Tag: fear

Back to Syria?

The stories I have heard from my friends in Syria sound uncomfortably similar to what I have been witnessing in the Yemen, right down to the plain-clothed security men firing from the roof tops into crowds of innocent people.

Last night I drank Arak with my friend in Syria over Skype – he told me he has offered his chest to the cause and will go again to the city of Homs to protest after Friday prayers.

He bitches with me about the mutual friends we have in Syria who have done nothing for the cause. One friend who likes to be known as a journalist whose home-town was witness to a great massacre a couple of days ago has said nothing or written nothing – but I am not sure you can blame people for this, in Syria it is difficult to comprehend the amount of fear that is instilled in people there, to me this highlights the bravery and determination of the brothers and sisters who do offer themselves on the front line.

But something has definitely changed – only a few months ago people were too afraid to gather in even the smallest groups to complain about something, whereas now, people feel emboldened enough to gather in their hundreds and thousands to protest against the government. Fear has somehow lost its grip.

What about the comments I read that the Syrian revolution is spearheaded by the feared Muslim brothers who are waiting to take over and bring Sharia law to Syria? “Bullshit” my friend says, “Of course they are there but the people behind this revolution are ordinary folk sick of corruption lies and bullshit from this government, no jobs no money or hope has been a life for the majority. That is what it is about”.

With the help of technology and the internet the Syrian government has nowhere to hide from its crimes… “They behave worse than Israelis” a friend says, another friend interrupts, adding that “They always behaved this way in Beirut”. Is it the heavy handed government reaction to the protests that is finally turning the people against this once popular president, making the protests even bigger than they would have been had has Assad treated them with respect, or is the genie out of the bottle in Syria?

Personally I feel a sense of excitement and trepidation for the whole region, but I do have admit there is a nagging fear for the future of Syria, and wonder if the only hope they had for reform in the supposed gentle image of Basher has now been dashed following the slaughter of 100 demonstrators in one day and whether this pivotal nation in the middle east is about to shed more blood than we have seen across the whole Arab spring so far.

We are told that the dangers caused by Syria collapsing (Israel especially is fearful) don’t bear thinking about, but now as the people of Syria face a crucial week I fear (on a humanitarian level) we must contemplate the worst.

I am in the process of trying to get back in to Syria in order to finish my film about the revolution there. Luckily I had applied for a visa weeks ago after my front tooth fell out as a result, I believe, of the stress I was under following the massacre I witnessed in Change Square.

In London I discovered it would cost £450 to replace the tooth but knew that £300 would get me to Syria and that £80 would see me right with dentist Rima and I’d still have money left over for a few nights in a cut-price Damascus hotel (part of their new failing 12 billion dollar tourist industry) – So if all goes well I will be off to catch up on the Syrian revolution for myself next Thursday.

Wish me luck. Xx

Moving on

Fresh figs in crisp fresh flat bread make the perfect breakfast as I relax on my balcony overlooking the gorgeous valley in Safita. Afterwards I head out and sit with Adnan enjoying the thick Arabic coffee watching the small town life pass by, speaking very few words strangers sitting comfortably together, “You’re welcome anytime Mr. Sean” he says.

But today is my last time here and I cannot bring myself to tell him. Adnan was the first person to befriend me in Safita and looks after me as if was the Arabic son he never had. I had so hoped to be here for the opening of his hummus cafe but it wasn’t ready on Saturday and now he says it will be open later in the week. I tell him I have to leave for a dental appointment in Damascus. “You will be back for the opening Mr. Sean?”

In the back of my mind I hope I will but in my heart I know I must move on. I cannot see the film I want to make in sleepy Safita no matter how amazing the place and incredibly accepting the people.

Last night as I walked home I met a shop owner in a cafe “Sean come join us” he shouted. Soon I was surrounded by bottles of Arak and a wonderful array of mezza salads, 5 or 6 of his friends arrived and they all struggled with broken English discussing the usual topics of English football and Syrian girls, “Really you are an Arab man” the shop owner said as we joked. Around us a very modern Arab setting, Christian and Alawite, religious and social cohesion, it is impossible for me to tell who is what from how they look or from what they are drinking.

Johnnie Walker Black Label whiskey bottles sit proudly on tables as families arrive into the early hours, I enjoy the ambiance and the sweet smell of apple tobacco in the air from the shisa pipes, it is very easy to feel at home with such wonderful unforced hospitality.

It was Michael whom I’d returned to see in Safita and who had been my English speaking guide for the last few days. He is a wonderful eccentric character; an Anglophile and a poet, his poem ‘I’m Fed Up’ laments of life in this Syrian town. He and his brother were the best students in the English department, “We are Europeans in our minds, our family is descended from Richard the Lion Heart”, he tells me proudly, “We were here fighting with the crusaders”.

