Tag: Saddam

The link

Roula said she left her apartment to walk to the university in the busy capital Cairo and was stopped by a guy in plain clothes demanding to see her identity card, he said he was police but how was she to know? He told her to follow him down a quiet street, she said she wasn’t going anywhere with him, he held her for as long as he could on spurious charges.

Roula is on a university course in Cairo, I am trying to make a film in Syria, she sent me a Facebook link that I cannot open (is it blocked by Syria?). She watched some Egyptian police beat a man to death – more than just kill him she said, they took pleasure in watching his head break open as they bashed it against a wall.

Roula is Syrian – leaving the “safety” of Syria she feels that she is in a dangerous lawless land – I guess it’s the kind of thing you might see in America, but she is in Egypt – Many people (usually of Arabic decent) complain about the behaviour of the secret police in Egypt and how they are the most heavy handed in the region.

I haven’t in all my time in Syria been stopped by the secret police or even seen them, they operate in a different way here. I remember being tailed endlessly in Iraq during the Saddam days, which I quite enjoyed, it was like a game of cat and mouse.

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.

I Love Saddam

“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.

Mr. Matsui’s Office

Fuck another night on the town, traipsing through the sex-filled streets of Shibuya in the beautiful snow, filming world famous Russian documentary film-maker Victor Kosakovskiy (the second film maker to arrive). We are four in total, we all need to get our ideas in to NHK Japan by the beginning of March.

Me and Victor were drunk, filming all the gorgeous women in the red light district… in and out of bars, sake and strong japanese spirit followed by gin and tonics and and and…

I haven’t been back to my little school, I wanted to find something new, I’m still discovering Japan. I want to really find someone I can talk to, someone I can have a dialogue with… pose questions about this crazy society… answer the anxieties that i’ve been building up in my mind over these last 4 weeks. Find someone who is smart and not so subservient like all the Japanese seem to be…

I began filming the production office who are helping make these films in Tokyo. The kind hearted producer Mr. Matsui, “Hello Mr. Sean… you are very welcome…” he took the camera off me and filmed me, introducing me to all his staff. Please meet Miss Mayumi (23 year old assistant) and Mr. Jimbo (23 year old male assistant).

I love the office, it is the other side of Japan for me. Not high tech or clinically clean – it is full of old clunky VHS editing suites and has a wonderful dirty floor. Papers all over, staff smoking at their desk… So this is modern japan? This where Japan the 1st world nation meets Japan the 3rd world mentality…


I cannot hide my bewilderment – Jimbo now has the camera and I feel it right on me. He comes closer capturing a lonely pensive moment where I feel sad for the state of this office. “Mr. Sean” he says. “You look so sad, like you are going to cry… why?” I am speechless for a moment and make some excuse…

In many ways it is my most memorable moment here yet, at that time I’m asking myself, why am I here? What am I doing? And in a way I’m feeling sorry for these people trapped in this place. In this office and in Japan.

Communism meets capitalism here – for a moment I’m back in Saddam’s Iraq

Later Mr. Matsui is joking around, pulling sleeping bags down from cupboards and placing them on the office floor. He gets me to climb in to illustrate how his staff sleep on the office floor when they’re working late. Jimbo gets four chairs on wheels, pulls them together and shows me his makeshift bed also.

Mayumi has been helping me with my research, I’ve seen her getting more and more tired. I was getting worried and wanted to say something to Mr. Matsui, but it may be interpreted as her failing to provide her duties properly so I didn’t say anything. Mayumi travels 2 hours to work each way each day, her last train leaves Tokyo at 11.30 and she is always back in the office by 10 each morning.

I notice Jimbo nodding off at his computer, it is 6.30 in the evening – probably another 5 hours to go before home time. I grab the camera and film him. It is a funny but shocking moment. Really interesting to see how people can sleep on their feet, in their hands or even just sitting facing the computer. Looking at Jimbo from behind you could never tell he was sleeping. It is a crafted skill he has acquired at the tender age of 23. In a busy place like this everyone turns a blind eye to the grabbing of 40 winks.

But being around such a committed workforce makes me feel guilty. I swan in and out of the office when I like. Casually getting out of bed at 2 in the afternoon after a heavy night on the town. This atmosphere makes me think that maybe I need to change… that maybe it is my fault that I am not getting any closer to the Japanese. I decide to turn a new leaf. At least try. My latest concept in keeping myself amused here is; ‘Becoming Japanese’.

