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Why Novak Djokovic is a Hero in Serbia

BELGRADE, Serbia — The images painted on the concrete walls of the Brutalist housing complex in Banjica, a residential area a few miles south of downtown Belgrade, depict some of Serbia’s most cherished figures: revered religious leaders, poets and warriors.

But the murals there of Novak Djokovic hold a special significance — this is where the future tennis star’s grandfather lived and where, as a 12-year-old boy, he sought shelter while NATO bombed the Serbian capital in 1999.

Georgio Petrovic, 21, was born a year after the bombing and lives in the same imposing, angular tower block.

“He is a hero,” he said, looking at one of the murals of Mr. Djokovic. But he sees him as more than a sports champion. Struggling to find a job, Mr. Petrovic has written to Mr. Djokovic, thinking he might be able to help where others have failed. He has not heard back, but he is hopeful.

That feeling of personal connection and pride is widely shared in a nation that has united over his triumphs on the court at a time when discontent is widespread over issues like endemic corruption and a government that is widely distrusted. The recent imbroglio over whether Mr. Djokovic should be allowed to play in the Australian Open has done little to dim his shine, even among those who do not agree with his decision to stay unvaccinated.

“In this gray and lousy environment, the only joyful event for many is watching when he wins another trophy,” said Dr. Zoran Radovanovic, an epidemiologist who has been watching the debate over Mr. Djokovic’s fate as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads across the country.

As Mr. Djokovic fights to stay in Australia despite his decision not to be vaccinated, he has become entwined with a broader debate in Serbia about coronavirus restrictions, government policies, personal liberty and vaccination.

For some, he is a threat to public health — a powerful and influential figure whose decision not to be vaccinated against the coronavirus could undermine inoculation campaigns in a region where vaccine uptake is among the lowest in Europe.

Although he has said he does not urge others to avoid inoculations, his image has been co-opted by a host of anti-vaccination groups on Facebook in Serbia and beyond.

To others, particularly those in his homeland, he is widely seen as a victim — with political and religious leaders rushing to his defense by tapping into powerful regional narratives of martyrdom that resonate deeply with the public but also serve their own interests.

With elections looming in April, President Aleksandar Vucic, the country’s authoritarian leader, has tried to walk a fine line, both encouraging vaccinations while steadfastly defending the nation’s favorite son.

“When you can’t defeat someone on the court, then you do such things,” he said last week after the tennis star was detained.

Mr. Djokovic was granted a medical exemption to enter Australia based on his submission of evidence that he had tested positive for the virus in December, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. But he later acknowledged that he had failed to isolate immediately after he found out about the result. Still, Mr. Vucic continued to offer his support.

“I am proud that through our effort we were able to help one of the best athletes of all time,” Mr. Vucic said Wednesday in an interview with the public broadcaster Radio Television of Serbia.

At the forefront of Mr. Djokovic’s defense, however, has been his family.

“Novak is Serbia, and Serbia is Novak,” Srdjan Djokovic, the tennis star’s father, said at a recent protest. “They are trampling on Novak and thus they are trampling on Serbia and the Serbian people.”

To say Mr. Djokovic is a beloved sports star in Serbia is something of an understatement. When he won his first Wimbledon title in 2011, some 100,000 people turned out in Belgrade’s central square to celebrate his victory.

Even those who think his personal decision not to get a coronavirus vaccine is ill-informed and unhelpful do not lump him in with anti-vaccination crusaders.

“For me, an anti-vaxxer is someone who actively promotes not taking vaccine,” unlike Mr. Djokovic, said Sasa Ozmo, a journalist for Sport Klub, a leading sports outlet in Serbia.

Dr. Radovanic, the former director of the Institute of Epidemiology at the University of Belgrade, said Mr. Djokovic may be more a product of his environment than a shaper of it.

The country has some of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe, with less than 50 percent of the population fully vaccinated, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.

And over the course of the pandemic, resistance to restrictions has grown. While Serbia locked down like the rest of Europe during the first wave of the virus, the suggestion of a renewed lockdown last winter led to riots. Since then, political leaders have been loath to put in place and enforce restrictions.

Vuk Brajovic, a tennis writer who has covered Mr. Djokovic for more than a decade, said that while the star had made mistakes — like making a public appearance after he said he was informed about testing positive for the virus in December — his views on the power of “alternative” medicine are best understood in the context of his career.

