|Singing out against the war
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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