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Pop crooner hits sour note with Egyptian elite

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You know, I can't sing. And look at my face - it's ugly, really ugly. But for some reason, people keep throwing their money at me.... Who am I to say no?"

Shaaban Abdel Rahim has a point. In little more than two years, he has become Egypt's biggest and most unlikely pop star.

The overweight singer, who favors a wet-perm look and sequined suits, has sold millions of records and is so popular that TV hosts are queuing up to get him on their chat sofa. Mr. Shaaban has also released hit record after hit record, building up such a following that some of Egypt's leading political figures now feel compelled to act against the singer's swelling support.

A recent parliamentary debate saw the bemusing spectacle of the nation's elected leaders spending precious time discussing 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."

The singer's sensational rise to fame is an unusual Egyptian story. In a class-ridden country, the poor rarely get the opportunity to escape humble origins, especially if they don't have good looks or striking talent.

Shaaban started singing while working as an ironer, a traditional profession for Cairo's working-class men.

A few of his neighbors liked his hearty renditions of popular songs and asked him to appear at their weddings. Over the years, Shaaban juggled his day job with an ever-expanding circuit of working-class venues. He even began to sell cheaply made cassettes of his songs to taxi and minibus drivers.

By chance, one of Egypt's top TV presenters heard his music and thought it would be fun to have someone "local" on her show.

After his first television appearance, success followed quickly. Shaaban seemed to capture something in the hearts and minds of Egypt's predominantly impoverished society: He was one of them and, unusually, had a public platform to sing about their lives.


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