsa Intifada,
the US invasion of Iraq, the relationship between the US and
Israel, support for President Hosni Mubarak’s reelection
campaign, and the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons.
The majority of the
videos of these songs were released on satellite channels (Melody
and Mazzika mainly) within weeks of the events that
inspired them, as Sha‘ban ‘Abd al-Rahim “does
not allow any colossal incident to pass by without making a
suitable song in the same expeditious manner that he and his
listeners are accustomed to” (‘Abd al-Rahman 2006;
author’s translation). However, the last two, Kilmat
Haqq (A Word of Truth, supporting Mubarak’s reelection),
and Khalasna il-Sabr Kullu (We’re All Out of
Patience, describing anger over the Mohammad cartoons), immediately
were released in video clip form only.
Releasing songs straight
to video clip without the promotion of a new album not only
is unprecedented in Egypt, it also underscores the dynamic growth
of the video clip phenomenon. On one hand, ‘Abd al-Rahim
is like a “Town Crier” (Atia 2001), or street-smart
news commentator, broadcasting editorials expeditiously; on
the other hand, he is concentrating on the video clip audience,
which consists mainly of teenagers and young adults, despite
all the coffee houses that feature video clips. Another factor
enabling this marketing strategy of releasing songs immediately
to video within weeks of a controversial event is his use of
simple, straightforward video production.
In the video clips
Al Darab X al-Iraq (Bombing X Iraq), Ya ‘Amm
‘Arabi (O Fellow Arab), Kilmat Haqq (A Word
of Truth), and Khalasna il-Sabr Kullu (We’re
All Out of Patience) ‘Abd al-Rahim stands in front of
a background of images relevant to the subject of each song,
gesticulating with his hands and arms to punctuate key phrases.
As simple as a sermon or newscast, ‘Abd al-Rahim’s
video clips abstain from the often-criticized infatuations of
video clips, such as objectifying women, exploiting special
effects, or flaunting material wealth. The focus remains fixed
on a forthright narrative articulated by both singer and subject;
a subject that because of its apparent exploitation of current
affairs has launched ‘Abd al-Rahim into certain stardom.
Like ‘Abd al-Rahim’s
dedication to al-Dura, the cassette, video, and song of Al-
Darab X al-Iraq (Bombing X Iraq), tapped into the emotions
of substantial television audiences. The song begins powerfully
with: “Enough, enough! We are fed up with excuses and
pretexts,” and continues, “Look at and inspect Israel
and turn away from Iraq . . . Sharon makes a pool of blood while
it falls like rain.” ‘Abd al-Rahim also criticizes
Saddam Hussein for ignoring the warning or advice of other Arab
leaders. He sings about the “dirt-poor and pitiful”
Iraqis who are always the victims and suggests that the US is
“spreading corruption and oppression” and trying
“to achieve Israel's dreams” in the region (Shadid
2003). Perhaps even more compelling is the video clip, released
10 days before the US invasion on March 20, 2003, which shows
graphic stock news footage from the first Gulf War, depicting
charred Iraqi corpses, giant explosions, weeping women, and
dead bodies carried out from bombed out buildings. . Superimposed
over these are images of key politicians, such as George W.
Bush, Powell, Sharon, etc. shaking hands, giving speeches, or
smiling. As the focus shifts between footage and ‘Abd
al-Rahim, he sings: “Do you want to partition Iraq or
what do you want exactly? Honestly, do you have your eyes on
Iraq’s oil? . . . Iraq, too, after Afghanistan? Nobody
knows who will be next tomorrow.”
In the video
Ya ‘Amm ‘Arabi (Hey Arab Leaders), it seems
‘Abd al-Rahim tries to outdo himself by not only prodding
the largely disaffected and silent Arab leaders but also asserting
that George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon are global imperialist
bullies divvying up the world like a pie:
faces of the same coin, America and Israel . . .
They made the world a jungle and ignited the fuse.
America spread its wings, doesn't care about anyone.
No one can stop her, no one can catch her . . .
How many years are left?
For America and Israel acting as bullies . . .
Perhaps the most
infamous assertion in the song is that Sharon (with Bush’s
consent) is behind the September 11th attacks on the World Trade
that Tower, oh people! Definitely!
His friends were the ones who brought it down.
What terrorism!! (Video shows Sharon pushing the button and
two commercial airplanes racing towards the twin towers).
Departing from ‘Abd
al-Rahim’s trademark use of stock news footage, Ya ‘Amm
‘Arabi is an animated video featuring oversimplified hand-drawn
art similar to the style used in The Simpsons. In Egypt, Ya
‘Amm ‘Arabi topped the music charts within four
days after the video debuted on the Cairo-based Melody Hits
and could be seen daily on monitors in Cairo’s main downtown
subway station, Anwar al-Sadat.
