In the summer of 2001 I boarded a near-empty Qatar Airways flight to Doha. Reuniting with my family who’d recently moved there for my father’s new job, it was my first time living abroad.
Back in the early noughties Qatar wasn’t the most exciting place in the world for a single guy. There were virtually no pubs or nightclubs to speak of, a non-existent dating scene and as far as live music went things were drier than the city’s surrounding deserts. (I’m going to pretend UB40’s depressing stop in Doha never happened).
For those literally unable to survive a few days without a drink, (all my fellow English teachers) there were just two options. A) Get an expensive license that allowed you to drink alcohol strictly in the comfort of your own home. Or B) Drag yourself over to one of the city’s soulless hotel bars (usually The Marriot or The Sheraton).
During my first few months in Doha I gave the hotel option a try but it was an invariably sad and suffocating affair. A glass of beer for the price of a second hand car. Officious glassy-eyed staff hovering around you all the time. The grim realization that I was the only guy there under the age of fifty and not wearing a suit. If all that wasn’t enough to have me pining for teetotalism then the house band was always on hand to tip the balance.
These groups were typically mannequin-beautiful Filipino threesomes covering 80s power ballads. And so the evening would play out through a grating flow of cheesy keyboards, saccharine eyes-closed vocals and the gentle patter of barely polite applause.
It was during one such evening that I found myself at The Sheraton perched at the bar between two exhausted looking businessmen. The three of us looking on in horror as a wittily named outfit called Qatar-tonia trawled their way through an abysmal version of Road Rage. ‘‘******* awful aren’t they?’’ said the fatter of the two men, grey hair, balding. ‘‘Like cardboard cutouts’’.
‘‘I wish they were cardboard cutouts’’ muttered the other, fiddling with the pink flag-on-a-stick protruding from the top of his cocktail. ‘‘Then I could pick them up and throw them out the bloody window’’.
Although only twenty three at the time, I was left feeling a bit like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. Except there was no Scarlett Johansson to look at. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was there and then that I privately declared myself finished with the Doha bar scene.
Embracing the city’s sedate charms, I settled into a routine more appropriate for families and seniors. Early morning reading in Al Bidda Park, tennis with a friend at one of the city’s sports clubs. A coffee in the mall, evening strolls through the Iranian souk and the Corniche. Traditional Qatari music at a fancy garden restaurant. It didn’t exactly set the pulse racing but how could I complain? I was making money and life was pleasant, comfortable, safe.
The city also had a couple of huge cinema complexes. Before long I found myself catching a film two to three times a week, with Saturday evening nailed down as my fixed movie night. It felt great to have my finger on the pulse of the latest releases, plus the Doha cinema experience proved quite unique. Always interesting, often amusing, sometimes baffling, never boring.
Theater 4 at the City Center Mall quickly became my second home. It was hardly ever busy, to the extent that I’d often find myself perfectly alone in its galactic darkness. Training Day, A Beautiful Mind, Artificial Intelligence; at times I felt so consumed by the stories up on the big screen that it seemed these movies had been made just for me.
So often was I the only one there that I ended up befriending Theater 4’s goofy but kindhearted steward, a young Sri Lankan boy with bad acne only partially camouflaged by wisps of scattered facial hair. With clearly nothing better to do he’d amiably chat with me before and after each performance, occasionally treating me to free snacks. A bag of popcorn here, an extra-large coke there. Most memorably a plate of salsa-drenched nachos. ‘‘Is ok!!!’’ he’d insist with a devilish wink each time I feigned protest. ‘‘You is good customer sir’’.
For a brief period I dated a beautiful but elusive dark-haired Swede called Kristin. And it was much to the delight of the steward when she began accompanying me on my Saturday night rituals. One time, as we sat enduring the Keanu Reeves snoozefest Sweet November, he noticed her shivering in the blast of the way-too-cold air con. A grave look on his face, I caught him stroking his chin thoughtfully before disappearing from view. When he returned some minutes later it was with a woolen blanket, which Kristin gratefully draped over herself as the steward stood grinning at us both, thumbs aloft. When things between Kristin and I petered out a few months later the poor old steward seemed more broken up about it than I was. ‘‘Terrible shame’’ he tut-tutted, handing me a consolatory pack of M&M’s.
During my first weeks at Theater 4 I’d barely noticed the movies I’d been watching had been tampered with, even though I was well aware of censorship in Qatar. As a rule of thumb violence seemed to be absolutely fine. Sir Anthony Hopkins feeding Ray Liotta part of his own brain in Hannibal? No problem! Possessed miners performing stomach-churning acts of self-mutilation in John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars? Bring it on! After all, there were much much worse things to be subjected to. Such as Julia Stiles smooching her dancer boyfriend in Save the Last Dance, or Nicole Kidman cavorting around in a raunchy outfit for Moulin Rouge. At first these shortened scenes and edited conversations amused me. But I wasn’t laughing when a key part of Monster’s Ball, (Halle Berry rolling around on the floor with Billy Bob Thornton) was omitted entirely, affecting the very understanding of the plot.
Nor was I seeing the funny side during Bridget Jones’ Diary, a film so mercilessly cut up and thrown back together it made barely a lick of sense. And yet even that wasn’t a patch on American Pie 2, an unforgivable mess that was so gutted from head to toe it actually clocked in at 35 minutes! (Though in all seriousness the uncut version wasn’t much better).
Once I’d satisfied my curiosity for just how much the censors could screw up a movie I pretty much left comedies and dramas alone, focusing my energies on thrillers, horrors and action flicks. In this regard my most memorable Theater 4 night came in May 2002 when a friend and I went to see Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
For the first time, quite possibly ever, Theater 4 was packed to the rafters and the mood was festive to say the least. Securing seats a couple of rows from the back, we enjoyed great views of the madness below. There were very few westerners in attendance, and those that were found themselves swallowed up amid noisy families and large sprawling groups of teenage boys. With the film well underway, a gaggle of young girls bobbed around throwing popcorn at each other as mobile phones intermittently rang around us.
Two rows ahead a pair of middle-aged men sat openly debating god-knows-what in angry guttural Arabic, oblivious to the action taking place on the screen before them. When Yoda first appeared there was a manic cheer that rippled across an entire row somewhere down the front. One or two people had gotten themselves so excited they’d sprung up from their seats. Whooping loudly and punching the air, their silhouettes snaked across the screen and it was a good few minutes before they sat down again and order was restored. Elsewhere people wandered in and out as they pleased as if they were in their own front room. The whole evening was a bizarre, hilarious, intoxicating experience that turned out to be far more entertaining than anything George Lucas had come up with for the movie.
2001/2002 was a decent period for mainstream cinema and through my regular visits to Theater 4 I saw pretty much everything that was worth watching. As well as plenty of crap that wasn’t.
Now, when I think back on my days in Doha I recall not only the hand-picked quotes of my favorite students, the melodic sound of the call to prayer or the mouthwatering smell of sizzling market meat. But also the countless hours melted away in blissful solitude. The utterly gorgeous and fairy-like Audrey Tautou in Amélie. Donnie Darko’s compelling eeriness and impending sense of doom. My futile attempts to understand what the hell was going on in Mulholland Drive. These, and other dreamlike snapshots come back to me from time to time. Wrapped up as they are in the fabric of those carefree nights spent within the protective shadows of Theater 4.