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A Lebanon crooner's journey from heartthrob to militant fugitive

Fadel Shaker, who once rode atop the Arab world's music charts, is shown in a video holed up inside a bunker with a militant sheik during a deadly shootout with soldiers.

August 11, 2013|By Nabih Bulos
  • Lebanese singer Fadel Shaker, right, appears at a July 2012 concert with militant sheik Ahmad Assir. Shaker, a onetime superstar, sang Muslim songs.
Lebanese singer Fadel Shaker, right, appears at a July 2012 concert with… (Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP/Getty…)

BEIRUT — With his pouty lips and soulful eyes, he was a stylish figure known as the King of Romance, a crooner of amorous ballads often seen cavorting with would-be starlets in MTV-style videos filmed on yachts, in upscale cafes and in swank homes.

But Fadel Shaker's latest video — without a note uttered — may become his swan song, portraying the balladeer in a new and disturbing incarnation: hunkered down defiantly with a militant sheik and his armed followers, holding out against Lebanese soldiers he derided as dogs and pigs.

The extraordinary transformation of Shaker — who once rode atop the Arab world's charts as a kind of Lebanese Harry Connick Jr. — is surely one of the strangest examples of how the Syrian civil war has spilled over into Lebanon, deeply dividing Syria's small neighbor.

Shaker, 44, is a fugitive wanted by Lebanese authorities in connection with the deaths of 18 soldiers in a shootout in June with well-armed supporters of the militant sheik, Ahmad Assir, at his heavily guarded compound outside the southern city of Sidon. Authorities say the onetime heartthrob was alongside Assir during the assault and that the two men escaped together. Fans of the singer were stunned.

"I still shake my head [in disbelief] every time his songs come up on my music player," said Rania, a Beirut resident who declined to give her last name for privacy reasons. "What needs to happen to someone for them to go from singing love songs to joining a militia?"

In the Arab press, reports of Shaker sightings are an almost daily occurrence. A YouTube video appeared recently that apparently shows Shaker singing a number entitled, "Prepare Like Those Who Love to Struggle," based on a poem written by none other than Osama bin Laden.

Shaker comes from the ramshackle confines of the Ain Helweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon. The young Shaker, born Fadel Shamandar, was forced to leave school at 15 to support his family after his father's death.

"I would wake up at 3 in the morning, go out and wait for the bus that would take us to the stone quarry," Shaker recalled in a 2009 radio interview, adding that he earned the equivalent of less than one U.S. dollar for a day's work breaking stones.

It is unclear how his vocal talents were noticed. At some point, he was recruited into a local band playing weddings and other festivities.

The local gigs soon paved the way for grander ambitions and Shaker composed his first song, "Matah Habibi Matah" ("When, My Love, When?"). He soon found a partner in Khoyoul, a Saudi Arabian media production company that signed him to a 10-year contract in 2000.

His first album had been a hit, and soon he could do no wrong; the single from his second album, "Bayaa' Al-Quloob" ("Seller of Hearts"), rocketed to the No. 1 spot on the Arab charts within days of its release. Shaker was a superstar. Subsequent albums were major sellers, encouraging established artists such as Shereen, Nawal and Elissa to collaborate with him on sappy love tunes that took the Arab world by storm. The stream of slick music videos accentuated his fame.

Yet Shaker grew increasingly uncomfortable. "Money from art has no blessing in it," he told an interviewer in 2009. "I found art to be a big lie."

Soon he was verbally lashing out at other artists, admonishing female singers to "cover up" and "wear the hijab," the Islamic veil. As his once-prolific output ground to a halt, Shaker, by then believed to be a multimillionaire, announced his retirement in 2012 on an Islamic channel, declaring, in an apparent reaffirmation of his native faith, "I have become a Muslim. I hated this work."

But it was the Syrian uprising, which had begun in 2011, and the deep sectarian rifts it accentuated in Lebanese society that spurred his conversion into an Islamist warrior. Many Lebanese Sunni Muslims, like Shaker, sympathize with the Sunni-led revolt against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Shaker became a regular at anti-Assad rallies in Lebanon, often appearing with Assir, whose fiery rhetoric targeting Shiites stoked sectarian tensions. The singer embraced his new mentor's provocative style, at one point publicly threatening to murder a Shiite mayor. Replacing his saccharine torch ballads were nasheed, Islamic religious chanting, with lyrics such as "Don't cry for me, Mother, for I am off to jihad."

When the Lebanese army stormed Assir's compound in June, it was the culmination of friction that had been building for several months. Matters came to a head when three soldiers were ambushed and killed at a military checkpoint near Assir's complex, authorities said. The subsequent escalation left 18 soldiers and 28 gunmen dead, according to Lebanese officials, who said Shaker and Assir were among those who escaped the siege. Some unconfirmed reports had the pair slipping away dressed as women.

A Shaker video appearance emerged a few days later on YouTube, apparently filmed inside the sheik's bunker during the siege. Looking rough in a T-shirt, jeans and full beard (he was clean-shaven in his heyday), Shaker flashes a grin and proudly proclaims:

"Two corpses, you dogs, you pigs," apparently referring to a pair of the pro-government casualties at the scene. "Two corpses we got from you."

Bulos is a special correspondent.

Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell contributed to this report.

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