Middle East

Singing out against the war
By Paul Belden

AMMAN - In the upscale neighborhood of Shmeisani in the Jordanian capital, it's a typical weekday afternoon at the department store: housewives going about their business, students stocking up on pencils and pita, pretty girls dressed in bright-red smocks assisting shoppers to the appliance section. If you had to choose a soundtrack, Barry Manilow would do nicely - middle of the road, inoffensive, safe.

But then you wander around a corner and find yourself blasted by the hoarse scream of a pudgy man with a wet-do curly mullet perm and broken yellow teeth inexpertly repaired. "Chechnya! Afghanistan! Palestine! Southern Lebanon!" howls this strange dwarf-man from the Safeway in-house television screen, over a loping, driving freight-train beat of Arabian drums and sharp oud riffs. "The Golan Heights! And now Iraq, too? And now Iraq, too? It's too much for people. Shame on you! Enough, enough, enough!"

Welcome to the sight and sound of Arab rage spreading slowly but surely out of the streets and into the salons and cafes and, yes, even the department stores, of upper-class Arab society.

The conduit for the rage is, in this case, an illiterate former wedding singer from Egypt named Shaaban Abdel Rahim. Almost alone among the region's musicians, Abdel Rahim has found a theme in the volatile feelings of horror and disgust in the Arab world over America's ongoing war against Iraq. And, through that theme, he has found fame, and a name.

Protest music is nothing new to the Arab world. The conflict between Israel and Palestine in particular has provided fertile soil for decades of songs expressing deeply held feelings of injustice and pain. This form of music, however, has usually taken the form of poetic musings over the nature of grief and loss - the aural equivalent of the mournful cry of the muezzin that both awakens the Arab nation and sings it to sleep.

In this vein, to take one example, the bearded Lebanese flautist Marfel Khaliseh has created something of an artistic signature out of an extensive repertoire of dreamy acoustic reminiscences of Palestine and southern Lebanon.

Abdel Rahim's music, by contrast, is the aural equivalent of an Apache helicopter strafing a mound of broken glass. I hate Israel! he screams in his aptly titled hit from 2001, "I hate Israel! (but I love Amr Mousa)". I say it when I'm asked! I hate Israel and Ehud Barak because no one can stand him! Egypt puts up and stands till the end but when it got mad it pulled back the ambassador!

Abdel Rahim's newest song - the one now grabbing Shmeisani Safeway shoppers unexpectedly by the shirtfront on the order of about once an hour - is something the singer calls "Attack on Iraq": Since the twin towers, we've been living in a dilemma! If one thousand died then, how many more thousands have died as a result? After Afghanistan, here comes the turn of Iraq! And no one knows who is next! The video for the song intersperses images of war that might as well have been lifted from the nightly news. Don't look for a Dixie Chicks cover any time soon.

Nor should you expect to find Abdel Rahim on the playlist at any of the mainstream music stations in Amman: the government-funded Radio Jordan, or the US-funded Sawa. Nor will you find his compact discs or tapes in the prominent display racks at any of the music stores in the upscale malls. The artist is "nowhere near" the top of the internal best-seller list at the Music Box store in Shmeisani, says Yasir, a store clerk there. "Most people here like sappy love songs," he says, pointing to a prominently displayed CD by the Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram (current hit, "Akhasmak") and another by Amer Diab ("Tamali Maak", or "Longing to Be with You").

Sappy love song may rule the charts, but they're still not to everybody's taste. "Everything is always the same," says Mais, a student at the University of Jordan who is wearing a black bandanna around her head and a Che Guevara sweatshirt as she shops for CDs at the Music Box. "It's always: 'Oh habibi, habibi, habibi - Oh I love you, I love you, I love you - Oh why did you why did you leave me - Oh habibi, habibi, habibi.'

"Everybody loves that shit. Yuck." She pretends to vomit on the floor.

Not that Mais likes Abdel Rahim much better. Hearing his name, she vomits on the floor again. "He's just too low-class - he's gross!" When it comes to protest music, Mais prefers the Nirvana school - the kind of music that doesn't have to explain itself or strive for relevance, the kind that, asked "What are you protesting against?", sneers back "Whaddaya got?"

Like most of the Middle East, Amman historically has not been an overtly political city. At Books@Cafe, one of the regular hangouts for Amman's young and upwardly mobile, Nirvana gets a regular hearing, but nothing more pointedly political. Says co-owner Muhannad al-Jazireh: "Look, this is a place where everybody's welcome to come and discuss any subject. But it's also a place where people can forget about the world, leave it all outside. This is something we reflect in our music." You'll hear a lot of Norah Jones in al-Jazireh's place, and a lot of love songs too.

But that may be changing. On the same day that Jordan's prime minister, Ali Abul Ragheb, summoned the US ambassador to formally protest civilian casualties in Iraq, a local pan-Arab artists' union announced its intention to paint a large public mural at the Professional Associations Complex here in Amman to express "unity with the Iraqi people against the American and British invaders", according to a statement.

Seeing Abdel Rahim's photograph on his tape case, with his small deep-set eyes set over an attempt at a smile that doesn't quite make it past a leer, 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. Before striking fame, Abdel Rahim's performances had been mostly limited to weddings.

But then, those who seek out Abdel Rahim's music aren't looking for tunes of tenderness. He finds his following at the rickety card tables in city centers and souks where the working folk and the taxi drivers gather to pore over the stacks of bootleg cassette tapes that sit in stacks next to packages of socks and cheap cologne, where the braying of the vendors creates a never-ending din. One of these vendors said this week that he can't keep enough Abdel Rahim tapes on hand to supply the demand. "I sold more than 500 tapes last week," he said.

And, although lack of airplay limits Abdel Rahim's audience, being the preferred tape of every taxi driver in Amman is an inspired career move: who better than a fleet of taxi drivers to spread the word? And the word is spreading. Abdel Rahim used to be something of a fringe idiot in the Arab world - not anymore. Not with war raging next door.

And to tell the truth, the tunes themselves are quite catching. There's a foot-tapping rhythm and quality to the best of them that's a little like that of an untamed John Fogerty, a quality that makes them stick in your head despite yourself. It's a quality that probably accounts for his success - people just keep listening, and humming along. And, what with the war, and the fact that many of the taxi drivers in Amman and around the Middle East are playing Abdel Rahim pretty much non-stop these days, it's an even bet that many of the foreign aid workers, journalists and soldiers who have come to the Middle East because of the war have not only heard "Attack on Iraq", but have hummed along too - whether they know it or not.

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Apr 5, 2003


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