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Romance of an Iraqi Star

By Mona Eltahawy

Sunday, March 9, 2003; Page B07

The heavy police presence and security cordon were probably unnecessary in New York's famously liberal Upper West Side. But perhaps they were there to protect the Upper West Side from the Arab concertgoers who poured into the Beacon Theatre to see Kazem al-Sahir, the Iraqi superstar on tour in the United States.

I was not a huge fan but I was there to support his courage for coming to a country threatening to attack his very soon.

I picked up my ticket at the box office, and before I could enter the theater a correspondent for German and Dutch television cornered me for an interview. Being a journalist who has cornered a fair number of people on their way into events, I obliged.

When I told him I was there to show solidarity with Kazem's courage, he asked me if I supported Iraq. Like most Arabs around the world, I told him, I make a distinction between Saddam Hussein, a reckless dictator, and the people of Iraq, for whom this would be the third war in 20 years. I support the people of Iraq, oppose the war and believe everything possible should be done to avert it.

The correspondent asked what good a concert could do at a time like this and what it was like to be an Arab in the United States today. And then it was back to Kazem, as he is known throughout the Middle East.

"But he sings about romance. Shouldn't he sing about protest?" I was asked.

"Can't Arabs have romance?" was my answer before I entered the theater for two of hours of nothing but romance. Love and longing are Kazem's forte.

"We are here to show love and respect to our hosts," the singer told the audience in Arabic when he took to the stage for the first of five concerts in this country. His orchestra was an Arab American music collective, with 15 musicians from across the country.

The theater was not full, but we were a loud audience. "Tell them we are a people who want peace and love," the singer said. We greeted every reference to peace with cheers and whistles that drowned out the rest of his sentence.

"Tell everyone we are a people with heritage and civilization," Kazem said. "We want peace and, God willing, there will be no war."

Unlike many of the pop stars in the Arab world today who employ a colloquial style in their songs, Kazem sings mostly in fusha, or classical Arabic, lending his songs the sophistication of poetry. He is famed for his own compositions, but many of his lyrics are also the words of poets. My favorite Kazem song is based on a poem by Syria's poetic genius, Nizar Qabbani.

Very soon people were out of their seats dancing and shouting out requests for their favorite songs. In the middle of one song, a woman sitting across the aisle asked me to translate a song that was working the audience into a frenzy.

It was a song that tells of a jealous lover asking her beloved who the other woman in his life is. He teases her with descriptions of his true love's unmatched beauty and her many virtues until he finally reveals that his heart's desire is Baghdad. At the mere mention of the Iraqi capital, the cheering at the Beacon Theatre was deafening.

It is difficult to overestimate the poignancy of Baghdad in the collective Arab unconscious. In a climate where references to Iraq on U.S. television seem to come out of a bad action movie that even Rambo would turn down, how to explain the beauty that Arabs associate with historical Baghdad, for so long a reservoir of culture and learning?

Every time I see "SHOWDOWN IRAQ" screaming across the screen on CNN I expect to see pro wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin, in place of an anchor, threatening an opponent in a WWF shakedown.

"Do people understand how painful it is to hear talk of the fall of Baghdad?" my father asked me when I called my family in the Middle East recently. "Do they understand how entrenched Baghdad is in our hearts, in our minds? We don't care about Saddam. Baghdad is so much bigger. What if this was Cairo?"

From her accent, I could tell that the woman I was translating for was not a native-English speaker and so I asked her where she was from. I could not have orchestrated her answer better myself.

"I am Iranian. I love Kazem. I have every single one of his CDs. I love him."

This woman's country had fought Kazem's for 10 years in one of the bloodiest and most futile wars in the recent history of the Middle East. I wanted to run out and get that reporter for European television who asked me what a concert -- or romance -- could do.

Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based writer.

2003 The Washington Post Company