Un-Masked Man: Who Is That Kazakh, Or Don’t You Know Ali G?

Earlier this week, I read that the Ali G movie is back in production after a brief hiatus. Director Todd Philips had pulled out of the film; according to rumor, he and the crew started to receive death threats not long after “Borat,” Ali G’s alter ego, sang an offensive version of the national anthem at a Virginia rodeo. Thankfully, a braver director has since taken up the cause.

Whenever I used to watch Da Ali G Show, I’d wonder where the hell British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, posing as a popular hip-hop talk-show host, found his credulous idiots. To me, a longtime New Yorker and therefore a reflexive blue-state snob, the answer to that question was obvious: Ali G found his dupes within the ranks of the Republican vanguard.

But was it really possible that many Middle Americans were so clueless-not only about things like tolerance, but also about one of cable’s biggest stars!-that Borat Sagdiyev, the journalist from Kazakhstan, could almost effortlessly make fools out of them? The show’s been out for two years.

Think, for instance, of the time Borat got the participants of that New Age dance class to smell each other’s crotches-which they did without any sense of irony or absurdity. Or remember when he treated the crowd at an Arizona country-and-western bar to his outrageously anti-Semitic tune “Throw the Jew Down the Well” and, instead of tossing him out on his rear, they joined in the chorus and cheered? I occasionally found myself wondering, after an episode ended, what it might be like to live in the kind of town where Borat went to film his segments-where, perhaps, regular book burnings occurred in the town square.

Then, in September, life took me to a small city in southern Virginia. To live. People seemed to be casually, frighteningly politically incorrect. And I don’t just mean the elderly couple who told friends of mine in all seriousness last fall, “We like everything you’ve done with your place-except that John Kerry banner in your window.” I’m talking about the guy on my campus who proudly sports a T-shirt that has a red “X” over the female circle-and-cross icon (the message, I think, is “feminism prohibited”). And I once overheard two very drunk men in a bar discussing an alleged attempt by the United Nations to prevent Americans from owning guns. “They’ll see what’ll happen if they do it!” one of the upset parties shouted. “Towers have been known to fall!”

So I wasn’t totally surprised when I got a call one Sunday morning in January from a local I’d dated. “Some crazy foreigner sang the national anthem at the rodeo Friday night,” he said, “and they think it was Ali G!”

This was the rodeo that sent director Todd Phillips running for his life.

Oh, the dubious distinction of a visit from Borat! I thought. In New York, I’d shopped for fruits and vegetables in Chelsea alongside Bjork; I’d lived in the same neighborhood as Uma Thurman and Gwyneth Paltrow; I’d spent New Year’s Eve a few tables away from Ed Norton. But unlike the typical Manhattan brush with stardom, living in a place where Borat had come to visit was a sign of being utterly unsophisticated.

Not surprisingly, the story was picked up by newspapers like the New York Post. But down in Virginia, no one was laughing. On the local paper’s Web site, I found a breathless story that described the unidentified singer like some renegade out of the Wild West: “No one knows … who he was, that Middle Eastern man in an American flag shirt and a cowboy hat …. But he sure shook up this town before leaving in a hurry. Introduced as Boraq [sic] Sagdiyev from Kazakhstan, he was said to be an immigrant touring America [and] doing some sort of documentary …. Speaking in broken English, the mysterious man first told the decidedly pro-American crowd … that he supported the war on terrorism.”

It wasn’t until Saturday-a whole day later!-that the name Ali G was even raised publicly as a possibility by a local disc jockey. No one else had any idea who he was! I thought, amazed.

The paper reported that the “Kazakhstani” went on to say, “I hope you kill every man, woman and child in Iraq, down to the lizards … and may George W. Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq.” People booed. But the so-called Boraq continued his performance anyway, singing something he called the Kazakhstan anthem before going on to a mangled version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which ended with the phrase “your home in the grave.” That was the final straw: Event organizers herded him away. As the rodeo producer told the paper, “Had we not gotten them out of there, there would have been a riot. They loaded up the van and … screeched out of there.” His wife put it more colorfully: “It’s a wonder one of these cowboys didn’t go out there and rope him up.” Word around town had it that a lot of people thought the unmasked man was a terrorist, and some of the spectators were in a panic, worrying he’d bomb the audience. Apparently, some women and children were even crying.

I started to feel bad for my neighbors. I thought of all the kind people I’ve encountered around here-like the neighbor who carried my bike into my basement when he saw that UPS had left it on the curb; my sweet landlady, who sent me a birthday card and bought me a Christmas present; the post-office clerk who gave me a chocolate Easter bunny. And besides, maybe I should give the folks around here a little more credit-they booed when he talked about decimating the entire population of Iraq, after all!

Then I remembered another line from the newspaper article. One rodeo-goer said, “If he had been out there a minute longer, I think somebody would have shot him.” On an HBO message board, one observer reported that the mystery singer “wanted to go back out and apoligize [sic] to the crowd and the rode [sic] manager told him he wouldnt [etc.] make it back out on the dirt without getting killed by the real american flag flying people here in VA. Ali-G Suxs.” Another said he was ready to jump the wall and attack Ali G, but “lucky for Ali,” the spectator was ejected by the police. That put me right back where I started: Where the hell am I living?

But another note-poster helped put things in perspective. “I was at the rodeo,” he wrote. “The press is making a huge deal out of this. Most people just stood around, trying to figure out what was going on. Personally, and I may get lynched walking down the street for saying this, but the song he sang … was a riot.” As far as I know, this Virginia man was not in fact lynched for liking Borat. So I feel a little better about my new home.

But more importantly, I’m very excited to see the Ali G movie. When it comes out, I can tell my friends in New York that they shot part of it in Roanoke, Va.-and I actually lived there. I’ll just make sure to check it out in a Manhattan cineplex.