TEL AVIV // It started off as a movie sketch but things may not turn out to be so funny for Sacha Baron Cohen, as the man labelled "a terrorist" in Cohen's hit film Bruno has just filed a US$110 million (Dh403.7m) lawsuit against the comedian. Ayman Abu Aita, from the town of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem in the West Bank, claims he suffered "extended damages and loss" after this year's summer release, Bruno, described him as a terrorist.
The Palestinian, who is a storekeeper as well as a non-profit worker, is also suing the David Letterman show, and others, for libel and slander under the same lawsuit. The case was recently lodged in a US court, months after the incident that Mr Aita claims has caused him such devastation. Playing the character of Bruno, a gay fashionista TV host, Cohen decides to interview and be kidnapped by a terrorist in a bid to become "the most famous Austrian since Hitler".
To this end, he travels to the Middle East and meets Mr Abu Aita, who is captioned in the film as a militant from al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, the armed wing of the Fatah movement. In July this year, when the film was released, Cohen appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman and described how he met Mr Abu Aita. "It's not that easy to find an actual terrorist," Cohen told Letterman. "...so we called up a contact we had at the CIA and said, 'Can you help us? We are looking to find a terrorist?' The guy at the CIA said 'We've got a lot of names of terrorists, but we have almost no addresses.'"
The search eventually turned up what Cohen describes to Letterman as "a terrorist from a pretty nasty group called the al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, who are kind of the number one suicide bombers out there". And the interview took place, says Cohen, at a secret location in the West Bank, chosen by "the terrorist", who arrives at the arranged time with a bodyguard. All of which came as a complete shock to Mr Abu Aita, 44, who is a Christian Fatah representative of the movement's political wing for Bethlehem district. He is also a board member of the Holy Land Trust, a non-profit organisation engaged in Palestinian community-building. Mr Abu Aita says he turned up to the interview with his friend and co-member of the trust, Sami Awad - who had offered to help with translating. The meeting took place, they both say, at the Everest hotel and restaurant in the West Bank mountain village, Beit Jala, which is Israeli-controlled and close to an Israeli military base.
"He lied about the whole thing," Mr Abu Aita said earlier this year, adding he was invited to talk to Bruno about issues relating to the Palestinian cause, a subject that he is always willing to discuss. Mr Abu Aita is well known in Beit Sahour as a community leader and proponent of non-violent activism in support of the Palestinian cause. Colleagues and his lawyer say he has been under considerable strain since the release of the film. Some Palestinians are furious with him for allowing himself - and the Palestinian cause - to be portrayed in such a terrible light.
"It has put him in a really difficult situation and he is on the defensive all the time," said Mr Awad, the executive director of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem. "If people know him or hear his side of the story, then it is no problem - but he has to go and tell every individual person what really happened." The situation, he adds,"is especially difficult in an Arab culture, where someone's honour and dignity are everything."
On top of which, there have, according to his Palestinian lawyer, Hatem Abu Ahmad, been threats made by "Jewish organisations" who have taken the "terror" label at face value. "His [mobile phone] number was easy to obtain, and people would call him up and say they are going to kill him," said Mr Abu Ahmad. The storekeeper used to travel to Israel to meet with suppliers, but no longer does. "He is really so depressed," Mr Abu Ahmad said of his client, who is currently in the US. "It is a sort of un-relaxed life he has now."
Customers at his supermarket, in Beit Sahour, describe Mr abu Aita as an upbeat and friendly man who used to put in long hours at the store, many of which were spent chatting to regular shoppers. Now, some say, things have changed. "After that film, I never saw him in the shop again," said Hindi Mesleh, a resident of Beit Sahour. "He seems to have stopped going out. He's a really nice guy. I was shocked and really annoyed when I saw the film."
For Mr Mesleh and others, it is not just Mr Abu Aita's reputation that is being fought over in court, but that of the Palestinian people. "He had to no right to show the Palestinian people in this way. We are civilised, educated people and he had no right to show us in this ugly way," said Mr Abu Aita. Spokespeople for both Cohen and the Letterman show have declined comment. * The National