“He had significant problems with breathing during the early phase of his ascension to top flights of tennis due to certain allergies,” he said. Doctors first thought it was asthma. But it was only when he turned to a gluten-free diet and made other lifestyle changes that his performance soared.

“For him, this was a watershed moment,” Mr. Brajovic said. “He went from a perennial No. 3 player, to No. 1 in a matter of a year.”

Even the event that has drawn some of the harshest international condemnation — Mr. Djokovic’s decision to organize an ill-fated tennis tournament during the pandemic — looks very different when viewed from the region.

The tournament, which started in June of 2020, ended up being canceled after several players contracted the virus and Mr. Djokovic faced scathing international criticism.

But, at that moment, many in the region believed the pandemic had peaked. The tournament, for many, was remarkable for another reason.

It was meant to be played in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina — a reflection of Mr. Djokovic’s rare ability to transcend nationalist sentiments in a region where ethnic, cultural and historical divisions forged in war still run deep.

“His attitude and his philosophy toward that set of issues is uniform in the sense that he wishes to bridge the divides in every way possible,” Mr. Brajovic said.

But even in Serbia, there is criticism of some of his recent actions.

Dusan Nedeljkovic, 61, was filling out a form to get a booster shot on Thursday at the Belgrade Fair, the capital’s main vaccination center, and said he was upset that Mr. Djokovic had not promptly isolated after his test result.

“I love Nole,” he said, using a nickname for Mr. Djokovic. “But I do not love what he did. He lied.”

He said he did not think that the tennis star’s views on vaccines have much effect in the country, but he did worry about the coming wave of infection.

“Not enough people, especially people in their 40s and younger, are vaccinated,” he said.

A year ago, lines at the Belgrade Fair stretched for blocks and some 8,000 doses were being administered daily.

Dr. Milena Turubatovic, a primary care physician administering vaccine doses on the site, said they were now lucky to inoculate 300 people a day.

She, too, was a fan of Mr. Djokovic, but worried that the focus on his vaccine status was not helpful.

“I respect him highly, but do not agree with his attitude on vaccination,” she said. “And of course it has an impact.”

For his family, Mr. Djokovic’s fight is about justice and freedom.

At their restaurant in central Belgrade — named “Novak” — family members celebrated the decision this week by a judge in Australia to overturn a government decision to revoke his visa. Australia’s immigration minister, Alex Hawke, is still considering using his powers to revoke Mr. Djokovic’s visa.

“Obviously the fact he comes from a small and impoverished country was not something big, powerful people liked,” Mr. Djokovic’s father said. “They thought they had God-given powers, that this world is their world, and it is impossible that a young man from a small, poor country can be the best in their sport.”

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A Ban on 19 Singers in Egypt Tests the Old Guard’s Power

CAIRO — The song starts out like standard fare for Egyptian pop music: A secret infatuation between two young neighbors who, unable to marry, sneak flirtatious glances at each other and commit their hearts in a bittersweet dance of longing and waiting.

But then the lyrics take a radical turn.

“If you leave me,” blasts the singer, Hassan Shakosh, “I’ll be lost and gone, drinking alcohol and smoking hash.”

The song, “The Neighbors’ Daughter,” has become a giant hit, garnering more than a half- billion views of its video on YouTube alone and catapulting Mr. Shakosh to stardom. But the explicit reference to drugs and booze, culturally prohibited substances in Egypt, has made the song, released in 2019, a lightning rod in a culture war over what is an acceptable face and subject matter for popular music and who gets to decide.

The battle, which pits Egypt’s cultural establishment against a renegade musical genre embraced by millions of young Egyptians, has heated up recently after the organization that licenses musicians barred at least 19 young artists from singing and performing in Egypt.

The organization, the Egyptian Musicians’ Syndicate, accused Mr. Shakosh and other singers of the genre, known as mahraganat, of normalizing, and thus encouraging, decadent behavior, of misrepresenting Egypt and of spoiling public taste.

“They are creating a chaotic movement in the country,” said Tarek Mortada, the spokesman for the syndicate, a professional union that issues permits for artists to perform onstage and that while technically not an arm of the state, is governed by state law and its budget is supervised by the state. “What we’re confronting right now is the face of depravity and regression.”

