Iran and the Arab World Remember a Banned Icon

By Sadie Bass

Jun 26, 2009 2:32pm

ABC's Lara Setrakian reports from Dubai: Across Iran and the Arab world Michael Jackson is being mourned, and remembered, for his glory years. Throughout the 1980s MJ was a glamorized taste of America in a part of the world where it was both cool and bad to emulate the gloved one. At the dawn of the Islamic Republic, Michael Jackson's and his decadent Western music were banned, but irrepressibly popular. "MJ was one of the artists in the early years of the revolution whose tapes made it into the Iranian black market. Thriller alone was a global phenomenon, and that included Iran," said Iran expert Jason Rezaian.   Across the water in Abu Dhabi, young Emiratis were mimicking Jackson's cool, picking up his style tips and escaping into the pop culture of a land far away. “He really was an icon – the epitome of cool who represented a taste of something else, all of these places we hadn't been to,” said Faisal Al Qassimi, 26, in Abu Dhabi.  “He represented music, America, MTV, youth culture, sex appeal…everything a young man here would aspire to.” “There are a lot of superfans here, like me,” says Nadeem Bibby, also of Abu Dhabi. “People who were slightly older than me would spend a lot of money replicating his outfits.” Bibby describes how he and his sister would fight over pinup photos of Jackson to use in their own personal shrines.  “In Abu Dhabi of the 80s, which was very boring and gray, he was a colorful larger than life figure we could relate to. He was our hero here. We'd spend our money at the arcade on the moonwalkers game.”
Bibby says that for the most part, Michael Jackson’s fans in the Middle East were “shielded from the tabloid smack” and were fairly forgiving of his flaws, even when they came to town. In 2005 Jackson was invited to Bahrain by Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, according to an Associated Press timeline. There the royal offered to help get his career back on track, giving him one million dollars and signing him to a homegrown record label. As the King of Pop travelled the land of Sheikhs his antics captured amused attention. He picked up two luxury sports cars in Abu Dhabi and was found by police in Dubai, applying makeup in the women’s bathroom of Ibn Battuta mall. “He was in the women's bathroom, wearing a shayla (a black women’s cloak), but the police laughed it off. They said he misread the bathroom signs,” said Bibby, the superfan. Cross dressing is illegal in Dubai. Jackson’s venture with Sheikh Abdullah went awry.  When their record deal didn’t produce any hits the Sheikh sued MJ, demanding a million dollar repayment, in a suit settled out of court in 2008. Jackson insisted the cash payment had been a gift. ABC News was not able to reach Sheikh Abdullah for comment on Friday. In Abu Dhabi, Bibby and Al Qassimi were clearly distraught over Jackon’s passing. Another voice, from Saudi Arabia, spoke of an ambivalent mourning “I grew up listening to Thriller and the Jackson Five. It was really good music,” said Abdullah Kurashi, 23, a graduate student in finance.  “Then again, because of how distorted his image was I would get a mixed feeling between the man that was and the man that has been.”

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