The King of Pop in the Muslim World

I woke up on Friday morning–a weekend in the Arab and Muslim world–and turned on the TV in customary fashion, to hear the news. The normal stories were being mercilessly debated to death: Iran, Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan. In a small note, running on the news bar of al-Jazeera, were the words, “American pop icon, Michael Jackson, dies at 50.” I could not believe what I was reading, and grabbed the remote control to switch to CNN, NBC, and BBC. The world was ablaze with news that the King of Pop had died in Los Angeles.

I belong to a generation that grew up listening to Michael Jackson’s music in the 1980s. Relations with the United States were cordial–to say the least–under Reagan’s America, and very little of America’s culture had infiltrated into the Arab world. There were no Levi’s outlets, no KFCs, or McDonald’s. We got Hollywood movies on video cassettes (not in cinemas), and watched American sitcoms, like Three’s Company and the Cosby Show, on Jordan TV. To young teenagers growing up in the Arab world, there were three cherished pop idols to those aged 13 and above: Madonna, George Michael, and Michael Jackson. With the passing of time, Madonna became too outrageous for the Arab East and George Michael sunk into obscurity. The only name that was constantly in the news was Jackson. As teenagers, we learned to moonwalk, sported red leather jackets like the one he wore in Thriller, and danced to his music at private parties–long before nightclubs had invaded the night life of Damascus.

We brought ourselves to believe that Michael Jackson ‘liked’ the Arab World because he wore a jacket that ‘looked Arabic’ in “We are the World.” He reportedly had a fling with Brooke Shields in the 1980s–a woman who was adored by young people throughout the Middle East, and a poster of them walking the red carpet into the Oscars soon became a must in the bedrooms of young teenagers.

Then suddenly, a baseless rumor ripped throughout the Arab world, saying that Michael Jackson hated the Arabs, and had hostile feelings towards Muslims. This affected the popularity of Michael in the Arab world, and coincided with career setbacks for the King of Pop, which made him literally disappear from news, until the early 1990s. Then, ugly stories of the artist began to surface in the international press, with story after another, of improper sexual behavior with minors. That had a very negative affect on his image, and probably explains why very little was said about him on the day of his death, in the Arab world. Strangely, his tour of Dubai, temporary residence in Bahrain, and friendship with Saudi billionaire Prince Walid Bin Talal, did little to polish his shattered image in the eyes of Arab media.

A few years ago, a song called “Give Thanks to Allah” praising Islam–with some phrases sung in excellent Arabic–began circulating via Bluetooth on mobile phones. It sounded like Michael Jackson, and being a Jackson fan for years, I could have sworn it was him singing. Internet stories immediately dismissed the song, saying that it was performed by a South African singer called Zain Bhikha, from an album called, “Towards the Light” (2001). I was never able to verify if the song was performed by Michael, but most people here who admired the singer want to believe that it was Michael who recorded the song.

As I got news of Michael’s death, childhood memories began coming to mind, about Beat It, Billie Jean, Thriller–and my favorite, Man in the Mirror. His death–at the young age of 50–reminded me of Elvis’s death at the age of 42 in 1977. The two men single-handedly revolutionized the music business in the 20th Century, each with his own private signature. I have been a loyal Elvis fan for years, and as a young teenager got ‘excited’ when Michael married his daughter Lisa Marie in 1994. The fact of the matter is, however, that now both Elvis and Michael are dead, and the music world will never be the same, without them. So many people I met today–especially those now in the early 30s–were saddened by the death of such a legend. This was clear from casual conversations, profile status on Facebook, and similar ones on Twitter, all by Syrian fans who had one uniform word, “RIP Michael!”

My good friend Anas Abu Qaws, a young Syrian rocker from Aleppo, was planning to bring Michael Jackson to Damascus. Less than month ago, the two of us had spent an entire night watching an early 1990s documentary about Michael Jackson. Anas went into absolute trance when “Beat It” was played–especially when it came to the electric guitar in mid-song–saying: “This man is a genius! Listen to that music!” Anas was the son of Syria’s legendary tenor Sabah Fakhri, a man who had topped the charts in our part of the world–for four decades non-stop, singing classical Arabic music, known as muwashahat and qudod. He preserved the heritage of Arabic music, and Anas–like so many music-admiring Arabs–saw no contradiction in listening to both Sabah Fakhri, and Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson will be missed, and forever remembered, by his Arab and Syrian fans.

Washington Post, 26 June 2009