“I love Saddam!” Nizam’s grandmother announces when she discovers I’ve made film in Iraq. She is pouring us a thick sweet Arabic coffee – I had to wait outside the apartment while she put her veil on – Her short stocky appearance matches her beautiful characterful face, her smile radiates and we immediately hit it off.
“Why has Sean come to Syria?” She asks. “He loves the hummus” Nizam tells her. Nizam’s grandmother scuttles off to the kitchen and before long I am lost in the dream I’ve driven 4 days to find; the best hummus in the world. It is matched with a fabulous Fattoush salad, amazing pickles and gorgeous bread. My mind drifts, lost into the taste of the Middle East as Nizam and his grandmother chat away in Arabic.
It was 1987 when I first came to the Middle East and I fell in love with it immediately. Since then I can’t keep away, it feels like home. My last film in Japan took 2 years to make, during that time I would dream of the dusty dirty streets where the flavours ooze out of the fresh fruits and vegetables, where life passes you by in real time. This is my hearts home, I can sit on the side of the road here and be back in Baghdad, Amman, Cairo or Beirut, I find myself at peace in this troubled land ravaged by war and conflict.
“Saddam was hero for the Arabs”, Nizam’s grandmother continues. “When the American’s killed him they made all the Arab world love him”. Guests start to arrive to greet Nizam. His aunt and uncle join us. “This is Sean, like Sean Connery” his grandmother says. “I love James Bond films” she adds. She’d been up till 3am watching one last night! She turns to an older friend in a veil and gossips in Arabic, a little of which I manage to understand. “He’s a vegetarian you know. Oh really how strange. It must be his religion”. They both shake their heads. I fear to tell them I have no religion.
Nizam’s bubbly aunt is full of life and enjoys the advantage that speaking excellent English has over her husband who understands very well but doesn’t speak. She takes centre stage, making jokes about him. “He dropped out of university in his first year, I continued to become a teacher. But I didn’t like that job.” “Why?” I ask. “I don’t like children. Well not teaching them”. She stopped working as soon as she had her kids. Then her humour turns on me. “Hey we have a British man here. Are you not scared? This is Syria, we are bad people aren’t we? How much money can we make if we kidnap him?” “None” I say. “I was in Iraq and saw many Brits die because our Government never pays ransoms, two were killed last month”. The grandmother and friend shake their heads in disbelief, “How could their Governments let them die?”
Later we are on the roof terrace enjoying another alcohol free evening. Nizam’s aunt is talking about Nizam’s father who lives in Libya but visits every two months. He breaks all the rules and always has, even drinking alcohol in the presence of her religious husband. “He is sooo Muslim” she says, I stopped drinking when I married him because I love him. They are enjoying each others company holding hands and laughing, it seems like a simple uncomplicated kind of love.
I watch this simple gathering sitting below beautiful grape vines, kids playing hop scotch with their father, it feels like a proper family setting, something we may have lost in England. The family still matters in this part of the world. “Do you enjoy this evening?” Nizam’s aunt asks. “Yes it is very beautiful” I say, clenching a glass of cold water and dreaming of a pint of beer. I can see she doesn’t quite believe me.
As we head to bed at 2am Nizam is thoughtful after his first night back home in Arabic culture. Torn between Europe and the Middle East I sense that his search for answers from his father is also a search for a place to call his home.
I discover that his bubbly aunt and his father are no longer talking, she stood up to him and is now paying the price. She said a lot of negative things about his absent father this evening, that he lost everything ‘in pursuit of women’s ass’. I suggest to Nizam that when we go to Libya to look for this BBC film I could help him get close to his father. He looks up and tells me I have more chance of meeting Gaddafi in Libya than of him getting close to his father. Now that sounds like a good idea for a film I think to myself.
We lay naked in the roasting night heat. A noisy ceiling fan sends me to sleep, I close my eyes, blinded as St Paul was, I turn to Nizam and ask, “Do you respect your father”, there’s a long pregnant pause followed by a decisive Yes. “Your aunt told me you fear him. Are you scared of your father?” “No”, he says solemnly, “I’m not scared of him… I’m scared of losing him”. We turn off the lights and like brothers in love we cuddle up exhausted but eager to discover tomorrow when our journey to Damascus will finally end.