"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Theater 4, a short story from Qatar.

Theater 4 a short story from Qatar.

Theater 4, a short story from Qatar.

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 2001 Qatar wasn’t the most exciting place in the world for a young, single guy. After all, there were virtually no live music venues or clubs to speak of and the dating scene was virtually non-existent. Furthermore, the city’s bar scene was… shall we say… limited. 

For those literally unable to survive a few days without alcohol (all my fellow English teachers), Doha offered up just two options. Firstly, one could purchase an expensive license that allowed you to drink in the comfort of your own home. Secondly, it was possible to head to a handful of five star hotels and their soulless upper floor bars. 

The Sheraton Hotel Doha.

The Sheraton Hotel, Doha.

During my first few months in Doha I gave the hotel option a try, but it was an invariably depressing affair. At The Sheraton Hotel for example, you’d be looking at a glass of beer for the price of a second hand car. Moreover, this beer would be served in a small glass by an officious, black-tie-waiter who insisted on hovering around guests and generally making them nervous.

“Another one, sir?” 

“Uh… no thank you, I haven’t even started this one yet”. 

Then came the grim realisation one evening that I was the only person in the entire bar under the age of fifty and not wearing a suit. If all that wasn’t enough to have me pining for teetotalism, then the live music act was always on hand to tip the balance. 

These groups were typically Filipino trios dealing exclusively in cheesy 80s power ballads. Such evenings would drift by in a grating flow of tinny keyboards, eyes closed vocals and the gentle patter of barely polite applause.

Theater 4, a short story from Qatar.

Short story Qatar

It was during one of those evenings that I found myself perched at the bar between two exhausted businessmen. The three of us sat looking on in horror as a wittily named outfit called Qatar-tonia trawled their way through an abysmal version of Road Rage

‘‘F****ing awful aren’t they?’’ said Businessman 1, bags under his eyes, grey moustache, balding. ‘‘Like cardboard cutouts’’.

‘‘I wish they were cardboard cutouts’’ muttered Businessman 2, overweight, overflowing nose hair. ‘‘Because then I could pick them both up and throw them out the bloody window’’.

Although only twenty three years old at the time, I was nevertheless left feeling a bit like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. Except I wasn’t getting paid a million dollars and there was no Scarlett Johansson to flirt with. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was right there and then that I declared myself finished with the Doha bar scene.

Scarlett Johansson Lost In Translation.

Scarlett Johansson: Not at The Sheraton Hotel in Doha.

Embracing the city’s many sedate charms, I subsequently settled into a routine more appropriate for families and seniors. I started going to Al Bidda Park on Saturday mornings to read. A couple of times a week I’d go and play tennis with a friend at a sports club.

Additionally, there were lots of coffee sessions at City Center Mall and evening strolls through The Iranian Souk. None of this set the pulse racing, but how could I complain? I was certainly making money and life was pleasant… comfortable… safe.

Theater 4 a short story from Qatar

City Centre, Doha.

Doha also had a couple of huge cinema complexes. Needless to say I found myself catching a film once a week. Then twice a week, which soon became three times a week.

Saturday evening was my nailed on 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 City Center quickly became my second home. I loved how it was hardly ever busy, to the extent that I’d often find myself perfectly alone in what I can only describe as a galactic darkness. Among those early visits I saw Training Day, A Beautiful Mind and Artificial Intelligence, movies that I was so utterly consumed by it somehow felt like they’d been made just for me. 

Theater 4, a short story from Qatar.

Russell Crowe A Beautiful Mind.

I became such a regular at Theater 4 that I soon ended up befriending the usher. He was a young Sri Lankan man with bad acne that he tried to camouflage with sporadic wisps of facial hair. With clearly nothing better to do, he’d come and chat with me before and after each performance.

He also treated me to free snacks from time to time. A bag of popcorn here, an extra large coke there. Most memorably, he awarded me 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!’’

Short stories from Qatar Leighton Travels.

Theater 4, a short story from Qatar.

For a brief period I dated a beautiful but elusive Swedish girl called Kristin. Before long, she began accompanying me to Theater 4. The usher seemed delighted about this! “Sir, well done!” he said on her first visit, while Kristin rolled her eyes. One time, as we sat enduring the Keanu Reeves snoozefest Sweet November, Master Usher noticed Kristin shivering under the attention of the icy air con.

