Palestinian 'terrorist' plans suit over unwitting role in 'Bruno'

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 16, 2009 

Ayman Abu Aita, a Palestinian storeowner and Fatah leader in the West Bank, has unwillingly skyrocketed to fame as an unwilling star of "Bruno."

DION NISSENBAUM/MCT

BEIT SAHOUR, West Bank — Ayman Abu Aita knew there was something odd about the Austrian television reporter who asked to be kidnapped last year, showed risque video clips of himself stripping and suggested that "King" Osama Bin Laden shave his beard so he wouldn't look like a "dirty wizard."

It wasn't until last week, however, that the middle-aged Palestinian store owner realized that he'd become an unwitting movie actor now known worldwide as "Bruno's terrorist."

In the past week, Abu Aita has been propelled to unsought global stardom as the perplexed "terrorist group leader" meeting the ditzy, gay Austrian fashion television-show host "Bruno" in British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's new hit movie.

After realizing that he'd become one of the latest people to be duped by the actor, Abu Aita has hired a team of lawyers and is preparing to join the line of critics to sue Baron Cohen over his hit "mockumentaries."

"He's mean, he's ruthless and he's a liar," Abu Aita said during an interview this week in the cramped storeroom office of his small market near Bethlehem. "I told him that I was not a terrorist, that I am a political moderate and that I would not help him become famous by kidnapping him."

The threatened lawsuit is likely to be one of several to target Baron Cohen for "Bruno," the new film starring his ostentatious, on-screen alter ego.

Baron Cohen faced a swarm of complaints and a few lawsuits from unwitting stars of his first blockbuster "mockumentary" film, "Borat." One woman in California who took part in the filming of a "Bruno" scene at a bingo hall already is suing for "emotional distress."

Abu Aita could be the next.

Baron Cohen met Abu Aita last year when the comedian came to the Middle East to film part of "Bruno" in which the character seeks fame by trying, unsuccessfully, to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

In promoting "Bruno," Baron Cohen has depicted his interview with Abu Aita as a dangerous mission that required special security to take him into the West Bank for a clandestine meeting at a secret location.

"It's not that easy to find an actual terrorist," Baron Cohen said last week while promoting the movie on the "Late Show with David Letterman." "In fact, your government has been looking for one for about nine years."

To find his "terrorist" foil, Baron Cohen said, he had to seek out a CIA contact and spend months searching for someone who finally put him in touch with Abu Aita. Then, Baron Cohen said, he had trouble finding security wiling to take him to meet Abu Aita.

The reality was much more sedate, however.

Abu Aita is no terrorist on the run. He's a 39-year-old father of four and a local political leader with the pro-Western Fatah Party. His Christian family owns two markets that sell groceries and alcohol in Beit Sahour, a small West Bank town next to Bethlehem.

Tracking him down and setting up an interview required a few phone calls.

While Abu Aita did serve two years in prison in Israel for his role at a Fatah leader during the second Palestinian uprising, he dismissed Baron Cohen's depiction of him as a nefarious terrorist mastermind.

Although several Palestinian activists identified Abu Aita as a member of al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, he said he'd never been part of the militant group that the United States and Israel classify as a terrorist organization.

Newspaper stories from 2002, however, identify him as a local al Aqsa leader at a time when the group was stepping up its suicide bombings of Israeli targets.

"Don't look at us as angels," Abu Aita told The Boston Globe in 2002 before he was imprisoned. "As long as there is occupation, there will be resistance."

These days, he works with the Holy Land Trust, a Bethlehem-based charity that promotes nonviolence.

He had no qualms when a friend asked him to sit down last year with a visiting journalist who he was told wanted to focus on the plight of the Palestinian people.

The location was hardly clandestine, and it wasn't especially risky.

Abu Aita met Baron Cohen in a private room above a restaurant in a part of the West Bank outside Bethlehem that's still under full Israeli military control.

"If I am a terrorist, how can I go to Israeli-controlled areas?" asked Abu Aita, who said he'd never signed any release or papers during the interview. "How can I be a roaming terrorist?"

Though Abu Aita was perplexed by Baron Cohen's sleeveless vest and revealing "Bruno" attire, he said they spoke for four hours about the political conflict and life in the West Bank.

At one point, in an apparent attempt to provoke Abu Aita, Baron Cohen showed him video clips of "Bruno" stripping.

When Baron Cohen said he wanted to be kidnapped so he could become famous, Abu Aita said he told him firmly, in English: "I reject this," a response that was edited out of the film. Instead, the movie shows Abu Aita reacting to the clips of "Bruno" stripping by saying, "I don't like."

In the movie, the interview comes to an abrupt end when Baron Cohen offers Abu Aita unsolicited advice to "lose the beards" because "your king Osama looks like a kind of dirty wizard or a homeless Santa."

The perplexed Abu Aita asks the translator to repeat Baron Cohen's advice, after which the off-screen translator says: "Get out. Get out now."

That angry response never took place, however, and the translator's words were added in the editing room, Abu Aita said.

Abu Aita's sudden celebrity has become the talk of the town, from Bethlehem to Flint, Mich., where relatives were the first to see the "Bruno" clip.

"My family in the States called me and said, 'Your picture is in a movie and underneath it is says, "terrorist,'' ' " Abu Aita said while smoking cigarettes in front of a wall of shelves filled with overstocked vodka, scotch and other alcoholic beverages.

To clear his reputation, Abu Aita called on Baron Cohen to release the full video of the interview.

"It's a perverted movie," said Abu Aita's brother, Amjad. "We're a conservative society, and people don't like it. For Ayman to be associated with this movie like this, it has a negative impact on his standing in society."

Officials at Universal Pictures, the film's distributor, had no comment Thursday on Abu Aita's criticism.

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