freedom

Tag: freedom

Freedom and a normal life

“Sean they are shooting people in the streets of Beirut” said Adad’s message, written to me from the cramped flat I’d visited him in just a couple of days before. The gunfight that had killed 8 in Tripoli had spread ominously to the streets of Beirut just as he had predicted / feared it would.

After being forced to flee from Syria and Assad’s onslaught he thought he had found some sort of safety in the Lebanon, though he always knew it was a relative, delicate safety which could end any-time. His and his family’s situation is made more all the more precarious because he doesn’t have a passport or any papers – if he were to be caught living there he we probably be sent back to Syria and to an end I don’t wish to think about.

But for now Asad keeps to the shadows as he looks for work and money to help feed the family. He locks the gate to his flat keeping Asu inside, the sound of gun crackle seeps in from the distance as Sargon arrives home late from work again. Adad finally settles Asu into his bed but he cannot sleep, disturbed by the rocket propelled grenades exploding in the distance. As if this family (like many other’s all over the region) hadn’t already seen enough danger and death in their desire for freedom and a normal life. “Some days we don’t even have enough money for bread” his message continues… “And now this is happening, where will it all end?”

‘The Reluctant Revolutionary’ Captures The Bloody Cost Of Freedom

After last year’s Arab Spring, there will undoubtedly be a host of documentaries and narrative projects with Middle Eastern revolution chanting from their cores. It will be interesting to see how well they stack up against The Reluctant Revolutionary because it should be considered the standard. Sean McAllister’s tennis-shoes-on-the-ground doc is unexpected in its storytelling and unflinching in its display of the mass murders that cemented the people of Yemen against their leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

But this story doesn’t start with crowds shouting from tents. It starts with a tour guide named Kais who can only see his business dwindling because of some disgruntled citizens. He’s actively against the revolution for that pragmatic reason, but even as his professional life deteriorates, his understanding and support of the movement dramatically shifts his opinions.

The second greatest strength of the film might be McAllister’s disarming presence. Normally a documentarian that shoves him or herself in front of the camera comes off as desperate for attention and willing to sabotage his or her own story in the hopes of getting some screen time. McAllister’s first few scenes come off a bit like that, but further down the dusty road it becomes clear that he had to include those early moments as a set up for when the Yemeni government forces him to become a part of the story he’s trying to film. Why he wasn’t on a plane back to the safety of his home after being targeted by the secret police is anyone’s guess, but it’s a damned good thing he stuck around because the footage he got is not just fascinating – it’s vital.

Of course, it’s really Kais – the frustrated yet warm Yemeni man – that anchors the entire project. He’s a sweet figure, one that is strongly opinionated, quick with a joke and struggling with economics and emotions. He’s trying to do the right thing toward his business and family, but doing so seems about as worthwhile as shoving his head into the ground. The ornate hotel he used to run has fallen into ruin, and his only avenue for money is the withering tourism business that was anemic even before people started gathering in the streets. His wife is threatening to leave, he has to borrow money to buy them a few days’ worth of food, and he’s convinced that the movement everyone puts stock in will fizzle out like all the others did before.

Kais, with his cheek full of a leafy drug called khat, looks like a chipmunk trying to smuggle a baseball but his sunken eyes belie a more serious man. Without him, there is no movie.

The introduction of Kais into the blocks that the rebels have occupied slowly wins him over, and McAllister’s constant questions (which come of as genuine and naively Western) force the issue of revolution into the mind of a man unwilling to join the cause.

Then the violence gets worse, and like many of his neighbors, Kais chooses to become a new element of the growing crowd.

McAllister finds himself in places cameras just aren’t meant to go. The plainclothes cops of Yemen who try to infiltrate the movement are highly interested in him, but he and Kais lie daily to protect his status as a harmless tourist. To them, he’s a teacher, but it’s a protected status that won’t last forever. When five journalists are deported, it’s a sign that something huge is going to happen.

Words, with as much faith as they’ve built up over the centuries, are useless in the context of what the movie shows next. The bittersweet nature of the story is blown away by the first explosions and rain of bullets, delivering a wide-eyed look at true violence and chaos. It was enough to make action movies look frivolous and insulting. McAllister captures the very thing the Yemeni authorities didn’t want him to capture, and it’s not easy to watch. Even tears seem like an inadequate response to the manic, screaming triage room that rings out with a terrifying, mortal urgency. The floors are smeared with the real blood of real men dying on screen. Nearby, a skull is caved in. A hole large enough to stick a finger into marks the neck of a man inches away from sucking in the last breath of his life. A 10-year-old boy lies limp on a cheap table. These are images that don’t fade away. Not from the mind and not from the heart.

McAllister has achieved something incredible here. The Reluctant Revolutionary is a stunningly humane portrait that shows vividly what’s at stake before leaving it bloody on the Formica floor of a battered concrete building. Fifty-two people died that day. The movement grew, Saleh left his office months later, but things are still burning in Yemen. This doc is the kind of Pulitzer Prize-winning work that boldly and at great risk to personal safety showcases how powerful media can be. It’s entertaining, yes, but it’s also film as indictment. Film as evidence. Film as historical document.

