Tag: Iraq

Return to Yemen

As I prepare to return to Yemen tomorrow i try to bear in mind that I explore politics through people and try take an audience into a complex political world outside of their own familiar backyard by finding attractive articulate characters.

As always, my mates back in Hull being my target audience. Taking them to a place like the Republic of Yemen appears a lot harder than my previous films – Iraq, Palestine, Japan, Hull, seemed so easy, they had at least heard of these places, but the Yemen, where exactly is that?

To me my films are all are like children, taking so many years to find, source, film and edit… in their own way they become a very personal exploration of myself as manifested through others.

I had originally wanted to make more overtly propagandist films in the naive belief that I could change the world just so long as I shouted loud enough, but thanks to my ‘FREE’ National Film and Television School education I was soon able to discover a more subtle honest film style, one that would actually engage with the audience rather than just shout at them – I found that allowing people to tell us of their lives and their struggles, their victories and their losses, was a far more respectful (to the character and to the viewer) way of discussing political ideas than any simplistic one-dimensional tub-thumping.

To quote an old school-friend “I find the worlds biggest scuzzbuckets and make ‘Human Stories’ about them”, I see them more as people fighting against the odds, people who haven’t been completely beaten down by the system, whose lives seem to consist of one battle after another… And, as we know, television likes a ‘Bad-Boy’, especially one that is in touch with his feminine side, and if he is also in love, and is able to talk openly about his life then all the better, no matter how extreme or radical his views.

I feel my new guy in Yemen fits this criteria, he is a breath of fresh air, at least to me he is, in this highly uniform traditional society he certainly stands out and give me oxygen even if he does get scared at the mass demonstrations (the armed forces have opened fire on some of them), though I feel his fear is for me not for himself.

On my return to the hotel room I see news reports saying that Yemen has been put on the high alert dangerous places to visit list by our government – along with Libya, Somalia and Ivory Coast. Maybe if (like Cameron in Egypt last month) I was here with a gaggle of British arms traders the UK Foreign Office wouldn’t be quite so concerned.

No Democracy Please

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.

Park life, pt2

The park comes alive around midnight. In the distance on a bench two boys are hugging each other as if they were performing on a stage, they both clearly love the attention they are creating, hugging each other ever more wildly the more stares they get.

I am talking to a 24 year old Kurdish man who has a 22 year old Swedish wife ‘outside’ waiting for him, and, like Nazeem my Iraqi friend who is trying to join his wife and kids in Canada, this man cannot get to his wife in Sweden. Out of the blue the man picks up his Kurdish guitar and starts to serenade me…

Nazeem points to a brand new BMW as it drives-by, he tells me it is the same model that he drove in Iraq – such was the good life he had under Saddam. Nazeem is always well dressed.

He heads off to the shop to buy us all a beer. The three of us drink together listening to the hum of the accents – American, Australian, British, and Arabic. I wonder aloud how long the authorities will tolerate all this drinking in public in this Muslim country, someone says that they won’t stop it because it is mainly Westerners, but more and more I see Syrian’s also enjoying a late-night drink in the park. The nearby shops have started selling a dangerously strong beer 12% and 14% strength sending some kids reeling late into the night. But most evenings pass off without us even seeing a policeman never mind needing one.

To an outsider Syria feels a safe and sensible country, or perhaps there are invisible hands at work stopping people from going too far, I often wonder where the secret police are, are they watching us, or are they here among us? I am assured that ‘as long as you don’t plot or plan against the government you are free to do and say most things just like in any European country’.

The night dusty air breezes around us. The young boys leave holding hands and smiling at us, Nazeem is dreaming of a new life in Canada and of his old life long gone in old Iraq, and the Kurdish man continues singing his song about his Kurdish homeland whilst looking longingly into my eyes. It must be a bizarre and funny sight.


Park life

So here I am, it has finally happened, I am sitting on a park bench on my own drinking Arak, ‘Down and out in Damascus’. Actually it is very beautiful, the park is off the tourist souk and Straight Street which runs through the heart of the old city and lies between the Christian quarter (hence the ease and openness with drinking alcohol in public) and the astonishing Jewish quarter which lies just behind us.

These days most of the properties in the Jewish quarter are empty – empty, deserted, and abandoned by Jews fleeing to Israel I assume but a local tells me not… “They went to seek their fortune in New York” he says.

Since the ‘smoking ban’ came in the park has become even more popular, here people are free to smoke and drink in public. I watch a mix of young lovers cuddling, some old ladies chatting and looking up at the stars, and a gang of youngsters getting drunk on the super strong 14% beer sold in the local store… I’ve taken to drinking ‘Arak’ – the local booze, a mind blowing 55% proof – it makes you see the world in a different way! The Arak makes me not want to move (unlike most other alcohol which generally has quite the opposite effect), but I must, because tonight I have been invited to an Iraqi wedding.

I am very curious to see the district of Damascus which is home to up to 2 million Iraqi’s who fled their new found ‘freedom and democracy’ in Iraq for safety in Assad’s Syrian ‘dictatorship’. How funny the world really is. But the Arak has taken hold of me and I simply cannot move.

By chance I meet an Iraqi who is also drinking in the park, a well dressed and dignified man who had left Kirkuk in the north of Iraq after the fall of Saddam, “They not only killed our leader but they killed our country” he says, “We had everything under Saddam; as long as you didn’t threaten him you could be free!”

Here this man survives on rent sent from property he still owns in Kirkuk. Fleeing the destruction that followed the fall of Saddam he managed to get his wife and 3 kids to Canada but failed somehow to get there himself. He recounts a bizarre story in which he spent 15,000 dollars on a round-the-world-trip that was supposed to take him from Syria, to Cuba, from Cuba to Mexico, from Mexico over the border to America and from America over the border to Canada.

But, he only got as far as Cuba; he didn’t speak Spanish or English and found himself stranded there for a week unable to move on. Defeated, he returned and now drinks beer and eats nuts in the park waiting for his wife to make the application through a lawyer in Canada. “It is only a matter of time” he says, “but my main aim was to get them there and give them a chance in life”. I sit and watch this man and think to myself that it is indeed a man’s world. There is so much negativity written about the role of men in the Middle East but here is one shining example of a man prepared to sacrifice his lot for the women in his life.

Alas, I do not have his strength, and for now the Iraqi district must wait, I cannot make it to the wedding, the Arak has me completely under its spell and I am unable to move away from this beautiful Damascus park… so I continue to sit with this stranger, listening to his stories, and wondering.