Michael and his brother both dream of a life in the west and own much property and land in Safita, but Syrian law does not allow them to take money out of the country. So they stay here looking after their elderly mother, and dreaming of European brides.

As we talk in the street some taxi drivers stop to say something to Michael and his brother, “They are telling us to leave you alone, they think we are trying to get money from you.” We can talk in my hotel I tell them, “No” they say, “Here it is dangerous for us to go inside your place, people get suspicious and make reports to the secret police”. They both decide to leave.

Adnan is painting his new counter when I arrive for the last time, “Go inside Mr. Sean, it is too hot today”. He looks at me and asks if I had a rough night’s sleep, I feel paranoid, maybe he can smell the Arak on me, I feel distracted, torn, a mix of sadness and the usual apprehension I get when striding forward.

Moving on is never easy and one can never be sure it is the right thing to do. Looking for a story always involves learning about a place, a people, and making good friends, but saying goodbye never gets easier and I’m never sure if I will be back. Adnan makes the coffee, a man pops his head through the door asking for a job, Adnan tells him to come back in a couple of days, Adnan turns to me and says “Soon the shop will be finished Mr. Sean and we can eat hummus together”, I nod in agreement and smile sadly to myself.

Waiting For The Red Man

If Iraq was a pressure cooker waiting to explode then Japan is a pot of rice silently simmering away. Rarely does it over boil, life just simmers away.

Waiting for the red man to change to green can often seem like an eternity at pedestrian crossings in Japan. I am standing with an exhausted businessman whose eyes keep opening and closing. I look around the neon lights of Shinjuku and my mind drifts…

In this relative freedom I think of friends like Jill Carol kidnapped in Iraq, no news for months. I often think of her life now and mine here, relative luxury in comparison. Then I feel lucky. I get frustrated waiting for so long at these lights, they take forever. Sometimes I think about crossing on the red man…

I know that as a `gaijin` (foreigner) I can get away with it, but I don’t want to stand out. Japan has that effect on even me now. It is not a fear from the authorities punishing me more from the people around me. What will they think, or say.

It reminds me of Saddam`s Iraq, except there the fear was different.

But fear brings social order which brings safety as well. And I feel incredibly safe here. I remember feeling as safe in Saddam’s Iraq. No one would ever touch me. The only time they did was when I was wandering through a market without my government minders, I’d walked ahead alone. Suddenly I was surrounded by a threatening gang who wanted to know who I was and what I was doing. My minders were quick on the scene, as soon as the gang knew I was `authorized` they were friendly. I found it touching that people care for their country and their land.

A couple of years later a friend did a crazy walk into Saddam’s Iraq following an ancient trail from Istanbul to Baghdad to Syria. He walked over the border from Turkey into Iraq. Rural Iraqi’s never knew who he was, kept thinking he was an American pilot shot down. This was during relative peace in the years between the attacks on Iraq. Rural Iraqi’s would run up and attack him. He had caught a bad disease and was on deaths doorstep. He was saved by other Iraqi’s who became his friends. They housed him, fed him and saved his life. He wrote to me the other day saying the very same people who he is still friends with had been arrested for insurgent attacks against the American occupiers. Funny, when I think of insurgents I think of the time I was stopped in the market and the time my friend was stopped walking into Iraq ~ the same people gave my friend a place to stay and saved his life.

I’m itching to cross the road but still the little man is red. The crowd builds and patiently, obediently waits and waits… as if a race is to begin. The man next to me can hardly stay awake. I look at the faces of people around and wonder what they are thinking. I wonder sometimes if they are thinking. If they have the time to think. They are all dressed in the uniform black suits shirts and ties marching around the streets on aimless missions of work, following duties so dutiful and orderly like economic soldiers of work.

15 years after the bubble burst there is a wariness amongst the Japanese. This is a country finally coming out of recession, but with scares. I met a businessman the other day, who was nearly made homeless when the bubble burst. He seems jaded today. I visited his own company who make a special brand of sake. He was showing me around his offices where hundreds of people work. He is faced with streamlining his company and has to loose 100 employees by the end of March. It reminds me of what happened in Britain in the 1980`s. full time jobs are being replaced by part time jobs in Japan.

A bell chimes in the office; it is like a chime from an old grandfather clock. The businessman tells me it is the end of the day ~ but no one is leaving. I ask him why. He laughs looking into the vast office. “They are scared, peer pressure… they don’t want to be the first one to leave… fearing what the others will say”. They all carrying on working waiting for the first one to leave. Is this why the Japanese work so many hours?

It is now nightfall at the pedestrian crossing, 10pm and businessmen are heading home. Have they all been waiting for the first one to leave? Like we are all waiting for the red man to change to green. The road clears, the crowd gets ready to cross.

It feels like it has taken forever. In my mind I have been to Iraq and back but what about the others. I look to the tired Japanese businessman standing next to me, the red man has changed to green but the businessman is fast asleep standing on his feet at the pedestrian crossing.