In his first award-winning travel book “Yemen: The Unknown Arabia” author Tim Mackintosh-Smith relates an incident in 1992 when he visited the port city of Aden, renown for its “great number of bars and other dens of lewdness”.

Curious to find out if the claim was true, he ducked into one establishment with a circular room, disco ball and dance floor. He writes: “Then the band broke into a sort of Egyptian glam-rock number and, unexpectedly, the floor filled with young men dressed in Paisley pattern shirts and pleated trousers… One particularly energetic youth… shone out: his pelvis was articulated in extraordinary places, and spurts of sweat shot from his forehead. These were the mutamaykalin, the Michaelesques – the fans of Michael Jackson.” Later, when the band broke into the Queen song “I Want to Break Free” (“a bit fast but very competent”) he tells us that the “Michaelesques went wild.”

[The Overlook Press (2000) 136-138.]

Michael even made the Index of this book, thus: “Jackson, Michael (pop singer)”.

Fellow British travel writer and teacher Kevin Rushby recounts his travels in Yemen in the mid-late 1990s and his experience with a “shared taxi” he took to get to the top of Jebel Saber. His sixteen fellow passengers of the four wheel drive vehicle “had that eager, bristly look of a hyena pack when they saw me. I was number seventeen, in the worst place at the back, and as I pulled the door shut someone said: ‘Oh, look, an Israeli spy comes to photograph our land from the mountain.’

‘And you, my brother,’ I said loudly, ‘You must be Michael Jackson, you sing very well.’

This was obviously in the spirit required because they all laughed.”

In other words, while his boisterous fellow passengers did not have a clue who, or what, Kevin was, they all understood his reference to Michael Jackson – global superstar and citizen of the world. In this instance, Michael provided the common denominator that instantly breached cultural barriers between strangers.

[“Eating the Flowers of Paradise” by Kevin Rushby, published by Constable 1998, Robinson paperback edition 2008 page 177.]

Michael’s popularity in the Middle East should not be underestimated. Even though it is geographically part of North Africa, Egypt is generally considered to be culturally a part of the Middle East (at least if you believe the Lonely Planet guide book to the region!) Not surprising then to read the following in Paul William Roberts’ wonderful travel book “River in the Desert. A Modern Traveller in Ancient Egypt”:

Chapter 1: Cairo: Tea in the Sahara with Michael Jackson

[This excerpt commences when the author, who has been visiting the pyramids on the Giza plateau, has, through “the magic of baksheesh”, (i.e. bribery) managed to spend the night in the pyramid of Mycerinus.]

Emerging from the warmth of the pyramid into the cool of the air of the sleeping desert, I found my man, Mahmoud the camel driver, waiting, as arranged, with a camel called Michael Jackson and an Arab stallion with no name. Looking haughtily unenthusiastic about the whole business, Michael Jackson knelt his bony front legs, allowing me to hoist myself onto his hump.

As the rosy tentacles of dawn clasped an increasingly blue dome of enormous sky, the three pyramids materialized far behind us, looking like a painted backdrop through the morning haze. Michael Jackson lurched and swayed beneath me…

Around noon we stopped, literally in the middle of nowhere, so Michael Jackson could eat the fodder he’d been carrying and Mahmoud could make some mint tea…

With the immense solitude came an immense peace. The bobbing hypnotic pace, the caressing warmth of the wind and sun: I nearly fell asleep, all but falling off… It suddenly seemed we’d been ancient travellers crossing the desert together since the beginning of time. If we’d emerged into the twelfth century, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

Night swooped out of the sky with terrifying suddenness. We made camp next to a useful dune…

“You know some song?” [Mahmoud] asked.

Michael Jackson burped in his sleep. I shook my head… reciting instead the poem by T E Lawrence…

“Yes,” said Mahmoud, doubtfully.

“Lawrence,” I told him. “You know Lawrence of Arabia?”

“He make record?”

“No. That’s probably where he went wrong.”

“I like too much Michael Jackson,” Mahmoud announced. “That’s why I named my camel after heem.”

He proceeded to pipe out an atonal version of “Billie Jean.” I lay back, feeling the planet was my pharonic ship of millions of years, ensnared by a net of starlight…

Late the next day, as the shabby outskirts of Giza and the world finally reappeared, I had half a mind to turn Michael Jackson around and hope the kettle was still boiling in Tripoli.

[Tauris Parke Paperbacks 2006 (originally published by Random House 1993) excepts from Pages 14-15]

Michael’s attraction to the art and culture of Ancient Egypt appears to have been reciprocated by his admirers in present-day Egypt. In her wonderful book “Down the Nile. Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff” [Back Bay Books, 2007] Rosemary Mahoney writes: “My second night in Aswan, I sat on a pier in the dark… The river and town seemed to vibrate with joyful shouts and laughter and winking yellow lights. Herons muttered and screeched in the reeds. Cruise boats lumbered into Aswan like drifting carnival rides, with their thousand lights blazing, their horns bellowing… The ships docked six deep along the ghats of the east bank, while above them loud music blew out of the shorefront restaurants – the mannish voice of Oum Kalsoum throbbing in competition with Michael Jackson and Elton John.”
In 2009, after a visit to Jordan, I watched a DVD of a TV travel program on the country. “Places we Go: Jordan” hosted by Aussie Jennifer Adams was made the previous year (2008) and featured most of the locations I had visited.

These included magnificent Wadi Ram (Lawrence of Arabia country!) with its wind-sculpted red rocks and towering pillared outcrops surrounding a desert dotted with Bedouin tents and ancient ruins, and crossed by a remnant of the Hejaz Railway.

In the TV show, Jennifer Adams stops to speak to a couple of grinning Bedouin children, a brother and sister, who have a little black donkey in tow. “What’s your donkey’s name?” Jennifer asks. “Michael Jackson” the children respond.

Now I rode a donkey (briefly!) that looked very much like the one named Michael Jackson, but it was at Petra, not Wadi Ram. Damn! [See photo below.]  What an opportunity missed. Still, if you have been to either location in Jordan, you will know that donkeys are anything but a rarity, and lots of them are black!

But next time I’ll at least know to ask “what’s its name?”

– Kerry Hennigan
Originally published June 2, 2012 as a Facebook Note – updated August 3 and December 3, 2013
Published on WordPress 10 Dec 2019

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[Main photo: MJ mural art in Iraq from UK loves MJ Facebook page May 2012]
https://www.facebook.com/pages/UK-loves-MJ/116222408446161