“If 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.”
Egyptian Sha‘bi, Cultural Authenticity and Dissent
In 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.
Sha‘bola’s Delicate Balance
Sha‘ban ‘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 current events.
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‘bibackground 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:
Professional 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 Todayarticle, 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).
Another reporter 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” (ibid).
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,” Bargainier continues:
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).
It 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” (Atia 2001):
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).
Straight 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 instead.
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 Mazzikamainly) 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:
Two 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 Center:
About 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.
‘Abd al-Rahim 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.”
Sha‘ban ‘Abd 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
Khalasna il-Sabr 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 solutions
The insult reached as far as the religion and the Prophet:
The Prophet of God Mohammad—Master of the Prophets
They want to blemish His image—the stupid bastards
All the religions are innocent from those who insulted the Prophet—because these people are crazy, the largest among them is stupid
If he reads about Mohammad he will know that he—is the Apostle of truest humanity
What is Denmark O people—but a homeland of cows—who are they to say anything about the Prophet?
Our Islam is innocent of them, and what they say is all lies.
Our Islam is a religion of love, not of injustice and terrorism.
When you all meet in Hell, the flames will burn your faces
The flames will burn your faces.
I’m 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
If 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).
Highly contested 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 heroes.
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 2002).
A 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).
‘Abd al-Rahim 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).
Undoubtedly, Sha‘ban ‘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 voices.