Tag: bus

A Northern Soul

A Northern Soul functions brilliantly on both a political and emotional level

A Northern Soul is a great work of radical empathy, in which the economic difficulties of the city and the contradictions of regeneration through culture are visible alongside a testament to the charm and strength of personality of the city’s residents…. This is not a story we see enough, despite the heritage of British documentary in this space – a deeply explored character journey through poverty in which those affected tell their own stories with dignity and respect. We don’t see it enough because there aren’t many other film-makers like McAllister…” – © The Guardian

Sean McAllister

To read more about Sean McAllister and his films please visit seanmcallister.com

The prison bus

I find myself pushing my way through small groups Germans and Americans on tour around the ‘old city’ area of Damascus – foreigners, eyes and mouths wide-open, gobsmacked by wonderful this country is, how friendly it is, and how great the food is, and of course they are right, it is, but step a mile outside the old city (which of course they rarely do) and you see the reality for everyday Syrians living here in the ‘City of Jasmine’.

For the locals life can be very tough, considering the potential for tourism in a country with such a great cultural heritage, with few jobs and little prospects. Whilst at home there is often a lack of public utilities such as regular electricity and water supplies.

Crossing the road, and away from the tourists, I pass the Damascus Central Court to be confronted by a scene that looks like something from a 1950’s American movie. A small crowd had gathered and was pressed up to and staring eagerly through the iron gates, behind which were parked two buses filled with dishevelled men wearing stripy blue pyjama’s.

If I wasn’t in Syria I could describe the scene as being quite funny, but their sullen faces said otherwise. Old and young men alike were being moved from one bus into another, some were “lucky” enough to find seats, the rest were pushed-in until the bus was completely full, with no standing space left. As soon as the doors were shut the bus started to leave, making its way slowly out of the court gates. I gazed around to watch the onlookers straining to see the occupants of the slowly moving jam-packed bus. This whole area was also filled with local and secret police, but they made no attempt to move the watching crowd back and away, this spectacle was seemingly a public example to the people that this is where they will also find themselves if they too cross the blurry red line.

I looked closer at the individual faces of the gathered onlookers, now I could see a great sadness in their eyes, one man close-by cried quietly. As the bus moved slowly in-front of us one of its occupants with his face squeezed hard against the window gave a sad pathetic wave to the man next to me, I realised that within the watching crowd were many relatives of these men, coming to see them for the last time before they are driven away to prison.

This was ‘a daily procedure’ I was told later by a friend. But those men’s faces told a thousand stories as they passed-by. Criminals, political and criminal I guess, but with such a harsh and difficult daily existence here for ordinary poor Syrians one is left to wonder what their crimes were and what really motivated them.

Bus to Safita

The tightly packed mini-bus swerved more erratically than normal through the dusty dry Damascus streets, the driver seemed irate or ‘nervous’ as they say here, maybe it was his Ramadan thirst I thought.

I’d stopped at a Christian place for breakfast fearing a complete closure of food and drink stalls, my last Ramadan was 2 long years ago when ‘McAllister of Arabia’ set out on his mission to find a film in the hell hole that is Dubai. My arrival there was during Ramadan and the place was dry and foodless during the daylight hours, I’d expected the same here but as we pulled into the central bus garage I could see an array of food stalls with plenty of locals eating and drinking tea out in the open, business as usual in secular Syria it seems, what a relief.

I join a boy selling a wonderful berry drink that he fills with fresh shavings of ice, around him are a bunch of guys drinking, I quench my thirst before surveying the food stalls where I find kebabs pizzas and falafel. A man smiles, sipping on his tea, “From Holland?” “No, England”, I reply, “What happened to Ramadan” I ask? He starts to laugh and says “No Ramadan here!”

I was still in the garage toilets having a piss when my bus set off. I’d heard it sound its horn as the sign that it was about to leave… but one advantage of being the only westerner on the bus is that they never forget you, a man came running to the toilets to get me with such great timing that I was able to catch the bus and avoid paying the annoying toilet keeper the 10 cent fee for a pee.

Back on the dingy bus, we stop from time-to-time to pick up army recruits, the isle down the middle of the bus is slowly disappearing as fold-down seats are used to seat the new passengers.

I recall my first bus journey in Syria; a wonderful VIP bus with flat bed seats plenty of space and air conditioning. Then I would look out of the window at the ‘locals’ buses and wondered what it must be like to be packed into a creaky metal box on wheels in the soaring sun. Now I am here, the journey starts out ok but the more passengers we pick-up the more squeezed it becomes, it is like travelling for hours in a tightly packed Japanese metro train – except they’re mostly standing all the way! Come to think of it maybe this bus is not too bad after all, yes I may be squeezed-in but at least I have a seat. A fan blows warm air on me and an awful Arabic singer wails in the background.

I am on my way to visit Michael in Safita, he told me to always take a seat at the back of the bus. “Why?” I asked him, slightly puzzled. “What difference does it make?” “It is always safer in the back when it crashes” he says casually.