Through a smiling man with a face full of khat, McAllister has utilized a unique window into a world of personal pain and found the beating heart of a country paying in blood to be free.

© Cole Abaius / Film School Rejects / February 15, 2012

See the original review on the Film School Rejects website

Welcome to our garbage life

02 June 2011

I watch them swinging their batons, bored in the empty half-built building that has stood unfinished for 35 years, a building which somehow symbolizes the many promises of reform given by the authorities.

The empty streets and the baton wielding thugs are the sign that it is yet another Friday in Syria, another day of death as the country pushes for change, I take a cab that leads me away from the clean streets of the old city, past the empty 5 star hotels and restaurants, the endless empty stores inside an empty Souk. Once again Damascus is a ghost town; it is difficult to believe there was a 15 billion tourist industry here just a few weeks ago before the government crackdown on the protests; protests which have up to now resulted in over 1000 deaths and, it is said, 10,000 people missing.

We drive away from the plush ‘model city’ which the government liked tourists to believe was a rapidly developing and ‘reformed’ Syria, a place where it’s citizens are ‘free’ to drink alcohol and wear what they liked. As I arrive in the cramped bustling camp, I start to get a feel for the real Syria, poor and undeveloped for sure, but also full of colour, and life, amidst the dirty streets and thousands of unfinished buildings.

A trademark of any refugee camp are the bare breeze-block exteriors of buildings where the walls are left unrendered and exposed, it is a sign of the speed at which the Syrian authorities built this camp to house the Palestinians when they were kicked out of Israel in 1948 and 1967. It is, or it was, supposedly a temporary solution – the intention was that they would go back home once the conflict with Israel was won, but this place now looks and feels pretty permanent, and the ‘temporary’ status of the Palestinians means that they exist without passports or Syrian ID’s and are therefore denied many of the basic rights that other Syrians have.

I pass an empty open area where garbage burns in small neat piles – making an almost beautiful picture against the strong sunlight in the background, Ali’s kids meet me smiling, “Welcome to our garbage life”.

Inside the small unfinished ‘temporary’ building that has been a home for more than 10 years to Ali’s sister I watch as the kids are transfixed by ‘foreign’ news footage of a 13 year old boy who has been tortured to death by the Syrian secret police, “They even cut off his dick” they tell me. What has happened to the ‘benign dictator’, the modern reformer, the smart ‘Western Eye Hospital’ (London) educated leader I wonder. “We loved him before, you know” the kids tell me, “He protected us, the Palestinians, here, he gave us a home in this camp but now he has turned out to be a killer like the rest of them. You must be careful here Sean” they tell me, “We don’t see foreigners here, they are not supposed to see the garbage life we lead”.

The next news item is of a teacher 27 year also killed whilst being tortured “One of his legs had been skinned”, they tell me. As their mum and dad are out at work I watch the 11-year-old tend to the 3-year-old whilst the 15-year-old’s study in the next room. “We like to try and talk English with each other for at least 4 hours a day” they tell me in almost perfect English. We have exams soon so we study for around 8 hours a day. Since Ali isn’t around at the moment (he is still ‘on the run’ from the authorities and hasn’t seen his kids for a few days) they take time out to eagerly talk to me and practice their English, telling me of their dream of one day finding a ‘better life’ in the West. It is a real inspiration to be around these kids – I know that some days they don’t even have enough money to eat but yet they have this urge to study, a credit to their absent parents who are either working or on the run.

Last week I met Ali’s son coming out of the house with a large bag of sugar, he told me they didn’t have food or money and his father was missing so he was trading it in for coffee and food to eat. Luckily Ali’s family live close to his sisters family, this is true survival where the family come together to support the struggle.

When I finally meet-up with Ali he is looking tired and dejected, he never went on the protest this Friday, fearing an ambush by the secret police, “This revolution is taking too long, it is killing us with more than Syrian bullets, having no tourists means no work, no money, we are starving ourselves”.

Looking down at his kids studying hard for the future, he smiles at me with resignation. “This isn’t our revolution, this is for our kids, we need to give them a chance in life… But we are caught, I feel my family is suffering too much, my kids can’t go to school properly with me on the run, they are paying a heavy price, I don’t know what to do or when it will end.”

The heavy price of freedom… and whisky

29 August 2010

So just what is it that makes us feel “free” I think to myself as we race through the desert – I am leaving Damascus to renew my visa in Beirut, “It is the Paris of the Middle East, famous for all kinds of things” Roula says with a naughty smile.

As soon as we cross the border Roula removes her long-sleeved top to reveal her shoulders, a small freedom not allowed in Syria (secular but still a predominantly Muslim country), and now it is also Ramadan which makes some aspects of life even more restrictive, “It’s great to be free” Roula jokes as we cross the border.

Before long I am in Lebanon bathing in its beautiful blue sea and ogling the scantily clad women as they play on the beach. Is it the unrestricted conversations or the lack of veils that make me feel more free here? I love the cafe and restaurant filled streets – it feels so modern and alive after a month in Damascus.

