Egypt draws veil over top pop star

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The Independent Online

An overweight singer who once ironed clothes for a living has been publicly denounced by the Egyptian government for being too popular.

Shaaban Abdel Rahim, a fortysomething singer who favours a wet-look perm and loud suits and who makes more than a dozen live appearances on television each week, has had pre-recorded versions of his songs banned from the airwaves by the national censor.

The singer rose to prominence after releasing a record called "I Hate Israel", which sold more than five million copies. But his soaring popularity has angered political and artistic leaders. A parliamentary debate brought the spectacle of Egypt's elected leaders spending hours debating Shaaban's ruinous influence on Egyptian society.

Abdel Salem Abdel Ghaffar, head of the parliamentary media committee, said: "Shaaban does not represent any artistic or cultural value. In addition, his weird attire, which is far from good taste, affects our youth, who are influenced by what they see on television."

Shaaban's sensational rise to fame is an unusual Egyptian story. All the more so because he admits he can't even sing. As an ironer – a traditional profession for working-class Cairene men, who use an iron strapped to a shoe rather than the hand-held variety – Shaaban was known for singing while he worked. Over the years, he juggled his day job with an ever-expanding circuit of working-class venues.

By chance one of Egypt's leading television presenters heard his music and thought it would be fun to have someone "local" on her show. But not until 2000, when Shaaban released his so-called patriotic song "I Hate Israel", did the singer's star really soared. Catchily subtitled "But I Love Amr Moussa" (a former foreign minister, now head of the Arab League), the ditty catapulted Shaaban into the consciousness of the entire Arab world.

The song became so popular that Palestinian teenagers would play cassettes of the track near to Israeli army checkpoints then run away, leaving the annoyed soldiers listening to Shaaban's drone.

After the record's success, Shaaban began to release hit after hit, building up such a following that some leading figures felt compelled to act against him.

Cynics detect a sinister reason for his difficulties. As one unnamed media watcher explained: "If he had subtitled his song 'But I Love President Mubarak' instead of Amr Moussa these problems would never have occurred."

The singer told The Independent: "I have a right to have my songs broadcast. I am a patriotic man and popular with the people. But if these attacks go on for much longer I will go back to ironing and just sing whilst I work."