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SHRINE TO ELVIS IN MIDDLE EAST

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A bizarre shrine to a modern-day king is drawing Holy Land tourists to this Israeli Arab village, where biblical sandals meet Blue Suede Shoes.

The Elvis Inn at Abu Ghosh is a Middle Eastern oddity, possibly the only place in the world where a tourist can get a camel ride, a shish kebab and a plastic bust of Elvis Presley.Some 7,000 miles from his Graceland mansion in Memphis, where the "King of Rock and Roll" died of a drug overdose in 1977, a roadside diner is testimony to the universality of his legend.

Down the road is a 5th century church with a giant statue of the Virgin Mary watching over Abu Ghosh, whose Arab residents have shown no enthusiasm for the nearby Elvis monument.

The truckstop just off the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway has become a place of pilgrimage for tourist buses on the route.

Owner Uri Yoali, a Jerusalem-born Elvis buff, says the inn is his personal tribute to Presley.

"It's not just for the tourists," he said. "Elvis is my life."

The gyrating singer, who mesmerized a generation in the 1950s and 1960s -- and scandalized their parents -- has become an enduring cult figure in the 1980s. His best-known hits included "Blue Suede Shoes," "Jailhouse Rock" and "Hound Dog."

A sign at the diner's entrance boasts: "I've seen the King at Elvis Inn." You could hardly miss him with 728 pictures and posters of Presley, some of them life-sized, lining the walls.

The smell of gasoline and the sound of Elvis pervade Yoali's inn. He has collected nearly every recording Elvis ever made -- 85 albums. The stereo plays non-stop Presley.

Yoali's reverence for Elvis led him recently to commission a 12-foot, 500-pound epoxy and plaster statue of Presley modelled after Michelangelo's David.

"I always dreamed of seeing Elvis big. In my mind he is so large, bigger even than this," Yoali said of the statue standing at the inn's entrance.

Yoali wrote to invite Presley's wife, Priscilla, to inaugurate the giant likeness but she did not respond. But Presley's daughter Lisa, 24, has agreed to visit soon, he said.

Lest visitors forget this taste of America is in the Middle East, Yoali keeps a camel roped outside for rides on hillsides dotted with fig and eucalyptus trees.

The house speciality is a chewy Middle Eastern mixed grill of hearts, livers, spare ribs and kebab (lamb).

Yoali, a dark, dashing and youthful 43, said he discovered Elvis as a youngster when a classmate brought in a picture of the American rock star. It was 1957 and Presley's romantic ballad "Love Me Tender" was a giant hit in America.

"I didn't even know how to pronounce the name Elvis Presley," he recalled. He ran to Jerusalem's only record shop and bought Presley's "One Night."

Yoali made his first trip to the United States in 1974 and saw Elvis perform in Salt Lake City. He has preserved the tickets in a glass frame that hangs under the inn's cashbox.

After the concert he waited for hours with 2,000 other fans in a restaurant where it was rumored Elvis would eat. But the king never came.

"Today the world is much smaller. Everyone goes abroad. But in 1974, going to see Elvis in the United States was something unbelievable for me," he said.

Three years later Yoali bought his restaurant and hung up a handful of Elvis pictures. Customers were so enthusiastic that it soon snowballed, he said.

Foreign visitors continually send him Elvis memorabilia when they return home.

Yoali's souvenir wall is festooned with Elvis license plates, mugs, soaps, towels, calendars and busts alongside the standard Middle Eastern olive-wood camels, crucifixes and checkered Arab headdresses.

On Saturdays, when most Israeli restaurants close for the Jewish Sabbath, Jerusalemites wait an hour for a table to be entertained by an Israeli Elvis-impersonator, Yaacov Toubi.

Toubi neither sounds nor looks like Elvis. Often he just mouths the songs. But he greases back his black wavy hair, turns up the collar of his leather jacket and pleases crowds anyway.

"Everyone has his own Elvis," Yoali said. "He brings back memories. He reminds us of a certain lifestyle."