It took just a few chords screeching from a battered stereo before Mahmoud Barghouti popped around the corner and shouted to the music vendor in downtown Amman: "Turn up the volume. Turn it up! Turn it up!"
Up it went and out poured the lyrics of the Arab world's newest and most popular hit, "The Attack on Iraq."
"Enough!" demands the singer, an Egyptian named Shaaban Abdel-Rahim. "Chechnya! Afghanistan! Palestine! Southern Lebanon! The Golan Heights! And now Iraq, too? And now Iraq, too? It's too much for people. Shame on you! Enough, enough, enough!"
At that, Barghouti broke into a satisfied smile. "It's really wonderful," he said, as he stood outside his clothing store along Amir Mohammed Street.
With a blend of anger, fear and humor, wrapped up in the staccato vernacular of Cairo's streets, Abdel-Rahim has once again demonstrated his knack for touching a popular nerve in the Middle East, this time ahead of a possible U.S. attack on Iraq. By doing so, he has created an overnight sensation in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere, another sign of the emergence of Arabic pop music in recent years as an arena for dissent and protest over Israeli and U.S. policy.
"I can't talk, he can't talk," Barghouti said, pointing to his colleague, Bassem Maali, as they listened to the song. "The people are afraid to talk, but Shaaban sings. It's 100 percent there. He sings through the music what people are saying in the street. He's not scared."
Next door, at a perfume shop, Ali Shehadeh delivered his assessment: "It's rocking Jordan."
A former laundryman and part-time wedding singer with a wet-perm look, Abdel-Rahim was catapulted to fame in 2001 with his song, "I hate Israel." The manifesto -- invective at Israel mixed with wry praise for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- played on surging resentment unleashed by the Palestinian uprising and what many Arabs saw as Israel's disproportionate response.
Its opening line: "I hate Israel. I say it when asked."
Given the bitterness that conflict has engendered, the inflammatory lyrics drew less attention than Abdel-Rahim himself, who is reviled by the Arab world's cultural elite as boorish and bad-mannered.
With "The Attack on Iraq," he goes after the same target. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "stays in a swimming pool," he sings, "while the blood falls like rain." "Look at Israel and its army," he says. "It attacks and it kills, and why isn't that too much?"
But fans of Abdel-Rahim say that, with an uncanny ear for today's mood in much of the Arab world, he has captured more than the people's anger. He chastises Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for not listening to other Arab leaders. He worries about "dirt-poor and pitiful" Iraqis who are always the victims. He suggests the United States is "spreading corruption and oppression" and trying "to achieve Israel's dreams" in the region. And he laments the powerlessness of Arab governments.
"I wish just once a summit would succeed for us," he sings.
"What's great about this song is the simplicity of the words, a simplicity that doesn't bear any diplomacy or any lying," said Zeina Soufan, 31, a television producer in Beirut. "They are not words of wisdom, just simple words that we want to hear and that no one is saying out loud."
In just a few weeks, the song has spread through the Arab world despite little promotion or publicity. State-owned radio and television stations, which still dominate Arab media, have not played the song, deeming Abdel-Rahim and the phenomenon around him as too low-brow. But a small number of privately owned channels have been far more enthusiastic. In Egypt, Dream TV broadcast the music video of "The Attack on Iraq" four times in a little more than an hour over the weekend. Lebanese watched the video once every two hours on Melody Hits, another private channel that programs its music videos by popular request.
Bootleg copies have flooded the market in Amman. The song blares from downtown stalls and from taxis careering through its jammed streets. One vendor in Amman said he sold 100 hastily made copies of CDs and cassettes each day last week; another said customers snapped up 300 CDs and 80 cassettes just on Friday.
"As soon as it arrived, it sold out," said Suleiman Zoabi, a 21-year-old cassette vendor. "Shaaban goes fast."
In such cities as Beirut, Cairo and Amman, some fans can quote their favorite lines.
"Do you want to partition Iraq or what do you want exactly? Honestly, do you have your eyes on Iraq's oil?" goes one line. Another runs: "Iraq, too, after Afghanistan? Nobody knows tomorrow, whose turn will come next."
Protest and patriotism have a long tradition in Arab music. Legends like Um Kalthoum and Abdel-Halim Hafez were enlisted in the nationalism of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who died in 1970, with songs that celebrated their Egyptian homeland. Sheik Imam, a blind singer who put colloquial poetry to music, was the toast of Egypt's students in their militant heyday in the 1970s.
But Abdel-Rahim has emerged in a different genre, known as shaabi, or populist, music. One of its pioneers was Ahmed Adawiya, who outsold even greats like Abdel-Halim Hafez in the 1970s. Abdel-Rahim is now the genre's most popular artist, with a style redolent of American hip-hop that distinguishes itself from traditional Arab music by reliance on synthesizers, drum machines and horns. His hits have inspired a series of knockoffs whose tapes sell for less than a dollar in Cairo and elsewhere.
His admirers say he has tapped into a current of anger at Israel and the United States that has increasingly left a mark on Arabic pop. Amr Diab, a more upscale artist who is among the Arab world's most famous music figures, recorded "Jerusalem," a lament over Israeli control of the city. Mohammed Munir, another popular Egyptian singer, promised to donate 10 percent of sales from his song, "Earth . . . Peace" to Palestinian charities.
"Artists are frustrated. We are very angry. A bit of anger is beginning to creep inside me, basically because of the double standard of America," said Nabil Sawalha, a prominent Jordanian satirist whose plays poke fun at everything from U.S. policy to Arab leaders. "The artist is a reflection of the mood. I don't want to sing about love, love and love. The mood is very angry."
Abdel-Rahim has what his fans describe as the added advantage of street credibility. He celebrates his working-class origins in a slum on Cairo's outskirts. He boasts that he makes his clothes from the fabric Egyptians use to cover their furniture. His popularity has rattled Egypt's elite, who dismiss him as without talent and illiterate, not to mention poorly dressed. But those very objections seem to endear him to fans, who point out -- in the words of an Egyptian cafe owner -- that "he says it like it is."
"He's like them," said Ahmed Abu Daoud, pointing toward the bus and taxi drivers gathered in Rafidain Square in Amman. "The singers that make money, they sing for themselves, they don't know what's happening with the people."
Standing in Abu Daoud's tape store, with the heavy beat of Abdel-Rahim thundering, Alaa Said agreed. As he spent about 70 cents for a tape of "The Attack on Iraq" that arrived in the store that morning, he declared with a grin, "Shaaban, he's our beloved!"
Special correspondent Alia Ibrahim in Beirut contributed to this report.
A telephone interview with Post Middle East correspondent Anthony Shadid, including an audio clip from Shaaban Abdel-Rahim's song "The Attack on Iraq," can be heard at www.washingtonpost.com/iraq.