Arab world's 'Idol' inspires patriotic fervor

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

— And you thought "American Idol" fans were excitable. They've got nothing on the millions of Arabs backing their national favorites on the show's Middle East knockoff.

When the Lebanese front-runner was eliminated in the semifinals last week, angry fans in the audience pelted one another with chairs or anything else they could find, and the two remaining contestants fainted. Scores of people took to the streets in Lebanon to protest.

And when a 19-year-old Jordanian, Diana Karzon, won the crown in Monday night's finals of "Superstar," hundreds poured into the streets of the Jordanian capital, Amman, cheering, honking car horns, even shooting guns into the air, and fireworks illuminated main squares.

Karzon, holding hands with her 21-year-old Syrian rival Rowaida Attiyeh in the show's tense final moments, burst into tears when the host announced the results. A total 4.8 million votes were cast via Internet and mobile text message before the final show.

"Superstar," shown on the Lebanese satellite station Future TV, mirrored its American counterpart -- and the British "Pop Idol" that launched the concept -- in many ways, including its huge popularity.

Arabs across the region tuned in for the past 21 weeks, following as thousands of contestants from all Arab countries were winnowed down to 12 finalists from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. Contestants performed songs ranging from the classics of Lebanese diva Fayrouz and Egypt's Umm Kulthum, the most popular singer in the Arab world, to the hits of Arab pop.

But while American Idol winner Ruben Studdard stirred local pride by wearing his oversized jerseys adorned with the number 205 -- the area code of his hometown, Birmingham, Ala. -- contestants in the Arab versions moved whole countries.

National pride

Karzon did not speak after winning -- instead she belted out a rendition of an Arabic song, "Two Moons Standing At My Door" -- but she said earlier that if she won she would dedicate the victory to "the people of Lebanon, Jordanians, on top of them his majesty King Abdullah and the children of Palestine."


AP Photo

The two female contestants, Jordan's Diana Karzon, left, and Syria's Rowaida Attiyeh, right, stand with Lebanon's Melhem Zein, long front-runner for the superstar title who was eliminated from the semifinal race last week during a trial in Beirut, Lebanon.

"Without any doubt, I am voting for Diana, because she is Jordanian and I support my country," said Tala Qassir, 23, a supporter in Amman. "Besides that, she has a nice voice and she deserves to win."

Jordanian and Syrian television stations aired special programs on Attiyeh and Karzon, treating them like national heroes.

In Syria, merchant Subhan Elewi, 37, said he voted for Attiyeh. "First because she is Syrian and second because she has a nice voice."

Not all fans

Conservative groups say the show is yet another example of American culture infecting the Arab world.

"We urge the concerned official and popular parties to put an end to this sad comedy", said a statement from the Islamic Action Front, part of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood political movement. It said the show "facilitates the culture of globalization led by America to change the cultural identity of the people."


AP Photo

Billboards showing singer Rowaida Attiyeh read "Syrian votes are for a Syrian voice" in one of the main squares in Damascus, Syria. Attiyeh and Jordanian Diana Karzon competed for the Arab world's "Superstar" title Monday, and Karzon was named the winner.