The famed Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) of NY is branching out, franchising its name overseas. Triggered by the 9/11 attack on NY, and founded as a response to terror and hate, producer Jane Rosenthal, celebrity-actor Robert De Niro, and Jane’s husband Craig Hatkoff, started TFF in 2002. And today TFF is kicking off a new festival: Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF). They commit huge amounts of manpower to get this done, and most likely are very handsomely compensated by the Qataris.
How do you get such an enterprise to succeed in a far-away place such as Doha? One way of doing this is by enticing the press. No wonder that the press people of TFF very cordially let me know that Her Excellency Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad Al-Thani has invited me to come to Qatar for the First DTFF. Business Class flight to Qatar, stay in a five-star hotel, countless parties, “excursion” trips and massages-with-champagne are included. How shall I respond?
Being born Jewish, a man despised by many, I decide to accept the stretched out to me in love and immediately reply: I’m coming!
Qatar, ever hospitable, kindly requests that I send them a copy of my passport. They’d like to issue me a visa ahead of my arrival. I gladly comply.
But, strangely, the days pass and my visa doesn’t arrive. What happened? Was the festival cancelled? Doesn’t look it, as I still read about it in the media. But I do become a bit suspicious when I read in The New York Times that “none of the Gulf festivals have programmed a film from Israel” and quotes a former TFF official who says, “You can’t come here with an Israeli passport.” I have an American passport, but it lists Israel as my birthplace. Have I been disinvited?
A few more days pass and the visa finally arrives. It’s in Arabic. Every detail in the Qatari visa matches those in my American passport, except one: birthplace. I was born, in case I didn’t know, in America. I get intrigued: Is this true?
Am I a real American? Let me find out. With visa in hand and new identity on paper, this proudly American-born man takes the plane to Qatar. Great flight. And it gets even better. Immediately upon my arrival a chauffeured BMW is at my disposal, taking me to the Four Seasons Hotel. Beautiful place. Huge bed, big rooms, and all amenities imaginable. I even spot a little gift for me on the table: An iPodtouch. Nice touch.
Yes, I’m a Jew beloved. And continuously so. On the next day I join a bunch of Western critics to see racetrack horses. Critics should see these things, otherwise they can’t write their reviews. The horses, btw, have quite interesting names. My favorite: Socrates and What a Lady. As I examine the horses, a Sri Lankan worker talks to me. He makes 250 dollars a month, 160 of which he sends back home. This money, he tells me, will allow his family to have two meals of rice a day, but no bread. “If they buy bread, they will eat only one meal a day.” He’d like to get out of here and go back home. As if to emphasize this man’s plight I suddenly notice one of the horses trying pretty hard to unlock the gate that imprisons him. I can’t help it but these two force me to think of the other side of my newfound luxury: Cheap labor and sufferings. Maybe I should leave them both and go see a movie. There’s a Film Festival here!
Being true to form I go to the cinema to watch A Serious Man. The first few minutes of this brilliant film are in Yiddish. Interesting to hear Yiddish and read the Arabic subtitles at the same time. But wait a second, something’s strange here: when the Serious characters switch to Hebrew there’s suddenly no translation. Why? Don’t know. The audience seems to enjoy this film nevertheless. When a character is seen shooting one Jew and then getting ready to shoot another Jew as well, the people here go wild. Interesting.
I stick around to see more films. For example: Pomegranates & Myrrh. Directed by Najaw Najjar of Ramallah, and done in cooperation with ZDF, P&M depicts Palestinians as the kindest, loveliest, most romantic and selfless of people, all the while as it shows Israeli Jews as ugly creatures, brutal oppressors and sadists.
I’m so happy I’m not a Jew. Just imagine!
Enough of films. It’s party time again. A limo picks me up. The driver tells me he’s Palestinian. From what city? “Doha.” Doha in Palestine? “I’m Palestinian!” he insists. Well, I guess we have one American and one Palestinian in this car. I then leave the car and move to the party. Here I meet Abdallah, a Muslim journalist who tells me that he’s a Palestinian from Ramallah. When was the last time he was in Ramallah? “Never,” he says. Right then and there I decide that I was born in Salt Lake City. Why not? Am actually a Mormon. In this desert country, reality is as good as the sand dunes before the winds. Abdallah takes a liking to me and shares a secret. “The Egyptians,” he says, “are more Jewish than the Jews.” Good to know.
Hot winds blow and I go to sleep. And by the next day this Mormon realizes he’s the only Mormon in Qatar; no others around. It feels very lonely and so I go to have a talk with Jane Rosenthal. I need company, why not spend some time with a powerful lady? Can’t hurt. Jane is all smiles; very happy to meet me in Doha. She tells me that she’s Jewish and that she went to a Yeshiva while growing up. Two of her assistants join in and ask if it’s okay for them to take notes. Prozac would probably be better, but notes are okay as well. We chat a bit about this and that, share a smile or three, and then I ask Jane for comments on the Times article. I need to ask something, don’t I? Immediately, without a second’s delay, the atmosphere in the room heats up, volumes go quite high, and sharp accusations fly in the air. The assistants jump at me as if I were a dangerous terrorist. “The New York Times ran an article last week, written by Larry Rohter, if that’s the one you’re referring to, which did NOT say that,” one assistant says. “It’s not true, and it was not said!” I quietly ask Jane again if she’s willing to make a comment. No, she’s not. Unless I pull the quote, which ‘does not exist,’ there’ll be no comment. I didn’t expect this outburst. I thought she’d make a nice little statement, something like “We love everybody,” and that would’ve been it. But the nervous reaction makes me very suspicious. What is the TFF hiding? I email them the link to the Times’ website, containing the lines I mentioned, word for word. Neurotic emails fly in my direction but Jane does not talk. I smell a rotten fish. What is it? Did Jane and the TFF sell out their souls to Doha’s big pockets?
Maybe I should really become a Mormon. I mean, for real.
I sleep over it and wake up to have a glorious breakfast at the hotel. I chat with an Egyptian kitchen worker and ask him if he eats this delicious food every day. No, he doesn’t. “We get different food,” he says, “not like yours. Yours is good.” He makes very little money here, he says, but he’s not jealous of the Rich of Qatar. “Since I’m here,” he says to me, “I became very proud of my Egyptian culture.” Would have been nice if the TFF made this man their leader. What a loss.
But there are some winners too. On the last day of DTFF Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro share the stage to grant Najaw Najjar the Audience Award for Best Arab Film. Najaw thanks everybody, Oscar-style, and expresses her wish to meet in Liberated Palestine. The audience erupts in applause. I’ve been around these parts of the world before and know what “Greater Israel” or “Liberated Palestine” mean: Two options that invite endless terror. Any comment from J&R? Nada.
Tomorrow I leave Qatar. Should I adopt my new American identity? I take a last look at Jane and Robert, smiling to the cameras, and decide: No.
Originally appeared in German in Die Zeit.