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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Music

ISRAEL: Elvis Costello cancels Tel Aviv concerts as 'matter of conscience'

Elvis Costello What's so funny about peace, love and understanding? Nothing for Israeli fans of Elvis Costello who will not see the legend perform in Tel Aviv this summer after he canceled all scheduled shows there, citing concerns over the treatment of Palestinians.

"There are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act ... and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent," Costello wrote on his website.

"I must believe that the audience for the coming concerts would have contained many people who question the policies of their government on settlement and deplore conditions that visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians in the name of national security," the statement continued. "I hope it is possible to understand that I am not taking this decision lightly. ... It is a matter of instinct and conscience."

Reactions in Israel have ranged from disappointment to outrage.

Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat lashed out at Costello, saying: "An artist boycotting his fans in Israel is unworthy of performing here," according to Ynetnews, the website of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

Ariana Melamed, also writing for Ynet, said that although she understood and even respected artists who chose to boycott Israel over the occupation, to pull out after the contracts had been signed and tickets had gone on sale was hypocritical.

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IRAN, ARMENIA: Booze and relative freedom lure Iranians to Christian enclave to the north

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Landlocked and still recovering from the decades of Soviet rule and a war with Azerbaijan that quickly followed, Armenia may not be the world's most attractive vacation destination.

But for those living in the neighboring Islamic Republic, it's a kind of earthly paradise.

Iranians purchasing souvenirs In March, 27, 600 Iranians spent Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. 

But late spring and summer -- when the weather is comfortable, delicious fruits are harvested and outdoor events are numerous -- tourists also come in droves. 

An Armenian community leader in Tehran said up to 80% of Iran's Armenians, speculated to be as many as 500,000, travel to Armenia at least once a year.

The visitors can enjoy Armenian shish kebab and rice pilaf with a bottle of pomegranate wine or homemade liquor, or pick up a lahmajoun, an Armenian thin-crust meat pizza, on the street.

"Iranians are looking for reasons to leave their country so they can experience some freedoms," said Vanoohi Googasian, a Persian Armenian tour guide living in Yerevan.

"It's not about the specific holiday," she said. "It's about Iranians finding an excuse to leave their country to party."

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TURKEY: Istanbul muezzins struggling to hit the right note get voice lessons

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After residents filed a flood of complaints over lack of sleep and discomfort due to ill-sounding calls to prayers, Istanbul's high-ranking Muslim cleric Mufti Mustafa Cagrici decided it was time to take action on the city's tone-deaf imams.

His solution: singing lessons for all of Istanbul's preachers, or muezzins, struggling to hit the right note.

"For some reason, these imams were hired even though their voices are not good; they just can't sing! We're doing our best to help our imams and muezzins to improve their singing," Cagrici was quoted as saying by the BBC.

In some Istanbul neighborhoods, muezzins are now reportedly getting together once a week to practice and improve their singing skills with more experienced colleagues.

"I never learned how to sing. When I was training they had me sing in front of the others a few times but that was all. Today they place more importance on it in the training," Mustafa Önder, one of the imams enrolled in these classes, told Deutsche Welle TV.

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LEBANON, SYRIA: Activists furious over song beckoning women back to domesticity


A set of song lyrics have set off protests in Beirut, and angry women's rights activists in Syria have urged the local radio stations to take it off the air.

The song at the heart of the controversy is "Jumhoriyet Albi," or "The Republic of my Heart" -- the hit single by the popular Lebanese singer Mohammad Iskandar released about a month ago.

"We have no girls here that work with their degrees," sings Iskandar in Arabic. "Our girls are pampered. Everything she wants is at her service."

It continues, "Assuming I agree that you work, what would we do about your beauty? Your job is taking care of my heart ... it's enough that you're the republic of my heart" 

Some outraged female listeners find the song insulting and a degrading demand that women stay at home and be good housewives instead of taking part in the work world.

"This is an example of how we are going backwards,"  Rebecca, a feminist activist in her 20s, told Babylon & Beyond. "Talking about how the women don't have an active role and just taking care of his heart. We're going back to the dark ages."

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EGYPT: Musicians group calls for cancellation of upcoming Elton John concert [Updated]

The Egyptian Musicians' Union is calling for the cancellation of a May 18 concert by Elton John after the singer's recent comments about religion and his global promotion of homosexual rights, which many Muslims regard as an affront to Islam.  

"How do we allow a gay who wants to ban religions, claimed that prophet Eissa [Jesus] was gay, and calls for Middle Eastern countries to allow gays to have sexual freedom," Mounir El Wassimi, the head of the union, said Sunday. 

The union controls who performs in Egypt, but it was unclear if concert promoters would attempt to go ahead with the show. John, a Grammy, Academy Award and Golden Globe winner, has made no secret of his homosexuality since the mid-'70s. He has been in a civil partnership with David Furnish since 2005.

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MOROCCO: Rock, rap and heavy metal music fans rejoice in newfound freedom

Most of the head-bangers pogo dancing wildly to heavy metal music at Casablanca's Tremplin Festival recently were too young to remember a time when people were sent to jail in Morocco for doing just that. 

Seven years after Morocco's satanic-music trial, the alternative music scene in the North African country is alive and kicking; it has even received a grant from king Mohammed VI himself.

The Tremplin festival, which took place at Casablanca's disaffected art deco slaughterhouses, is a kind of  "American Idol" for the alternative music scene in Morocco: The winners go on to play the much larger L'Boulevard festival in Casablanca next month. The last edition of L'Boulevard drew no less than 160,000 visitors, spread out over six days and two football stadiums – enough to attract the interest of major commercial sponsors.

