Arab world mourns Michael Jackson

July 6, 2009 10:40:14 AM PDT
A Bahraini royal mourned him publicly, young Lebanese held a candlelight tribute, Egyptian musicians hailed him as an inspiration. [HEAR IT: The 911 call from Michael Jackson's home]
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Beyond his global reach, Michael Jackson held a special place in the Muslim world, as one of the first major Western entertainers to break through cultural barriers in the 1980s.

Some made a connection with the pop icon because of rumors, never substantiated, that he had converted to Islam. Others embraced him as one of their own after he sought refuge in the Gulf emirate of Bahrain in 2005, following a bruising trial on child molestation charges in the U.S.

"God have mercy on him. He was a Bahraini. He lived with us," said Jassim Ali, 35, shopping for Jackson CDs on Saturday in a music store in the capital, Manama.

Jackson only spent a year in the emirate, as a guest of Sheik Abdulla bin Hamad Isa Al Khalifa, a son of Bahrain's king and an aspiring songwriter who had befriended the entertainer. Jackson kept a low profile there, largely staying close to his host.

After Jackson's departure, the sheik sued Jackson for $7 million, saying he had failed to fulfill a joint music venture, but the two settled in November, with terms not disclosed.

The sheik said Saturday, in a statement in the Gulf Daily News, that "the world has lost a giant in the music industry."

"We are all very saddened by that," Al Khalifa said in comments confirmed by his spokesman.

Across the Arab world, the tributes to Jackson, who died Thursday, mirrored those elsewhere around the globe, though some argued the singer had a special appeal in the region.

"Religion is a big part of identity in this part of the world, and the idea he became Muslim boosted his popularity," said Egyptian cultural critic Tarek el-Shinnawi.

The conversion rumors were fueled, in parts, by comments by Jackson's brother, Jermaine, a convert to Islam, who has said his brother showed interest in the faith. In November, a British tabloid claimed Michael Jackson converted at a friend's home in Los Angeles.

The Jackson brothers were raised as Jehovah's Witnesses.

Others simply loved Michael Jackson for his music. At his peak, in the 1980s, a time without Internet and satellite TV, the Arab world was more shielded from Western pop culture. Jackson was one of the few successful crossover artists.

In Egypt, keyboarder and music distributor Fady Badr traveled to Alexandria to take a few days off work to come to terms with the pop star's death.

"He's the reason I got into this business," said 28-year old Badr. "Everything he did was new, he had such a power of voice and style; this industry would wait for his new ideas to get us inspired."

A manager of the Cairo Jazz Club, Shady Hamza, said that he was flooded by calls from local bands and musicians to help arrange a tribute night to the singer.

"I feel like I lost a brother," said Hamza, 30. "He turned so many of us into the whole music thing -- for a lot of musicians, Michael Jackson was their first encounter."

In Lebanon, about 100 young fans lit candles and sang along to his songs in a downtown street lined with bars and restaurants. A few tried to moon walk while others cheered.

Qays al Zu'bi, a Bahraini lawyer who said he helped Jackson with his finances when he lived in the emirate, said the singer had qualities about him that endeared him to people in the region, including his close relationship with his children and his vision.

"He had an aura about him," said the lawyer. "Despite the scandal in the United States, I saw mothers at the lobby of his hotel who brought their children to introduce them to Michael Jackson."

Complete ABC13.com coverage of Michael Jackson

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