Sha'ban and Mubarak
Sellout or Bargaining Chip?
In the face of a
growing opposition movement leading up to Egypt’s first-ever
multi-candidate presidential election in September 2005, ‘Abd
al-Rahim released Kilmat Haqq (A Word of Truth) directly
to video in support of President Hosni Mubarak’s reelection
campaign. Opposition activists and international observers widely
criticized the election, Egypt’s first-ever multi party
contest, as superficial. The elections were plagued by police
violence, arrests, and voter fraud, intimidation and obstruction.
The regime’s attempt to maintain a semblance of democratization
backfired as international attention focused instead on the
violations and violence.
already had shown his support of Mubarak’s presidency
in Ana Bakrah Isra’il, when he claimed, “I
love Hosni Mubarak, because he’s got a lot of sense. If
he takes any step, he takes conscience into account,”
and in Amrika Ya Amrika: “President Hosni Mubarak,
enough, he can’t sleep. The people’s business takes
all his time, and the (Arab-Israeli) affair and peace.”
In Kilmat Haqq ‘Abd al-Rahim heaps praise for
Mubarak by outlining his contributions to Egypt, while clips
show Mubarak shaking hands with commoners, waving from various
locations, and numerous other official scenarios. ‘Abd
al-Rahim sings “Oh president, you do not need any words.
The people are happy because they feel secure,” and then
he lists the “monuments” of Mubarak’s reign:
the construction of “new cities,” bringing satellites
to Egypt, making running water and mobile phones readily available,
and the advent of the “incredible metro” in Cairo.
Finally, alluding to an unnecessary election, ‘Abd al-Rahim
sings: “The truth that I say is that the people have chosen
Mubarak without yes and no.”
al-Rahim’s coziness with the Mubarak regime problematizes
his status as the people’s “voice” or “hero.”
As discussed, ‘Abd al-Rahim in no way speaks for all Egyptians,
but his outspoken, yet humble, sha‘bi persona
coupled with his “political exploitation” strategy
of musical production has endeared him to millions of fans as
substantiated by his album sales and enthusiastic requests for
his latest video clips. In purely practical terms, ‘Abd
al-Rahim’s staunch support of Mubarak, despite the fact
that Mubarak’s government has banned his music several
times, keeps him out of prison and insures the continuance of
his career, allowing him freedom of speech on a somewhat comfortable
official leash. The singer is not the “voice of the people”
in the Sayyid Darwish sense, when a national voice represented
a united opposition struggling against a clear enemy (in this
case the British occupation). Instead, in a twenty-first century,
cynically post-modern and globalized Egypt, ‘Abd al-Rahim’s
“voice of the people” finds its host in a cultural
contradiction that has one foot in Ghandi’s “ocean
of Truth” and the other in the “puddle of ignorance.”
It is impossible to ignore the significance of the “howls
of protests” that ensued when the literary weekly Akhbar
al-Adab compared ‘Abd al-Rahim with Shaikh Imam,
the blind singer of the 1970s who fueled an entire generation
of anti-government student activists (Hammond 2001).
The fact that ‘Abd
al-Rahim released Kilmat Haqq in the face of an intensifying
opposition movement highlights his penchant for marketing controversy,
but does not necessarily negate his own political position.
Perhaps to ‘Abd al-Rahim, “the people,” as
he understands them, are behind an embattled Mubarak just as
they are behind an embattled Palestine, and by singing for another
controversy/cause he is merely being faithful to his title or
identity. Whatever the real “Truth” may be, the
controversy over his lip service to the regime is surpassed
only by his defensive, some say offensive, support of Islam
itself in his latest video clip Khalasna il-Sabr Kullu.
Out of Patience: The Cartoon Video
Kullu (We’re All Out of Patience) directed by Hani
‘Abd al-Latif, was typical in that it expressed a social
consensus about the Danish cartoons that would have been embarrassing
for the regime to voice in an international venue. The video
shows ‘Abd al-Rahim in his “newsroom” studio,
standing in front of continuous stock footage of protests, respectable
images of Muslims, and the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh
Rasmussen. “One morning at six, when I finished working,”
says ‘Abd al-Rahim, “I turned on the TV, and heard
about those bad cartoons (in Denmark). I got really mad, and
called my producer, 'Alaa Wahaba, and told him we must wake
up Islam and write a song right now. He said it was in the middle
of the night, but I said: ‘right now’” (‘Abd
al-Rahim interview on Dream 2, March 1, 2006). ‘Abd al-Rahim
shares his disappointment and anger with thousands of Egyptian
and Arab viewers while an endless stream of living
footage, or real-life images that are so fresh they are still
in active memory, supplements his narrative as it runs simultaneously
in the background. While the overall effect is convincing, we
must also keep in mind that although the video clip is a vehicle
for the promotion and dissemination of a song; “almost
universally it represents and circulates the performer”
(Allan 1990). The performer, in this case, has cultivated links
to a ruling regime.