It wasn't always like this. One of the members on this year's jury was 30-year-old Nabyl Guennouni. Now a manager at an events agency in Rabat, Guennouni was one of 14 heavy-metal musicians who in 2003 were arrested and sent to prison for practicing "satanism" and "endangering the Islamic faith."

"We weren't doing anything wrong, but the authorities didn't understand what we were doing," he said. "They saw a bunch of kids hanging out together dressed in black T-shirts, and they wanted to know what was behind it."

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KUWAIT: Diva blasted by Islamic clerics for singing in Hebrew at club


The 28-year old Iranian-Kuwaiti composer and singer Emma Shah has written and performed in many languages, including Arabic, Russian, French and Japanese.

But her latest choice of language did not go over so well in Kuwait. After singing in Hebrew at a recent gathering in Kuwait City's Alumni Club, she's now being accused of promoting Zionism and normalization of ties with Israel, reports the UAE-based English newspaper Gulf News.

Her performance upset Kuwaiti religious figures, including the religious scholar Sheikh Mohammad Awadhi. In an article published in the Kuwaiti daily Al Rai newspaper, he condemned the singer for  "alien attitudes that clash with the spirit, culture and values of the Kuwaiti society."

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LEBANON: Palestinian rap duo welcomed in Europe, but not in Arab countries


It's hard out there for a Palestinian playah, especially in the Arab world.

I-Voice, a Palestinian hip-hop duo, has played to thousands of its fans in sold-out auditoriums from Austria to Spain.

But it can’t cut a break on Arab stages from Casablanca to Dubai.

Denied entry to Morocco recently, I-Voice had to cancel yet another tour through the Arab world because of what they describe as discriminatory practices against Palestinian refugees and their descendants. 

“When I went to Austria and Spain, it was no problem," said Yasin Qasem, 21, a freelance sound engineer who is one-half of the duo."For Cyprus, I got it on the same day. But with Arabic countries, I don’t know why. Maybe they are scared from Palestinians."

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ISRAEL: Recognition for Jews displaced from Arab countries

A year and a half ago, M., an Iranian-born Israeli, walked into the Iranian Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, and bribed his way into obtaining Iranian ID papers. He then traveled to his native city in Iran where he met with local businessmen in an attempt to sell his considerable property before it got nationalized. Shortly after his arrival, Iranian intelligence took him to Tehran, where he was questioned. He was no one big, knew nothing important and they let him go about his business. Returning, the Israeli police and security services picked him up too and charged him with visiting an enemy state. Last week news media reported he was sentenced to four months of community service and a token fine.

There is more traffic between Israel and Iran than people think. Family and the fierce tug of nostalgia pulls people back and forth on trips that some might think could be asking for trouble but are usually all right.

And there the business and property to take care of.

Jews who migrated to Israel left property everywhere from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. Some research estimates that about $1 billion worth of personal and community assets were left behind by 850,000 Jews who forfeited all when they left their old countries for the new one. After Israel's establishment, the Jews' standing in many countries deteriorated and the choice for most was clear: offer or not, they were in no place to refuse. 

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MUSLIM WORLD: King of Pop was about to convert to Islam, Michael Jackson's brother says

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Michael's Jackson's brother Jermaine Jackson reached out to the Muslim world in a long, controversial interview with the Dubai-based pan-Arab news channel Al-Arabiya aired Thursday night. 

See below the jump for the videos of the interview, Jermaine Jackson's first ever with an Arab news network.

During his nearly hourlong talk, he spoke out about his brother's death, the conspiracies he believed were behind the singer's downfall -- and how he believes the King of Pop was on the verge of converting to Islam.

After spending time in the Gulf (Michael Jackson lived in Bahrain for a while in 2005), "Michael hired a team that was all Muslim,” Jackson told Al- Arabiya, dressed in a red Arab Keffeyeh scarf.  “His behavior at the time also showed that he was very close to converting.”

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ABU DHABI: Please don't stop the music, Rihanna, but do cover up (?)

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The organizers behind acclaimed Barbadian singer Rihanna’s planned concert in Abu Dhabi on New Year's Eve are denying media reports that the star has been told to trade in her trademark revealing, raunchy stage gear for a more wholesome look in her gig at the Emirates Palace Hotel in the emirate. 

“The facts and figures recently reported around Rihanna’s Abu Dhabi concert are totally inaccurate,” said concert organizer Flash in a statement quoted by the United Arab Emirates-based English-language newspaper Gulf News.

The wardrobe row surfaced after the British tabloid the Daily Mirror claimed in a report over the weekend that Rihanna had been instructed to dress more conservatively for her show in Abu Dhabi and that the 21-year-old star was “tearing her hair out over what to do" about it.

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LEBANON: Pop princess faces Egyptian outrage over 'Nubian monkey' lyrics

Haifa Wehbe is no stranger to controversy. The sultry Lebanese provocateur made a name for herself on the Arabic music scene with her signature coquettish pout and tongue-in-cheek songs like "Boos al Wawa" ("Kiss the Boo-Boo) and "Ya Ibn al Halal" (roughly, "Hey, Good Little Muslim Boy").

But now the pop princess is finding herself at the center of a different kind of scandal after Egyptian lawmakers expressed outrage over allegedly racist lyrics in her new song "Baba Fein?" ("Where's Daddy?"), according to news reports. 

The song, a duet between Wehbe and a young singer who plays her son, is supposed to be a lighthearted lyrical argument revolving around bedtime, with the child at one point singing the line, "Where's my teddy bear and the Nubian monkey?"

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