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"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.

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. Theater 4, a short story from Qatar.

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”. 

Theater 4, a short story from Qatar.

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 usually drift by in a grating flow of tinny keyboards, eyes closed vocals and the gentle patter of barely polite applause.

Short story Qatar

Theater 4, a short story from 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

‘‘Fucking 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 look at. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was right there and then that I privately 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.

“Life was pleasant… comfortable… safe”.

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. 

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 wisp 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 was 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.

Theater 4, a short story from Qatar.

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.

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 to 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.

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.

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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 just a handful of westerners in attendance that night. Sadly, they found themselves swallowed up amidst noisy families and howling groups of teenage boys. In fact, as the film got underway, my view became partially blocked by a gaggle of young girls jumping up and down throwing popcorn at each other!

Star Wars Attack of the Clones movie poster.

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. 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.

Theater 4, a short story from Qatar.

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. 

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 days in Doha, I recall not only the hand picked quotes of my favourite students. Or 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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8 Comments

  • Anonymous

    Really great read Leighton.

    December 14, 2014 - 7:10 pm Reply
  • Anonymous

    Interesting Leighton

    December 18, 2014 - 1:41 pm 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!

    December 20, 2014 - 8:17 pm Reply
  • leightonliterature

    Back then I remember feeling like I was living in a different world. But I have to say it was nothing compared to the culture shock of China 🙂

    December 21, 2014 - 3:32 am Reply
  • Bertine

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

    January 16, 2015 - 8:38 am Reply
  • leightonliterature

    Funnily enough the boy and I never talked movies! He didn’t seem all that interested in what was happening up on the screen. 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.

    January 16, 2015 - 8:58 am Reply
  • Bertine

    Hmmmm… I had imagined him being so into movies this was his way of being close to them. My mistake 😉 I sometimes confuse people’s intent to work at a cinema with my own 😉

    January 16, 2015 - 9:42 am Reply
  • Hamid

    Nice story! I was there!

    July 31, 2015 - 10:18 am Reply

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