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Culture : Banned in Egypt : A bid to censor a popular song reflects the extent to which the arts have become the victims of a widening wave of Islamic conservatism throughout the Arab world.


CAIRO — No one among the thousands packed into Egypt's national stadium was sitting down that night. Couples in the stands swayed back and forth. Young men in Levi's balanced precariously on the edge of the seating banks, making frightening rhythmic leaps into the air. Women, heads covered by demure Islamic scarves, clapped and bopped and stomped.

One frenzied word was sung repeatedly into the Egyptian night: "Didi."

No one knows exactly what "Didi"--Algerian singer Cheb Khaled's hit song--means. Is it a woman's name? Does it refer, as his manager says, to the Arabic word for giving, eddi ? Or as Khaled said in one interview, is it an Algerian dialect takeoff on the classic Arabic swoon, "Oh, night"?

In Egypt, where no one understands a single word of Khaled's western Algerian Arabic, no one cares. "Didi" was voted the No. 1 song of 1992. You can't walk down a Cairo street without hearing it blaring from a nearby coffee shop, a cassette stand or, siren-like, from a passing taxi.

But shortly before Khaled's stadium concert in Cairo recently--his first in the heart of the Arab world after years of touring in Europe, the United States and Asia--you couldn't hear it on Cairo Radio. It was banned.

The minister of information, according to a state radio disc jockey who got the order, was told that it "probably" had "unsavory lyrics."

"How can we tell?" the jockey, Mohammed Shebl, who later persuaded the authorities to resume play on the air, wrote in a newspaper column about l'affaire "Didi." "We can't even understand what the bloke is yodeling about!"

"Didi" became the Arab world's own version of "Louie Louie," a song by the Kingsmen in the '60s that no one could understand the words to, but everyone suspected was dirty.

The authorities' brief attempt to ban the song reflects the growing extent to which the arts have become victims of a widening wave of Islamic conservatism throughout the Arab world. Although "Didi" is back on the airwaves, there are a number of Egyptian songs, films and books--including one by Egypt's own Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz--that have been banned or edited beyond comprehension for public consumption.

Try watching Egypt's most popular nighttime television program, the American soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful," without getting a headache trying to figure out what's going on.

There are few Cairenes who can't tell you the long, slow travails of the Los Angeles families featured in the drama, the Forresters and the Logans, but just ask one of them what happened during the 30-minute chunk that was excised earlier this month when the male lead, Ridge, slipped secretly into the bed of the female lead, Caroline, posing as her husband? No one knows. All they know is that Caroline is real angry about something.

Or, how is it that Margo is having Clark's baby when we've never seen him do anything more than put his hand on her forearm?

During Ramadan last month, even the mention of character Donna's posing for nude pictures was abruptly sliced. This in a country where the population grows by a million people every nine months?

"We have to adapt what is available to our society, with our traditions," said Dalal Abdel Fatah, head censor for Egyptian television. "The bed scenes, scenes of kissing, scenes of making love, all these are forbidden. Usually, we omit one or two scenes, and it's enough. Not all the kisses are cut. The over-kisses. You know, where they have some movement, by tongue, by lips. The extraordinary kisses. But the ordinary kisses, we have them, to teach people how to love."

An Australian series, "Sons and Daughters," was yanked from the air after 150 episodes because it started depicting young men becoming rowdy. Screenwriter Harold Pinter's 1963 film "The Servant" never made it because it depicted a homosexual relationship between an employer and a servant. "Even the thought was difficult," Fatah said.

But "Fatal Vision," the true-life film about Army physician Jeffrey MacDonald's trial for the murder of his family, did air on Egyptian TV, even after most of the people in the censor's office recommended against its violence.

Fatah liked its message about MacDonald's attempt to blame the murder on drug-crazed hippies and its suggestion that MacDonald himself might have been using drugs.

"If there is a moral, it doesn't matter. There is the crime and the punishment," she said. "This film shows that everyone dealing with narcotics needs to think 100 times first."

Political censorship has been a fact of life in the Arab world since time immemorial, although Egypt's press is considerably freer than most. Censorship of the arts hit the headlines in 1967, when a host of American actors were banned throughout the Arab world for their support of Israel: Elizabeth Taylor, Kirk Douglas, Barbra Streisand. Egyptian actor Omar Sharif was even banned for a while because he made the movie "Funny Girl" with Streisand.

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