The majority of
stock news footage used in Khalasna il-Sabr Kullu are
scenes of protests in Pakistan, Syria and Lebanon and of Danish
Prime Minister. These are interspersed with images extolling
a peaceful Islam, such as Muslim pilgrims dressed in white as
they genuflect in prayer and Islamic texts such as “La
ilaha illa llah” (There is no god but Allah). Likewise,
instead of the flamboyantly patterned and colored suits he usually
wears, ‘Abd al-Rahim wears a black suit with prayer beads
(subha) wrapped around his hand. While singing, he mildly punctuates
the lyrics as he shakes his head from side to side in disappointment,
throws his arms in disgust, or raises his hands in exasperation.
We’re all out of patience—and still there are no
The insult reached as far as the religion and the Prophet:
Prophet of God Mohammad—Master of the Prophets
They want to blemish His image—the stupid bastards
the religions are innocent from those who insulted the Prophet—because
these people are crazy, the largest among them is stupid
he reads about Mohammad he will know that he—is the Apostle
of truest humanity
is Denmark O people—but a homeland of cows—who are
they to say anything about the Prophet?
Islam is innocent of them, and what they say is all lies.
Our Islam is a religion of love, not of injustice and terrorism.
you all meet in Hell, the flames will burn your faces
The flames will burn your faces.
going to speak and not keep quiet—and the people will
say with me
‘We want a complete boycott’—and even this
is not enough
all the people will keep quiet—there is a lord his name
is the Beloved—
We want to do something—in the service of the Beloved
As expected with
any ‘Abd al-Rahim release, the lyrics sparked a polemic.
This time the debate was between Muslims who viewed the song
as inappropriately offensive and those who agreed with its tone
and message. It is impossible to assess the opinions of all
Muslims, let alone Egyptian Muslims, regarding extremely sensitive
issues such as ‘Abd al-Rahim’s defense of Islam
and the prophet Mohammad. However, with the following examples
we can get a deeper sense of why Egyptians rebuke or applaud
‘Abd al-Rahim for this issue and others.
The real force behind
‘Abd al-Rahim’s music, and certainly sha‘bi,
is lyrical content. ‘Abd al-Rahim’s lyrics, written
by Islam Khalil, have been criticized for not only their controversial
content, such as stating Sharon and Bush conspired the September
11 terrorist attacks (in Ya ‘Amm ‘Arabi),
but also their hateful syntax (in “I hate Israel,”
for example). In Khalasna il-Sabr Kullu offensive comments,
such as “the stupid bastards,” “because these
people are crazy, the largest among them is stupid,” and
“what is Denmark, O people, but a homeland of cows,”
drew sharp criticism from many Egyptian Muslims I spoke with.
Others dismissed the song as a “bid to release the Muslim
anger” and failed to express “the values of Islam
or morals of Prophet Muhammad” (Al Dowaik 2006). In the
shadow of a what many Muslims perceive as a renewed Western
“crusade” against Islam, many Muslims are hypersensitive
to the way they are being portrayed in the mass media so a more
virtuous and honorable response is desired. According to Egyptian
media expert Dr. Safwat Al Alem, “Our response to the
Danish insults must go in line with the values we are seeking
to defend. We have to project our values but without insulting
others” (Al Dowaik 2006). Soon after its release, several
stations banned the video (‘Abd al-Rahim interview on
Dream 2, March 1, 2006).
Those in support
of Khalasna il-Sabr Kullu have expressed solidarity
with ‘Abd al-Rahim’s call to boycott Danish products.
For example, when Khalasna il-Sabr Kullu was first
broadcast in February 2006 on Mazzika and Melody Hits, the stations
were inundated with short message service (SMS) requests for
more viewings. While the video clip was playing, viewers sent
more SMS messages (which are displayed on screen) reminding
Egyptians to boycott Danish goods (Otterman 2006). As ‘Abd
al-Rahim’s lyricist Islam Khalil explains, “we preferred
to express our anger in words instead of staging protests in
which properties of ours and the others are harmed. We replied
to the Danish mishandling of art (cartoons) by another kind
of art to help ease people's anger” (Al Dowaik 2006).
