An explosive musical comeback

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

Arab audiences are not ready for the return to music of a pop superstar who became a Salafist extremist and allegedly took up arms against the Lebanese state.

Wednesday 30 May 2018

Eyebrows were raised when the Egyptian media production company AG Group announced that the controversial Lebanese-Palestinian singer Fadel Shaker had been contracted to sing the theme song of the much-awaited Ramadan series ‘Ladena Aqwal Okhra’ (‘We have Something Else To Say’) starring the veteran actress Yousra, alongside Shereen Reda and Najla Badr.

Last September, a Lebanese military court sentenced Shaker in absentia to 15 years in prison after convicting him for his alleged role in a 2013 attack on the Lebanese army that left 18 soldiers dead in the southern city of Sidon.

Reactions from audiences and celebrities were mixed: while some welcomed Shaker’s return as a triumph of ‘good over evil’, others regarded it as rewarding a murderer with blood on his hands. Singers such as the Lebanese Wael Gassar, Fares Karam, Melhm Zain, Elissa and Assi Helani supported Shaker’s return, while the likes of Ragheb Alama and Rami Ayash were stridently opposed.

The song, which was released on YouTube on 8 May, has been viewed over 3 million times, which could be an indication that many people have forgiven Shaker and longed for his return, as well as that the controversy has drawn the curious.

The biggest surprise came when, less than 48 hours after the track’s release, AG Group decided to remove the song from the series, which was announced in a press release reiterating the Cairo-based production company’s support for Lebanon and its armed forces. This came following widespread criticism of the company in Lebanon, including the mother of one of the dead soldiers appealing on TV for the removal of Shaker’s song.

In an interview with an Egyptian TV channel, on 9 May, the co-creator of the series, Medhat al-Adl, admitted: “We didn’t study the legal standpoint regarding Fadl Shaker in Lebanon. We basically made our decision from a purely artistic perspective.”

“When we learnt that his problem has not been solved and that there are questions over his legal situation,” al-Adl elaborated, “we decided, out of our respect for the feelings of the Lebanese people, to do without the voice of Fadel Shaker.”

Shaker was quoted as saying he was surprised by the move. Egyptian TV host Wael Elebrashy said he had called the singer, who denied  the charges against him. Elebrashy insinuated that Shaker was the “victim” of political and sectarian forces, claiming that Hizbullah and pro-Assad supporters in Lebanon were the ones behind Shaker’s situation and his dismissal.

In 2012, Shaker quit his music career on religious grounds, claiming that singing is ‘haram’ (forbidden religiously) which upset his colleagues and fellow singers. Soon afterwards Shaker changed his name to Hajj Shaker and went on to pledge allegiance to Lebanese Salafist cleric Ahmed Al Assir.

Shaker’s alleged decision to take up arms with Al Assir’s supporters in 2013 in an attack against the Lebanese army led to him being sentenced, in absentia, to 15 years’ imprisonment with hard labour, a fine of 800,000 Lebanese Lira and the removal of his civil rights.

Ever since, Shaker was spotted sporadically at events where he performed religiously inspired songs in Ain al-Hilweh, a Palestinian refugee camp which is generally not accessible to the Lebanese military.

Shaker appeared on a local TV station sporting a beard typical of ultra-conservative Salafists. Images and videos have also emerged of Shaker with Islamist militants. Shaker has long denied the accusations against him. In an interview with the Lebanese TV channel MTV two years ago, Shaker insisted that he does belong to any political or religious group and that his relationship with Al Assir does not go beyond the fact that Shaker prays at a mosque where Al Assir preaches. Shaker also insisted that the weapons he was carrying in the videos were licensed by Lebanese military intelligence and he never used them except in self-defence, after a Hizbullah brigade launched a militant attack against Shaker’s village and ransacked his home, stealing more than $940,00, then torching it, according to Shaker. He goes on to claim that he did not fire a single bullet but he was shot at along with Al Assir’s men by Hizbullah.

The whereabouts of Shaker are still unknown. The producers said they had contracted Shaker for the theme song through his son.

Born in the Lebanese city of Sidon, Shaker shot to fame in 1998 with his hit ‘Meta, Habibi, Meta’ (‘When, Darling, When’), which earned him the title ‘King of Romance’ and made him superstar across the Arab world. He went on to release more hits and performed alongside international stars, such as Mariah Carey and Jimmy Cliff.

The whole situation is rather baffling and could have easily been avoided had AG Group done its homework. If the production company did not know about the history of someone as famous as Shaker, this raises serious questions about its professionalism. If the company knew about his past but decided to choose him on artistic merit, this raises the question of why it buckled so quickly to popular pressure. In light of all the free publicity the series has received, there is also the possibility that this was a cynical publicity stunt.

Whether the reason, it appears that Arab audiences, especially the Lebanese, are not yet ready to forgive Fadel Shaker.

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