CAIRO: The Egyptian Musicians’ Union announced earlier this month that a concert by Elton John scheduled for May 18 has been cancelled, triggering debate over the power of state institutions to control the arts.
“How could we allow a gay man, who wants to ban religions, and who claimed that the Prophet Eissa [Jesus] was gay and calls for Middle Eastern countries to legalize homosexuality, to perform in Egypt,” said Mounir Al-Wasimi, head of the Musicians’ Union, the body with the authority to allow or ban foreign artists from performing in Egypt.
In February, Elton John said in an interview published by Parade Magazine: "I think Jesus was a compassionate, super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems.” He also reportedly said: “Try being a gay woman in the Middle East — you’re as good as dead,” triggering harsh criticism from both Christians and civil society groups.
Homosexuality is a taboo in Egypt, a phenomenon that remains unacknowledged, not only because it goes against customs and traditions, but also because it is forbidden in Islam.
“It’s all about religion in the Arab world,” Ayman El Adi, press counsellor of the Ministry of Culture, told Daily News Egypt. “The rule is: don’t come near religion and the way of life of the Arab world.
“Egypt is complicated: We all know Elton John’s songs; we all own his CDs. You can see him on your TV but you can’t accept him giving a concert when it goes against your religion.
“We know that gays are everywhere, in the Middle East, in Europe, in the US. But our religion does not accept gays. And our art community does not accept gays,” he said.
Cairo musician Mohamed Abaza said that the decision of the Musicians’ Union was “normal.”
“Gay or not, I don’t think that’s the issue — well, it’s an issue, but it’s not the reason for banning the concert. But if he is against our religion, our country, our customs, that’s enough for him not to perform here,” said Abaza.
Some believe that the question is not whether one endorses the statements and personal orientations of a public figure, but rather if official organs should have the right to prevent the physical presence of artists because they oppose some of the ideas they espouse, regardless of their artistic merit.
“Of course, all societies have rules. In Arab countries, regulation is still very much focused on ‘morality’ and ensuring compliance with the expected norms of personal behavior,” Brian Whitaker, author of “Unspeakable Love” (a book about dealing the state of homosexuals in the Middle East) wrote in the Guardian on May 4.
“The enthusiasm for banning things is also part of the concept of a ‘properly’ ordered society that prevails in Egypt and most of the Arab countries. It is rooted in a fear of fitna — the social discord that would supposedly ensue if people were allowed to behave more or less as they liked,” he continues.
Others believe that the stakes are much higher than whether or not Elton John is allowed to perform in Egypt; it’s about free access to art that is denied to the Egyptian public because the artist’s personal life is perceived as contradicting the religious and social norms in the country.
This was not the first time a musician has been prevented from performing in Egypt because of issues related to personal behaviour or beliefs.
In 2008, Lebanese singer Carole Samaha saw her concert cancelled by the Musicians’ Union because of photos published in opposition newspaper Al-Wafd showing her in revealing clothes during a performance in the North Coast resort of Marina.