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Mideast Heroes Spark Separate but Equal Fervor

A Palestinian pop singer and an Israeli Olympian provide moments to savor.

August 27, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Everyone loves a homegrown hero, and Palestinians and Israelis each are experiencing a burst of national pride this week over the exploits of one of their own.

Separately, of course.

On the Palestinian side, public adoration is being heaped on Ammar Hassan, a 27-year-old singer who has advanced to the finals of a televised contest that is the Arab-world equivalent of "American Idol." Israel, for its part, is caught up in euphoric celebrations of the country's first Olympic gold medal, won Wednesday by 28-year-old windsurfer Gal Fridman.

Pop songs and windsurfing might seem like relatively lighthearted pursuits, but fans of the two men -- who look oddly alike, both slender and graceful, dark-haired and dark-eyed -- regard each as an emblem of his people's struggles.

Fridman emotionally dedicated his victory to the memory of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches who were killed by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Hassan enjoined his audience of millions across the Arab world to remember the sufferings of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

In recent days, it has become almost impossible to spend time in an Israeli cafe or a Palestinian coffeehouse without being engaged in someone's eager conversation about each side's man of the moment.

"He lifts up all of us. He gives us something to hope for," a Palestinian driver named Sami Hussein, who was carrying workers home in his communal taxi, said of Hassan. His weary passengers nodded enthusiastic agreement.

"We really needed something like this: something to make us happy and proud, not so worried for once," said young Israeli mother Geula Hoffman, shopping in a crowded Jerusalem mall where patrons pass through metal detectors and have their car trunks checked by a sniffer dog.

At moments like this, however, a sense of the profound disconnect between these two societies -- so close geographically but so removed from each other psychologically -- is inescapable.

After nearly four years of bloody conflict, Israelis and Palestinians are content to lead separate lives, with little curiosity about each other's daily trials and triumphs. The cultural exchanges of the late 1990s, which characterized a hopeful era in which peace seemed within grasp, have almost completely died out.

Few in Israel know or care about Hassan's success, with the exception of the country's 1 million Arab citizens, who have followed his progress as avidly as their Palestinian brethren. No major Palestinian daily newspaper, meanwhile, even mentioned Fridman and his victory.

"Who?" asked a Palestinian mother, cradling her baby as she waited in line at a pharmacy Wednesday in East Jerusalem. "That doesn't concern us."

Israel came to a virtual standstill Wednesday afternoon during Fridman's race, shown live on TV. People cheered him on from their offices, homes, even from convenience stores. In tribute, radio stations have incessantly been playing Hebrew-language surfing songs.

"We caught a wave -- let's enjoy it!" said one TV announcer, punning on Fridman's first name, which means "wave" in Hebrew.

In Palestinian cities and towns -- particularly those nearest Hassan's home village of Salfit, nestled among steep hills terraced with olive groves in the northern West Bank -- the performer is a poster pinup, his fresh and cleanshaven face a marked contrast to the fading portraits of suicide bombers that line streets and alleyways.

Victory in the "Super Star 2" singing contest, broadcast from Beirut, is decided by popular vote as well as a panel of judges. Sales of cards issued by the telecommunications carrier Jawal have surged as Palestinians used their mobile phones to call or send text messages casting their votes for Hassan.

Hassan and a Libyan singer are the two finalists, winnowed from thousands of hopefuls in a months-long contest that will end Sunday. On last Sunday's show -- a Las Vegas-style extravaganza with a neon-lighted stage, flashing strobe lights and an audience decked out in fancy dress -- one of the judges was so entranced by Hassan's performance that he composed an impromptu poem praising him.

Despite an outpouring of Palestinian delight over Hassan's triumph, he has attracted the ire of Islamist purists who disapprove of the spectacle. He reportedly has received threats from the militant group Hamas.

"Let the Islamists think what they want. The people are with my son," said the singer's 63-year-old father, Hassan Ahmed Dakrouk, whose living room in Salfit is a shrine to his son, complete with a toy keyboard he played as a child.

In Israel, some pointed to Fridman's success as a much-needed rebuke to what they described as a national climate of malaise and mediocrity.

"Israel has to start fostering a spirit of excellence, rather than catering to the lowest common denominator," commentator Sever Plotzker wrote in the Yediot Aharonot daily. "Otherwise, we won't attain worthwhile international achievements in any sphere. We'll just stew in our own juices."

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