The barred singers have been iced out of clubs, concerts and weddings. Some have continued to perform abroad or at private parties, but they have had to say no to advertising deals and other income opportunities. The syndicate’s stance has also cast a pall over Egypt’s cultural scene, sending a strong message that artists are not free agents and must still toe restrictive lines set by civil and state institutions. The musicians see the syndicate as an outmoded entity desperately clinging to a strictly curated vision and image of Egyptian culture that is smashing against an inevitable wave of youth-driven change.

“They can’t get themselves to be convinced that we’re here to stay,” said Ibrahim Soliman, 33, Mr. Shakosh’s manager and childhood friend. “How can you say someone like Shakosh misrepresents Egypt when his songs are being heard and shared by the entire country?”

Fans were incensed. One meme depicted the leader of the syndicate, a pop singer of love classics from the 1970s, ordering people to stop singing in the bathroom.

The battle mirrors cultural conflicts across the region where autocratic governments in socially conservative countries have tried to censor any expression that challenges traditional mores. For example, Iran has arrested teenage girls who posted videos of themselves dancing, which is a crime there. And in 2020, Northwestern University in Qatar called off a concert by a Lebanese indie rock band whose lead singer is openly gay.

But online streaming and social media platforms have poked giant holes in that effort, allowing artists to bypass state-sanctioned media, like television and record companies, and reach a generation of new fans hungry for what they see as more authentic and relevant content.

Iran’s draconian restrictions on unacceptable music have produced a flourishing underground rock and hip-hop scene. The question facing Egypt is who now has the power to regulate matters of taste — the 12 men and one woman who run the syndicate, or the millions of fans who have been streaming and downloading mahraganat.

Mahraganat first rose out of the dense, rowdy working-class neighborhoods of Cairo more than a decade ago and is still generally made in low-tech home studios, often with no more equipment than a cheap microphone and pirated software.

The raw, straight-talking genre — with blunt lyrics about love, sex, power and poverty — mirrors the experience and culture of a broad section of the disenfranchised youth who live in those districts set to a danceable, throbbing beat.

But its catchy rhymes and electronic rhythms quickly went mainstream and now echo from the glamorous wedding ballrooms of Egypt’s French-speaking elite to exclusive nightclubs in Mediterranean resorts to concert halls in oil-rich Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

“Mahraganat is a true representation of this moment in time, of globalization and information technology, and of social media in directing our tastes,” said Sayed Mahmoud, a culture writer and former editor of a weekly newspaper called “Alkahera” issued by the Ministry of Culture. “If you remove the reference to drugs and alcohol, does it mean they don’t exist? The songs represent real life and real culture.”

They are certainly more direct, avoiding the sanitized euphemisms and poetic hints of sexuality that characterize traditional lyrics.

“We use the words that are close to our tongue, without embellishing or beautifying, and it reaches people,” said Islam Ramadan, who goes by the name DJ Saso, the 27-year-old producer of Mr. Shakosh’s blockbuster hit.

Many lawyers and experts say the syndicate has no legal right to ban artists, insisting that Egypt’s Constitution explicitly protects creative liberty. But these arguments seem academic in the authoritarian state of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which has stifled freedom of speech, tightened control on the media and passed laws to help monitor and criminalize so-called immoral behavior on the internet.

The syndicate’s executive members have adamantly defended their move, arguing that a key part of their job is to safeguard the profession against inferior work that they say is made by uncultured impostors who tarnish the image of the country.

And government authorities have reinforced the message.

In 2017, a special division of the police that targets moral crimes arrested the makers of a mahraganat song, and promised to continue searching for work that “presents offensive content for the Egyptian viewer or contains sexual insinuations.”

In 2020, after a video circulated showing dozens of students at an all-girls high school singing along to “The Neighbors’ Daughter,” the Ministry of Education warned schools against the “noticeable” spread of songs that incite “bad behavior.”

A short time later, the minister of youth and sports vowed to “combat depravity” by banning mahraganat music from being played in athletic arenas and sports facilities.

The head of the syndicate, Hany Shaker, defended the ban on a late-night television show, saying, “We can’t be in the era of Sisi and allow this to be the leading art.”

So far, the syndicate claims to be winning the fight.

“We have in fact stopped them because they can’t get onstage in Egypt,” said Mr. Mortada, the organization’s spokesman, adding that it went so far as to ask YouTube to remove videos of the banned singers. It has not received a response from YouTube, he said.

