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Pop crooner hits sour note with Egyptian elite

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"Success was a surprise to me," explains the father of five. "I never expected to eat meat every day, but Allah has blessed me.

"My songs are simple and that's why people love me. They understand the words, because this is how we talk on the streets. You don't need to be educated to enjoy one of my songs."

Shaaban's growing popularity soared when, shortly after his initial TV appearance in 2000, he released a so-called patriotic song entitled "I hate Israel." The catchy subtitle "But I love Amr Moussa" (Egypt's former Foreign Minister and now head of the Arab League) catapulted Shaaban's ditty into the consciousness of the entire Arab world.

The song became so popular that a widely reported story in the Arab press said Palestinian teenagers would play cassettes of the track near to Israeli army checkpoints then run away, leaving the annoyed soldiers listening to Shaaban drone.

But it's the Egypt cultural elite who seem most put out. Leading actress, Madiha Youssri, says: "Men of letters and culture who have given a lot to our country appear only occasionally on television, whilst this Shaaban is there all the time. The man should be banned from the airwaves."

Newspaper columnists in the Egyptian dailies have been lining up to join in the condemnation, with one darkly demanding that the powerful minister of information put an "end to the farce."

But Shaaban himself is stoic in the face of mounting criticism. "I'm really happy that our politicians feel it's so important to talk about a simple man like me," he said gazing at the two chunky gold watches that he has taken to wearing on each wrist. "These people say that I'm a rough man. But who cares. Every time they talk about me I sell more records."

Although he doesn't have a government "license," which officially allows artists to have their songs broadcast on state radio or television, Shaaban's fan base keeps getting larger. A combination of word-of-mouth; guest spots on chat shows, and more recently a locally made film and stage play have helped cement his success. He has even had a variety of potato chips named after him; and his chubby face is a regular on cheaply made T-shirts.

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