Sweet November Keanu Reeves Charlize Theron

Sweet November.

Swiftly disappearing, he returned a few minutes later with a little blanket. Kristin gratefully draped it over herself as the usher stood grinning at us both, thumbs aloft. When things between Kristin and I petered out a few months later, the poor old usher seemed more broken up about it than I was. ‘‘Terrible shame’’ he tut-tutted, handing me a consolatory pack of M&M’s.

Theater 4, a short story from Qatar.

Theater 4, a short story from Qatar.

With Kristin.

During my first weeks at Theater 4 I barely noticed that the movies I was watching had been tampered with. In fact, I’m not even sure I’d been aware of Qatar’s censorship laws at all.

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 worse things us viewers could be subjected to.

Take Julia Stiles, for example, smooching with her dancer boyfriend in Save the Last Dance. Or Nicole Kidman cavorting around in a raunchy outfit for Moulin Rouge. These were the things the censors really needed to shelter us from. 

Save The Last Dance movie poster.

Save The Last Dance: Warning! May involve kissing.

At first these shortened scenes and edited conversations amused me. However, I wasn’t laughing when a key part of Monster’s Ball 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 of a movie so gutted from head to toe it actually clocked in at 35 minutes!

American Pie 2 movie poster.

Once I’d satisfied my curiosity for just how much the censors could screw things up, I pretty much left comedies and dramas alone. Instead, I focused my energy 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.

Theater 4, a short story from Qatar.

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Theater 4 was packed to the rafters that evening and the mood was… festive… to say the least. Securing a seat two rows from the back, I enjoyed the perfect view of the madness unfolding below.

There were noisy families chatting loudly and howling groups of teenage boys. What’s more, as the film got underway, I found my view partially blocked by a trio of young girls jumping up and down throwing popcorn at each other!

Star Wars Attack of the Clones movie poster.

A cinematic experience unlike any other.

Two rows ahead a pair of middle aged men sat openly debating god knows what in loud, guttural Arabic. Elsewhere, a number of mobile phones began ringing. And their owners were happy enough to take the calls right there and then, as if they were sitting in their own living room.

I will never ever forget the moment Yoda first appeared onscreen and the manic cheer that rippled across an entire row somewhere down the front. In fact, a few people had gotten themselves so excited they literally sprung up from their seats, whooping loudly and punching the air.

As a result, the entire audience got treated to their silhouettes snaking across the screen. The whole evening was a bizarre, intoxicating experience that turned out to be far more entertaining than anything George Lucas had come up with for the movie itself. 

Theater 4, a short story from Qatar.

Yoda Star Wars.

“Yoda!!! Whoo-hoo!”

2001-2002 was a decent period for mainstream cinema. Throughout my regular visits to Theater 4 I saw virtually everything worth watching. Not to mention plenty of crap that wasn’t. 

Now, when I think back on my Doha, days, I recall not only the hand picked quotes of my favourite students. Nor the melodic sound of the call to prayer and the smell of sizzling market meat. I also look back fondly on those countless hours melted away in blissful solitude at the cinema.

Short story Qatar

Theater 4, a short story from Qatar.

I reminisce over the fairy-like Audrey Tautou in Amélie and the compelling, impending sense of doom in Donnie Darko. I think of Kristin’s arm wrapped around mine and our 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 in the fabric of those carefree nights within the protective shadows of Theater 4.

‘Theater 4’ is the seventh chapter of my short story series The Qatar Collection.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • Anonymous

    Theater 4 was originally a part of my remit. However having inherited the Ice Rink and Waves Water Park in addition to my contractual agreement with X-Treme World I was relieved of this responsibility. Talent was pretty short on the ground in City Center Doha 🙂 An accidental fire nearly burnt the whole City Center down shortly after the opening in 2001. However another event stole the headlines that year !!

    March 23, 2021 - 1:10 am Reply
    • Leighton

      There were some great facilities at City Center. Plenty of comforts to counter Doha’s often harsh conditions. Carrefour, the restaurants, the record store, theater 4 and the arcade games at X-Treme World. I have fond memories of it all, thanks for reading!