But who will win in the long run remains to be seen.

The syndicate’s very structure smacks of a bygone era. To be admitted and allowed to sing and perform onstage, an artist must pass a test that includes a classical singing audition. The test is anathema to a genre that relies on autotune and prioritizes rhythm and flow over melody.

While the syndicate’s efforts may be keeping mahraganat out of clubs and concert halls, the music has never stopped.

Mr. Shakosh’s popularity continues to rise. He has more than six million followers on Facebook and over four million on Instagram and TikTok, and his music videos have exceeded two billion views on YouTube.

He is one of the Arab world’s leading performers. Since he was barred, he has performed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq, and “The Neighbors’ Daughter” has become one of the biggest Arabic hits to date.

“It’s not the same old love songs,” said Yasmine el-Assal, a 41-year-old bank executive, after attending one of Mr. Shakosh’s concerts before the ban. “His stage presence, the music, the vibe, it’s fresh and it’s all about having fun.”

Mr. Shakosh would not agree to be interviewed, preferring to keep a low profile, his manager said, rather than to appear to publicly challenge the authorities. The ban has been harder on other artists, many of whom do not have the wherewithal or the international profile to tour abroad.

They have mostly kept quiet, refusing to make statements that they fear could ruffle more feathers.

Despite the squeeze, however, many are confident that their music falls beyond the grip of any single authority or government.

Kareem Gaber, a 23-year-old experimental music producer known by the stage name El Waili, is still burning tracks, sitting in his bedroom with a twin mattress on the floor, bare walls and his instrument, a personal computer with $100 MIDI keyboard.

“Mahraganat taught us that you can do something new,” he said, “and it will be heard.”

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In the Trenches of Ukraine’s Forever War

“He did say something about the wedding,” Volodymyr said. “But we didn’t talk about finishing our service.”

“Well, he spoke of it just with us,” Yaroslav’s father said. “He didn’t talk about it with the guys yet. He’d bought a house, renovated it. All with his own hands, all how they wanted it. He said, ‘My contract will finish, and we’ll live like humans.’ If anyone would have told us. …”

He didn’t finish the sentence.

By that point, Yaroslav had been buried, in his hometown, Pidlypne, three hours northwest of Kyiv. In the morning, mourners began gathering outside Yaroslav’s house, its wood siding freshly painted a vibrant green. Family, friends, neighbors, classmates, fellow soldiers and local veterans carried flowers, many of them in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, all of them held upside down, a local custom. Some, like Yaroslav’s commander, had traveled from across the country to attend. By midday there was a crowd of several hundred.

At noon, a police car, siren flashing, pulled in front of the house, and the crowd parted to let it through. Behind it was a Humvee with an open rear. A coffin was draped in blue-and-yellow wreaths. An honor guard of cadets carried the coffin into the garden. A quartet of priests and army chaplains in olive drab surplices sang hymns. Yaroslav’s fiancée fainted and was carried into the house. As the coffin was carried back out to the Humvee, a cadet yelled, “Heroes never die!” The other cadets echoed, “Heroes never die!” A brass band struck up a dirge and started toward the church, the Humvee and crowd following behind.

I fell in with a man in his 60s walking with a single crutch. He was wearing an old telnyashka, the traditional striped undershirt of the Russian military, beneath a great coat. The medals hanging from it clattered.

He had been a Soviet paratrooper in Afghanistan, he told me, and was proud of it. But he was also a Ukrainian, from Donetsk, and when the war in Donbas started, he helped organize the volunteers from Pidlypne. He had been going to funerals like this one ever since. If this had been a few years ago, he said, the whole city would have turned out. There would have been thousands of mourners, not hundreds.

“Now everyone is tired of the war,” he said.

Though Ukrainian, he, too, longed for the days of the Soviet Union, he confided. Life was dependable then. The leaders might have been cruel, but they were honest. Now it was a mess. He didn’t know what to expect.

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Netanyahu’s Lawyers Discuss a Plea Bargain to End His Graft Trial

JERUSALEM — The lawyers of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli former prime minister, are in negotiations with state prosecutors to reach a plea bargain in his long-running corruption case, according to a spokesman for the Israeli Justice Ministry and two people involved in the negotiations.

