They took us down winding stone stairs and through long corridors, ostensibly to have some make-up dabbed on our noses for the cameras, in fact to meet the interviewer and test his disguise. We confronted a tall, blond-ish man in his thirties, dressed in leather and studs, his face heavily powdered, his arms and chest shaven. He spoke in a heavy German accent, his movements and mannerisms ultra-gay. He tried to write down our names, but they came out dyslexic.
“This guy is going to interview us?”
“Don’t worry, he knows what questions to ask you,” an assistant producer replied.
We did worry. But we had signed a contract or release form (we’re both interviewed so frequently, neither of us bothered to read it carefully). And we, an Israeli and a Palestinian, are gentlemen; we do what we promise to do. Besides, we had been suggested to the production company by a respected Middle East expert in Washington whom we both know. We had bargained for a fee and received it. Rob, the producer who spoke to us earlier on the phone, had a British accent and seemed serious and professional. The interview was taking place in an appropriate setting, near the Zion Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. Obviously, this production company, with its three cameras and large coterie of assistants, was serious and very professional.
We had been asked to be interviewed for a documentary that would explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the youth of the world. A worthy cause. The producers explained that our interviewer, a German rock star, was the perfect person to establish strong communication with our audience. Perfect, also, because neither of us knows anything about rock stars, German or otherwise.
We were then kept waiting for an hour, a delay for which we were given a variety of production-related excuses. The interviewer disappeared. We had other engagements and were beginning to study our watches and complain. By the time the interview began, we were preoccupied with our scheduling problems. We were told that, considering the nature of our audience, the questions would focus on the most basic issues.
And they were, indeed, basic, relating to our expectations for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Then one of us mentioned Hamas, and the exchange that ensued went something like this:
“Vait, vait. Vat’s zee connection between a political movement and food. Vy hummus?”
We exchanged astonished glances. “Hamas,” we explained, “is a Palestinian Islamist political movement. Hummus is a food.”
“Ya, but vy hummus? Yesterday I had to throw away my pita bread because it vas dripping hummus. Unt it’s too high in carbohydrates.”
The Hamas-hummus confusion went on for several minutes. Then, the interviewer declared: “Your conflict is not so bad. Jennifer-Angelina is worse.”
We probed our limited memory of Hollywood scandals: Was he comparing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to some sort of tension between Brad Pitt’s former and current wives?
What was going on here? Should we pull off our microphones, get up and leave? We exchanged worried glances. “Could we take a break?” one of us asked meekly. The request was ignored.
And so it went. The cameras kept rolling, the cameramen never cracking a smile. “Vy don’t you Jews and Arabs settle the conflict with a time share on the land?” “Ven vill you Jews return the pyramids?” “Vy can’t Jews and Hindus get along?”
Jews and Hindus?
We played it straight and square. Nay, we simply are straight and square. We smiled at the idiotic questions and answered them patiently. We remonstrated that this was no way to help the youth of the world understand the depth and tragedy of our conflict. When presented with more straightforward questions, we eagerly demonstrated our disagreements on fundamental issues like refugees and who started the conflict. We knew something ludicrous was happening but couldn’t quite figure it out. Besides, we ourselves were not being ridiculed — only the conflict that occupies and preoccupies us. And we were pressured for time and just wanted to finish.
Our rock-star host concluded with a mind-boggling song about the epic Middle East conflict between Jews and Hindus. At the crescendo, he grabbed our hands and joined them with his. Unlike Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert (or President Bush and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah), my Palestinian fellow interviewee and I are not hand-holders, but we suffered through it. As we started to hurry away, the interviewer followed us, cameras still rolling, peppering us with nonsense questions about being taken hostage and having his throat slit on camera.
Yes, dear reader, Sacha Baron Cohen is loose in the Middle East. The end product will undoubtedly be hilarious. We’ll try to be good sports about it.
But will Sacha Baron Cohen? He is exploiting our tragic and painful conflict in the most cynical and deceptive manner. I doubt he’ll give us anything in return.
Yossi Alpher is the Israeli co-editor of bitterlemons.org.