      March 23, 2021 - 9:33 am Reply
  • Lookoom

    Doha sounds like a gilded cage in this short story.

    March 23, 2021 - 1:43 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha, not sure that was my intention but I think you have a point. You couldn’t stay outdoors for too long, especially in the day. City Center was the main show in town, you’d go there for that sweet air con as much as anything else.

      March 23, 2021 - 9:44 am Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    That sounds like one of the most entertaining theaters. I think I’d lose my mind in that Star Wars theater with all that chaos!

    March 23, 2021 - 2:01 am Reply
    • Leighton

      It was a test of one’s patience ha ha. Most of the time it was really quiet to be fair, that was the only “event” film I saw there. Truly haven’t experienced anything like it since.

      March 23, 2021 - 9:46 am Reply
  • Memo

    There must be hundreds of Filipino trios in luxury hotels. We saw plenty in China and they all sounded the same. Great description of the chaos in the Star Wars movie but it hardly fits with the hours of blissful solitude at the cinema. Obviously you were talking about the 35 minute versions that escaped the censors. An interesting cultural picture.

    March 23, 2021 - 2:51 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Star Wars was an eye opener. Most of the time I had the place to myself, or a handful of others. Exactly how I like my cinema visits!

      March 23, 2021 - 9:48 am Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    Filipino trios seem to pop up all over the place and always seem to have a similar playlist! Another great read. By the way, I always take a cardigan with me to the cinema in Asia as it can often feel a bit chilly with the air con turned up so high.

    March 23, 2021 - 10:46 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Great tip! 😉 Thanks Marion.

      March 23, 2021 - 10:48 am Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    Wow, I had no idea that you had to purchase a license to drink alcohol in your own house in Doha! It’s also crazy to hear about censorship. How weird to see the original movie in comparison to the censored version. I wonder how they would have censored Footloose.

    March 23, 2021 - 1:03 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha, a censored version of Footloose would be interesting to see. I’m also now left wondering if the home alcohol license is still a thing in Doha. Thanks for getting in touch!

      March 23, 2021 - 1:27 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    I’ve only heard that the bar/drinking scene in countries like Qatar and the UAE are quite abysmal, due to religion and whatnot, but man, it must’ve been hard for you not to cave and purchase a license! I think an acquaintance I know who lives in Dubai ended up purchasing a license for herself, as I see photos of her indulging in booze from time to time…any case, it’s been AGES since I last went to the movies (last time being in late 2019, before the pandemic hit a couple of months later), and we definitely took them for granted before COVID-19 hit. It appears that the early-2000’s were a good time for good films to be put out, and you certainly watched plenty– censored or not! Perhaps one day the theatres will re-open to resume that sort of entertainment…

    March 25, 2021 - 4:19 am Reply
    • Leighton

      I definitely considered the alcohol license, and that’s coming from someone who for the most part can take or leave alcohol. I hear you on the cinema front. The last time I hit the pictures was the summer of 2019 in Belgrade to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I actually don’t miss it at all. While I loved the cinema experience when I was younger, I’m way too grouchy now to care. Give me the comfort of my own home any day of the week. No people talking through the movie, no mobile phones going off, no loud unwrapping of candy bars. Plus you can hit pause whenever you want and go to the kitchen to make a snack. Still, it would be nice to go back again and see something when we’re through the other side of this nightmare. Just for old times’ sake.

      March 25, 2021 - 9:43 am Reply
  • Natty

    The Sheraton was a weird place to party even at new year. I remember when I went to the cinema a rich Arab behind me was smoking and blowing it blatantly in my ear!

    March 25, 2021 - 9:46 am Reply
  • Bertine

    I would love to experience cinema in other countries! Great read!
    What do you think became of the Sri Lankan boy? Did he ever go and watch the movies?

    March 25, 2021 - 10:40 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Funnily enough the boy and I never talked movies. He didn’t seem all that interested in what was happening onscreen. Like most Indians, Sri Lankans and Filipinos living in Doha at that time, I imagine he stayed until he’d saved up a certain amount of money. And then returned home to maybe buy a small property and start a family.

      March 25, 2021 - 10:42 am Reply

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