The talks are expected to finish by the end of the month and, if successful, would help conclude a legal process that contributed to years of political instability in Israel and, ultimately, to the end last June of Mr. Netanyahu’s record tenure as prime minister.

The proposed bargain includes Mr. Netanyahu’s admitting to some of the charges, all of which he still formally denies in court, in exchange for the prosecution’s downgrading the seriousness of one charge, dropping another entirely and allowing Mr. Netanyahu to avoid serving a jail sentence by instead performing community service, the two negotiators said.

The talks are currently stuck, however, because Mr. Netanyahu does not want to accept the charge of “moral turpitude,” a designation that would bar Mr. Netanyahu, the leader of Israel’s biggest right-wing party, from public office for seven years, the negotiators said.

The details, first reported in Maariv, a centrist Israeli newspaper, were confirmed to The New York Times by one of the main mediators, Aharon Barak, a former president of the Israeli Supreme Court, and a second person involved in the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations openly. A spokesman for the Justice Ministry confirmed that talks were taking place, but declined to confirm any further details. The office of Boaz Ben Tzur, one of Mr. Netanyahu’s lead lawyers, declined to comment.

The talks are the latest twist in a legal process that began in 2016 with a police inquiry into claims that Mr. Netanyahu had accepted gifts from benefactors in exchange for political favors.

The investigation expanded after Mr. Netanyahu was accused of offering the owners of two media companies inducements in exchange for positive news coverage. The charges quickly divided Israelis between those who believed that Mr. Netanyahu should step down to avoid tainting the office of the prime minister, and those who thought that he was the victim of a judicial conspiracy.

The argument deepened a longstanding national debate about the power of the judiciary, and drew comparisons with the furor surrounding American efforts to impeach President Donald J. Trump.

Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Netanyahu framed himself as the victim of a biased justice system, describing the process as a “witch hunt” and an “attempted administrative coup” when his trial began in 2020.

Both Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to engage in negotiations and his engagement with Mr. Barak, a former judge considered a doyen of the Israeli legal establishment, have therefore surprised some Israelis.

Mr. Barak said that he had agreed to play a role because Mr. Netanyahu, in cases that did not affect him personally, had historically helped to protect judicial independence and because a partial confession by Mr. Netanyahu might help heal social divisions and restore trust in the judiciary.

“It’s of national importance that this thing should result in the accused himself saying, ‘I admit that I have done it,’” Mr. Barak said in a phone interview.

The case caused two years of political stagnation, largely because it splintered Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing voter base as well as his right-wing allies in the Israeli Parliament — a fissure that led to four inconclusive elections from 2019 to 2021. After the first three votes, Mr. Netanyahu’s remaining allies won enough seats to stay in power, but not enough to form a stable coalition government or pass key legislation like a national budget.

The impasse ended after a fourth election last year, when three small right-wing parties agreed to form a grand coalition with ideological opponents from leftist, centrist and Islamist parties to create a parliamentary majority large enough to force Mr. Netanyahu to leave office.

If Mr. Netanyahu, currently the leader of the opposition, does agree to the deal and leave politics, analysts said that the decision would destabilize, though not necessarily completely collapse, the fragile current coalition government. The logic that glues the alliance together would weaken if he were forced to abandon representative politics because it might tempt right-wing members of the current government to form a different coalition with the new leader of Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud.

But Likud will take time to elect a chairman. And once elected, the new leader might still be too closely tied to Mr. Netanyahu to be a viable partner for his right-wing opponents, said Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli political columnist and biographer of Mr. Netanyahu.

“Likud will remain Bibi’s tribute band until they have a strong new leader, and I can’t see any candidate for that job,” Mr. Pfeffer said, using a nickname for Mr. Netanyahu.

The office of the current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who leads a right-wing faction, declined to comment. But in a speech to the cabinet on Sunday morning, Mr. Bennett said that the government was continuing to work as normal.

“All of the various political analysts, with their graphs and scenarios, can rest assured,” Mr. Bennett said. “The government of Israel is working and will continue to work quietly and effectively, day after day, for the citizens of Israel.”

Most analysts believe that if a plea bargain is to happen, it will need to be agreed to by the end of January. The state official overseeing the case, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, is retiring in early February and his successor is unlikely to focus on such a divisive issue early on.

Opponents of Mr. Netanyahu protested outside Mr. Mandelblit’s home on Saturday evening, urging him to allow the case to be decided in court.

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