I miss the sea a lot when I am in hot dusty Damascus, and I wonder if a part of me also misses the familiarity of the big American chains such as Starbucks, Pizza Hut, KFC, names that I am so used to seeing as part of the landscape of the West. In a way I hate them as much as I miss them, but love them or loathe them Beirut has them all.

In Beirut people are not always on-guard about what to say to each other about politics or the war, you can be and say as you like. But ‘freedom’ often comes with a price as Roula points out, “Watch your bag on the beach” she reminds me – In Syria I’ve got used to leaving my bag wide open, my phone and wallet there for all to see.

Suddenly I feel the need to be security conscious and it feels like a pressure I don’t want, but a pressure which we are forced into and which we get used to in the West – I cannot explain how liberating it is not to have to worry about such things when I am in Syria; quite possibly one of the safest places I have visited.

But of course is this ‘freedom’ is simply a result of dictatorship, or if there is more to it than that… and which is more important, the freedom not to be robbed or the freedom to say what you think?

As night falls we hit the glitzy Beirut streets to enjoy Western ‘freedoms’ such as cocktails in the endless noisy bars that are open until the early hours – though it is only when we get the bill that I realise all this freedom comes with such a heavy price, 12 dollars a drink, wow, I don’t even pay that for one nights’ hotel accommodation in Damascus!

Next morning I wake with a whiskey hangover in the humid heat dripping with sweat having spent more money than I care to think about.

“Quick” I say to Roula “Let’s get the hell out of this westernised Arabic democracy – freedom is too expensive! Let’s get back to that safe cheap dictatorship where we can drink and eat for a month in Damascus for what we spent last night”.

As we cross the border back into Syria Roula once again pulls on her long-sleeve shirt once more to conceal her shoulders, but at least we know we won’t be robbed or mugged while we are here, and that I can enjoy a meal at a top restaurant with a bottle of the best Lebanese wine for the price of one whisky in Beirut!

No democracy please

15 July 2010

The park was busier than usual with people enjoying a drink in the summer night heat. The public consumption of alcohol is a rare sight in Islamic countries but this a “modern” Muslim state. Many of the people in the park are international students, here to learn the mighty Arabic language, some come on the one month programmes whilst others are here for a year as part of their degree. Such an influx has cultural effects on places like Syria and has certainly helped the Christian quarter in the old city blossom by night.

I join Ahmed a guy from the Golan and his friends drinking beer, he introduces me to his friend also called Ahmed, I tell them of being witness to a near fight the previous night and how impressed I was at how quickly the police responded. A drunken teenage American student had made the mistake of saying “I’m an American” in an arrogant way so as to belittle a local he was arguing with, it was then things turned nasty, or would have done if the police hadn’t arrived.

Of course the police sided with the American; such is the protection we westerners can take for granted in this tightly controlled society, no-one should offend a foreigner let alone hit one – even if they deserve it!

“We have no problem with Americans as long as they come here respectfully”. Ahmed comes from a seaside town called Tartus but now lives in Damascus because the job prospects are better. After graduating in engineering he now has a supervisor job at a DVD factory. “Really” he says, “I was so surprised that a country like Syria could have the technology to make DVDs”, me too I reply, adding that “I thought all this stuff was imported from china”… Is Syria so cheap that it can compete with the Chinese workforce?

I ask why the traffic police are so corrupt. Ahmed is quick to point out that their salary is only 200 dollars a month, and that taking bribes for minor road traffic offences can double or triple their salary. But if corruption starts at police level where or when does it end?

My questions seem to irritate Ahmed. He tells me Syrian society cannot be judged like a developed western democracy. “And by the way” he is quick to add, “We are not interested in having your democracy here either. We don’t see your democracy as real. It is a lie. Your government does what it wants or as it is told by those in the big financial corporations pulling the strings. Do you think you are anymore free then me?” He asks. “You protest against an illegal war in Iraq and your government still takes you into it. Is that democracy?”

“Before the war I had a naïve notion that I wanted to be free. I was drinking alcohol with my friends and looking to the West for answers wanting to be a democracy, but since the Iraq invasion we have one and half million Iraqi refugees fleeing this new democracy in Iraq for safety here in Syria – what you call a ‘dictatorship’.”

“Our president isn’t brutal like Saddam he is loved by the people here. Since he took power from his father 8 years ago he has given a number of freedoms. Talking openly with foreigners could never happen 10 years ago. And remember this is an Islamic society and I am a Muslim who no longer drinks but I don’t stop you drinking with me in this park. I can sit with you and treat you as my guest. What freedom do you want? Here we cannot scream ‘fuck the leader’ in the streets. So what? But here you can walk the streets at 3 am safely. Can you do that in London? Here we don’t have homeless roaming the streets helpless. What kind of freedom is that?”

“Before the war with Iraq many people believed in this democracy idea but when we see the chaos there now we are happy with what we have. Our leader has never had so much support from his people. He is genuinely loved by them.”

Around us I watch as Syrians drinking openly in the park and nearby bars. At 5am the call for prayer from the mosques will hail a new day in this peculiar modern Islamic state.