When confronted in an interview about the video clip being banned
because “it curses other people,” ‘Abd Al
Rahim replied, “Well, why shouldn't we curse them just
like they curse us?” (‘Abd al-Rahim interview on
Dream 2, March 1, 2006).
even in his native country, ‘Abd al-Rahim appears at first
glance to follow the lineage of legendary sha‘bi
dissenters by engaging directly with local and international
issues. As the US-led War on Terror builds more momentumand
Muslims are becoming increasingly ostracized from any notion
of a global community, the attractiveness of mass-mediated voices
like ‘Abd al-Rahim’s becomes understandable. Apparently,
an increasingly antagonistic and imperialistic West has enabled
the existence of not only outspoken critics but the need for
As the reigning sha‘bi
superstar, Sha‘ban ‘Abd al-Rahim is a cultural phenomenon
who maintains a delicate balance between “fool”
and “hero. The archetypal “fool” in Middle
Eastern culture is Joha, or Goha in Egypt,
known endearingly as the wise fool or trickster. Like ‘Abd
al-Rahim, Goha “is portrayed as either very stupid or
miraculously clever, a resistance figure who thumbs his nose
in the face of authority and capitalist rulers” (Abdelsadek
2002). Similarly, in Egyptian cinema and theater the protagonist,
or batal (which also means hero or lead actor) is often
a bumbling, cowardly, or comical character. In a similar glib
fashion, ‘Abd al-Rahim explains how “presenters
like to make fun of me when I appear on TV because I’m
an ironer, but that’s OK with me. 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” (Veash
hero? A comedian? I believe he's both. Shaaban is a manifestation
of our de facto politicized nature, and our submissiveness to
the reality of poverty and a lack of democracy. He symbolizes
the amazing way we manage to live with it all, without being
able to change for the better. And all the while, we laugh at
this reality, the same way we laugh both at and with Sha'aban
Abdel-Rehim, whole-heartedly (Howeidy).
cleverly and successfully plays the Fool when he is called to
answer for his songs, and plays "The Hero" when he
sings. As seen in countless instances on Egyptian television,
‘Abd al-Rahim rarely is able to discuss rudimentary aspects
of his songs, begging the question: is it all an act or are
he and his lyricist Khalil using socio-political controversy
only to market their songs? Both his safety and his usefulness
to the regime is ensured by his perceived ignorance and vulgarity—slants
commonly associated with the sha‘bi condition—as
well as his frequent testaments in support of Mubarak’s
presidency. Discussing sha‘bi, El-Assyouti explains:
Nothing surpasses the subversive potential
of music and lyrics that spring from a culture deemed unrefined,
backward or even shameful. The illiteracy and vulgarity of the
singer are a license to circumvent censorship and thus sexual
and political double entendres make their way into society unchecked,
sung by countless fans as they go about their business and further
reproduced in films and on stage (2001).
‘Abd al-Rahim and Islam Khalil have succeeded in tapping
into a vein of popular sentiment with their “shock and
awe strategy of music production” (Grippo 2006). For example,
a member of the consultant council, upon meeting with delegates
of the ministries of health and agriculture, stated that they
should have hired ‘Abd al-Rahim to sing an informative
song about the avian influenza (H5N1) since not only do the
people mistrust official announcements but ‘Abd al-Rahim’s
songs reach the masses (‘Abd al-Mun‘im 2006).
In this essay I have
discussed ways in which the songs of Sha‘ban ‘Abd
al-Rahim embrace political issues that, while bold at first
glance, invariably turn out to be expressions of consensus.
He has become a master in using the video clip market to quickly
disseminate these songs of “politicxploitation.”
The strategy of releasing a song straight to video clip and
the resulting real-time (SMS) discourse verifies the potency
of this technology and the need for further study.
Contributing to ‘Abd
al-Rahim’s controversial success is his social positioning
as the next superstar descending from a historic line of political
sha‘bi singers in Egypt. Finally, ‘Abd al Rahim’s
success must be understood in the context of the West’s
loosely defined War on Terror. The perception of cultural and
political attack from outside the Arab world has sparked the
need for amplified voices speaking sympathetic truths to a self-consciously
cornered Muslim population. ‘Abd al-Rahim’s uncanny
sense of Arab anger and frustration has enabled this illiterate
ironer from Mit Halfa to become one of the loudest of these
Grippo completed his B.A. and M.A., and is currently
a Ph.D. candidate, in ethnomusicology at University of California,
Santa Barbara (UCSB) where he has studied Middle Eastern music
for over ten years. James, a member of the UCSB Middle East
Ensemble, is an accomplished performer of Turkish, Arab and
Persian musics on the oud and qanun. Presently on his fourth
trip to Egypt on a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship, he is now conducting
research for his doctoral dissertation on urban shaabi music
culture which includes meeting with musicians, composers, and
music industry professionals, analyzing and transcribing pieces,
learning performance practices, and documenting archival research.
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