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Lebanese singer strikes sour note with Muslim clerics; [Final Edition] LEE HOCKSTADER. The Gazette. Montreal, Que.: Dec 1, 1999. pg. A.16

Copyright Southam Publications Inc. Dec 1, 1999

When he goes on trial for blasphemy today, one of best-loved singer-songwriters of the Arab world is prepared to give the court an earful, regardless of whether he is sentenced to prison.

"I'm going to ask them: `What am I doing here?' " said Marcel Khalife, 48, who stands accused of offending Islam by singing a brief verse from the Koran. "I'm culturally ashamed. I think it's an ethical scandal that I'm here. Are we moving forward and building a happy future, or are we stuck in the past?"

Khalife - soft-spoken, impish, a veteran of concert halls and recording studios in Montreal (Place des Arts in 1992), the United States, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa - seems an unlikely blasphemer.

Politically, he is prone to a gauzy, love-thy-neighbour brand of liberalism. Religiously, although raised in a Christian family, he considers himself devoutly secular. He lived in Muslim West Beirut through much of Lebanon's long civil war. His CDs, on sale worldwide, are hugely popular, and 90 per cent of the buyers are Muslims, he says.

Khalife is a cultural icon in Lebanon, which prides itself on an openness and avant-garde spirit that sets it apart from most Arab countries. Despite the devastation of a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, Beirutis think of their city as the cultural capital of the Arab world, and point to outspoken intellectuals and slightly decadent night life as proof.

Intellectuals in Beirut said the case fits an ominous pattern of recent attacks on artistic expression. They said they fear for Lebanon's status as one of the more tolerant Arab societies if the balance tips toward Islamic fundamentalists.

None of that carried much weight with Lebanon's Sunni Muslim hierarchy, or with Beirut's new chief magistrate, Abdel Rahman Shehab. A day after taking office last month, Shehab, a Sunni Muslim, indicted Khalife for committing a crime against the country's dominant religion, Islam.

If found guilty, Khalife faces a prison term of six months to three years.

Khalife's offence was to set to music a poem, "Oh, Father, it is I, Youssef," which ends with a verse from the Koran. The poem, by renowned Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish, is a bitter lament that gives voice to the Koranic prophet Youssef (the Old Testament figure Joseph), whose brothers hated him and plotted to kill him. In the plaintive last stanza, Youssef asks if he wronged his brothers by telling them of his dream:

I dreamt of 11 planets

And of the sun and the moon

All kneeling before me.

The Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon's senior Sunni Muslim religious authority, said quoting the Koran is fine, but setting its verses to music and accompanying it with instruments is off limits.

"An artist can use the words written by people as he wishes, but he doesn't have the right to use the word of God," said Mohammed Kabaneh, the grand mufti. "There are rules."