RAMALLAH, West Bank // Not many people would confuse humus and Hamas. Even fewer, presumably, believe that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one between Jews and Hindus. Imagine then the confusion of two eminent political analysts, one Palestinian and one Israeli, during their session with an effete, leather-clad interviewer that was interrupted when, in his thick German accent, the man asked what humus had to do with the conflict other than being too high in cholesterol and why Palestinians and Jews did not simply take out a time-share on the land.
Had the analysts been of a younger generation, the names Ali G or Borat might have registered in their minds. As it was, clueless to what they had got themselves involved in, they ended up holding hands with their lank-haired and heavily made-up host as he sang a song about the conflict between Jews and Hindus tearing apart the Middle East. Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian better known for his alter egos Ali G and Borat, has apparently struck again and like many of his former guests, the unsuspecting analysts were not impressed.
"I can imagine how a very talented individual like him can make something entertaining and funny from our conflict," said Yossi Alpher, the Israeli analyst. "That's not necessarily a bad thing. But he does it in a very exploitative way because we don't know who he is." Mr Alpher and his Palestinian counterpart on the show both considered the experience "traumatic", the latter to the extent that he declined to be named or interviewed for this article. Mr Alpher too was reluctant, but wrote about it himself in a recent column in the Forward magazine, a Jewish-American publication.
"It's unethical," said Mr Alpher about the way the interview was arranged and presented to him. "This was supposed to be journalism, but journalists can't do this." The two analysts had, according to Mr Alpher, been contacted by a production company to explain the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on a show hosted by a German rock star and aimed at the youth market. The interview took place in an expensive hotel just outside the old city of Jerusalem where an evidently very professional production unit had been set up. The two were assured by a producer, after first meeting their interviewer and voicing reservations, that the host would ask relevant if simple questions.
It was classic Ali G modus operandi. Baron Cohen first made a name for himself with his Da Ali G Show, in which the eponymous presenter interviewed British celebrities, often politicians, on current affairs issues to make them intelligible to a young audience. Freed from the customary formalities and confronted by what appeared to be a well-meaning if somewhat dim young man, interviewees often let down their guards to frequently hilarious results. The show became an instant success in England, where a movie was made, and later in the US, where Baron Cohen was even invited to give the commencement address at Harvard University in his Ali G persona.
Superstardom beckoned, but it was another of his personas that would make Baron Cohen a global phenomenon. One of the more popular segments of Da Ali G Show was a regular report from Borat Sagdiyev, billed as a 'Kazakhstani' correspondent in the United Kingdom. In Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Baron Cohen took Borat on a 'mockumentary' tour of the US that turned out to be an enormous box-office hit and secured him an Oscar nomination in 2007 for best adapted screenplay.
It also gave rise to several controversies. Baron Cohen was sued by villagers from a Romanian town, where a part of the movie was filmed, who claimed the movie made them look like savages and that the film had been misrepresented to them. Another suit was brought by two students who claimed they had been misled while drunk into taking part in the movie. Even the Kazakh government briefly threatened to sue. Both lawsuits were dismissed.
The movie showcased a darker, more edgy side to Baron Cohen. Although Ali G was a likeable character, Borat's misogyny and anti-Semitism provided a more sinister twist on the innocent abroad persona. But the undisguised, if innocently uttered, prejudices of Borat also seemed to loosen up his subjects, many of whom gave vent to prejudices of their own. In one memorable scene, Borat, wielding a guitar, manages to make punters at a bar sing along with a song whose lyrics include: "throw the Jew down the well".
Borat has reportedly retired. Baron Cohen is currently working on a movie featuring a third persona from Da Ali G Show, that of Brüno, a gay Austrian fashion show presenter whose vacuous antics often force his guests into highly embarrassing contradictions. The movie is tentatively titled, Brüno: Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt. Though this is not the United States, and Brüno is no German rock star and looks different to the description offered by Mr Alpher - who only suspected the involvement of Baron Cohen after a conversation with his children - the over-the-top homosexual stereotype and the German accent fits well enough. Perhaps Brüno is branching out into "serious" journalism.
Perhaps Baron Cohen, himself from an Orthodox Jewish background, has decided the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is ripe for some mickey-taking. Mr Alpher, who wrote that Baron Cohen was exploiting "our tragic and painful conflict in the most cynical and deceptive manner", said he would nevertheless see the movie - it is due for release in May - even if both he and his Palestinian counterpart had sought legal advice to see if they could prevent the interview from being screened.
They might take some comfort in the fact that they join a select list of prominent personalities from sport stars David Beckham and Shaquille O'Neill to politicians James Baker III and Boutros Boutros-Ghali to have been duped by Baron Cohen in his various guises. Failing that they may seek solace in the suggestion of their host that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could be solved if only the Jews gave back the Pyramids.