These mean West Bank streets seemed unusually quiet as my frazzled source guided us through the winding Bethlehem roads leading us to a surreptitious meeting that would bring me face-to-face with a unique kind of terror.
We knew the risks we were taking as Ayman Abu Aita, the unwilling Hollywood “terrorist” star of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new movie, led us through his family’s convenience store into the cramped storeroom where no one could hear us scream.
When it was already too late, I remembered the sage advice I heard from a grizzled war correspondent: Always have an exit plan.
We’d walked right into this lair. And there was only one way out.
As Abu Aita lit a cigarette and leaned back in his office chair, I began to wonder: Is this the end? Has my reckless quest for the truth led us into a dangerous trap?
This 39-year-old father of four has been propelled to fame as an unwilling foil to Cohen’s ditzy, gay Austrian fashionista alter-ego “Bruno.”
Now he’s preparing to sue.
Abu Aita appears for less than a minute in “Bruno.”
In that time, Bruno tries unsuccessfully to convince Abu Aita – identified on the screen as a “terrorist group leader” – to kidnap him so he can be famous.
“I want the best guys in the business to kidnap me,” Bruno tells Abu Aita. “Al Qaeda are so 2001.”
"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,” Abu Aita said as he sat in front of a bank of metal shelves filled with overstocked scotch, vodka and arak for the family’s store.
In promoting the film, Cohen has painted a picture of a dark and dangerous journey to Abu Aita’s door.
“It’s not that easy to find an actual terrorist,” Cohen said last week on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” “In fact, your government has been looking for one for about nine years.”
“There’s no Craigslist in Beirut,” said Cohen, apparently unaware that there actually is a Craigslist in Beirut, though one that does not list “terrorists” as a category.
Instead, Cohen said he made contact with a source at the CIA.
“The guy at the CIA said: ‘We’ve got a lot of names of terrorists, but we have almost no addresses,’” Cohen told Letterman in an interview that has already been seen more than one million times on YouTube.
Then, the comedian said, it took months of searching before he caught a break from a Palestinian in the West Bank who said: "There is a terrorist who lives in my town."
One problem solved, Cohen ran into another. He couldn’t find bodyguards willing to take him into the West Bank for the interview at a secret location.
Once he found security willing to brave a trip to Bethlehem, Cohen was off to a serene part of the West Bank that is still entirely under Israeli military control.
It was there, in a private room that had been prepared the day before by production staff, that Cohen met Abu Aita for a four-hour interview that was distilled down to 40 seconds of the new hit Hollywood film.
Finding Abu Aita in our quest for the truth did not require chatting up CIA contacts, obtaining secret Mossad intel, or even months of dogged negotiations with shady figures.
All it took was a few phone calls from a well-connected Palestinian colleague and we were off to Bethlehem.
Abu Aita met us outside the family grocery store named “Truthfulness" and led us into the storeroom office.
Abu Aita knew there was something strange about last year’s interview with Cohen.
He didn’t quite know how to react with Cohen/Bruno opened a laptop and asked him to look at risqué videos of himself stripping.
But he didn’t realize quite what he’d stumbled into until last week when relatives in Flint, Michigan called to tell him he was in a Hollywood movie that described him as a terrorist leader.
Cohen identified Abu Aita as a "terrorist" with Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the militant offshoot of PA President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah Party that is considered a banned terrorist group by Israel and the United States.
Though Abu Aita denies it, newspaper reports from 2002 identify him as a leader of the militant group.
"Don't look at us as angels," Abu Aita told The Boston Globe in 2002 before he spent two years in Israeli prisons for being a local leader of the second Palestinian uprising. "As long as there is occupation, there will be resistance."
These days, though, Abu Aita is no nefarious terrorist mastermind on the run. He is a local Fatah political leader and member of the Holy Land Trust, a Bethlehem nonprofit that promotes nonviolence and co-existence programs.
Like past victims of Cohen’s comedy, Abu Aita said he was incensed to see how the movie had twisted the interview.
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, at which point the off-screen translator says to Bruno/Cohen: "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.
To set the record straight, Abu Aita wants Cohen to release the full interview.
“He thought he could deceive people like you play chess,” said Abu Aita’s brother Amjad. “But people have self-esteem and people have pride.”
Amjad Abu Aita said labeling his brother a terrorist could damage his reputation with Israeli business partners and make it harder for him to travel.
The brothers also objected to their unwilling inclusion in a movie that centers on an ostentatious gay character.
“It's a perverted movie," said Amjad Abu Aita. "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."