A new working title. Filming Mr. Matsui – the head producer here, I explain that I need him to schedule me like the Japanese are scheduled, to order my day, to get me out of bed and out of the pub. This is going to be a clash of cultures where east meets west but doesn’t quite understand each other. The kind of thing that amuses my childlike mind. Mr. Matsui resists at first saying that he envies my ‘relaxed… casual approach to life… this not possible in japan….’

I insist that he attempt to organise me, I’ve been getting worried about doing nothing here and finding so many distractions/attractions elsewhere in the sleezy bars. Finally Mr. Matsui sits me down with his chart, ‘Mr. Sean’s Schedule’.

“OK Mr. Sean, what time did you wake up today?” “10am” I tell him from the behind the camera. He writes this down on his chart. “Then what did you do?” “I went for a coffee” he looks up at me. “Then what did you do?” “I went back to bed.”

I cannot hold back my laughter the camera wobbles as I giggle. It had been a particularly long night and I’d had difficulty getting the day started. Mr. Matsui looked bemused.

“Ok so what did you wake up number 2?” “12 o clock” I tell him. He writes this down. “Then what did you do?” “I went for a pizza.” “You went for a pizza?” He writes it down. “Then what did you do?” “I went back to bed.” “What!” Mr. Matsui leaps back shaking his head in disbelief. “Oh my god.. So what time did you wake up number 3?” “About half an hour ago before I came to your office.” He looks at his watch… it is 4pm. “Ok Mr. Sean we are going to have to get you organized.”

The irony is that there are still enough hours left before midnight, when this office will close, to squeeze in a normal day’s work, yet this office has been open since morning. I look over at jimbo nodding off. Later Mayumi reveals that she doesn’t like to nap in public and nips to the toilet when she cannot keep her eyes open.

Carnage in Christian Street

Samir stands speechless amongst the carnage outside his Christian church where four charred cars lie wrecked in the street. People are standing staring, speechless. “So Bin Laden’s lot finally came for the Christians.. they are trying to create a civil war here.” I follow Samir through the slaughter, we approach a crater in the road. “See Sean, what a bomb blast does.”

I stare into a huge empty hole in the road and notice a man standing next to me with blood on his trousers. He points to the half demolished house behind him and beckons us inside. In the doorway is a Kalashnikov next to a child’s bike. The dining room is covered with splinters of glass, everything is completely destroyed. “My children were sat watching TV when the bomb went off… it’s a miracle they survived.” He points to his blood soaked trousers. “I had to pull splinters of glass out of them before the ambulance arrived.” He breaks down and cries. “I have just been staring at it.. I don’t know where to start repairing it, let alone where we will get the money..” Samir consoles the man and we leave.

Outside I pass a woman in her fifties, she grabs my camera.. “This is Bush’s fault.. America’s fault… I’m a Christian but I’m an Iraqi first!!” The woman moves on. I look around at the bloodshed in a Christian street I know so well. This is just one of 4 Christian churches targeted yesterday.

I move on to the other church five minutes away. The carnage here is even worse. I step over a charred car engine 200 metres away from the wreck of a car. The bomb blast sent it flying. I walk among blackened burnt out cars, a wrecked bus, destroyed buildings. We are told of an eight year old child who is currently having surgery to remove both her eyes, destroyed in the blast.

Samir looks into a graveyard inside the church compound where graves are smashed into pieces. “You know it has got so bad here that it is funny.” Samir breaks into fits of laughter. “Look, even the dead cannot rest peacefully.. they’ve even managed to disturb the dead.”

We go to Samir’s brother’s house. Maher greets me with a piece of twisted metal. “It landed here after the blast.. What did I tell you Mr Sean.. Last week they bombed all the Christian alcohol shops, and now they are turning on our churches.” Outside, his neighbours are repairing the windows. Maher sits down, his head listening to the familiar sound of broken glass being swept up. “You know glass is very expensive in Iraq now.” An American tank thunders past, followed by two humvees. Samir is angry “Iraq wouldn’t have these problems if we didn’t have the oil. If we were a poor African country with an evil dictator, who would care? Nobody!” Maher shakes his head, “It is very difficult Mr Sean.. We know these families that have been killed, my son’s best friend was killed as well. There is no one here to protect us now.” Maher gets up to leave. He stops, thinking for a minute, and turns to me.

“You know Saddam would never have let this happen to us. He used to protect the Christians.”