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Great Railway Fatwas of the World

by Alexei Sayle

When footage of the savage civil war in Syria comes on the TV news I sometimes catch myself looking for places I recognise, “is that pile of twisted metal and stone in Aleppo the Baron hotel?” I ask myself or “could that half demolished building in Deraa be the railway station where I drank sweet black tea with the train drivers? Or “maybe that sniper’s spot is the restaurant in Latakia where the Cardigans single Lovefool played over the PA?” Probably not. This intense interest might seem misplaced since Syria is a country that I only visited once for two weeks but for a number of reasons it occupies a greater space in my consciousness than many places where I have spent much more time.

In 1996 I made a film for the BBC as part of their series “Great Railway Journeys of the World”. My task was to travel by rail from Aleppo in Northern Syria to the Red Sea at Aqaba in Jordan, following the old “Hejaz Line” which once took pilgrims from the Levant all the way to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In the film I remember I reflected on “the explosive intimacy of the Middle East”.

From the bus station in Damascus you would see coaches departing with the names of trouble spots “Baghdad” or “Beirut” inscribed on their headboards as if they were London buses with “Finsbury Park” or Clapton Ponds” as their destination. I didn’t know then that the explosive nature of the region would mean that Syria would collapse into such internecine strife or that for a short while because of my film I would require armed police protection.

The period I spent in the country was not a particularly happy time for me; I hadn’t worked on a documentary before and found it a very different experience to making comedy or drama. In comedy or drama the performer is cosseted, sheltered and treated like a child; people ask you if you want a coffee something like every twenty five seconds.

Whereas on this documentary the crew expected me to help with carrying the gear, get my own coffee or to sometimes sleep in a tent! Also everywhere we went the film crew and I were followed by members of at least two of the country’s eight separate security services, known collectively as “the Mukhabarat” and our Syrian government appointed minder and translator carried with him at all times a briefcase which when I got to look inside it was crammed with all the tranquillisers and anti-anxiety meds that he required to keep himself functioning in such a tense atmosphere with such a vengeful employer.

Yet though in a piece to camera I referred to the country then ruled by Bashar Al Assad’s father as “East Germany with hummus…” I felt that my portrayal of Syria, its beauty, history and teeming friendly population was pretty fair. Unfortunately I don’t think the Assad regime felt the same way. What happened next was that after transmission on BBC 2 there were a number of letters to the papers and a guy went on some Channel 4 show called I think “Right to Reply” which in the pre-internet age allowed members of the public to moan in an uninformed and sanctimonious manner about programmes on the TV (something that is now considered a universal right).

My feeling at the time was that all this protest was organised by the Syrian embassy in a fit of pique since there was no reference to any parts of the film set in Jordan in the complaints or it could just have been a crap film that viewers didn’t like. But the froth of protest over the film did spread the false idea with some people that I was anti-Arab. I didn’t feel this was in any way true, the reverse in fact.

When I first moved to London I lived with my best friend Wassim Abdullah in a basement in Kensington with a load of other Palestinians, I was and am a patron of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, often at dinner parties I will talk for hours about The Balfour Declaration and the Sykes Picot agreement where the UK and France unfairly divided up the Middle East after the First World War, (something everybody enjoys) while another of my friends, who I interviewed in the film, was the King of Jordan’s brother-in-law! In fact I don’t know if there is a specific type of Jew who is goofy about the courtliness and sophistication of Arabs (particularly those from the Levant-Syria, Jordan, The Lebanon, Palestine) but if there is I am one.

If anything I am not anti-Arab I am actually a Jewish Wannabee Arab-a JWARAB.

Getting caught in the middle of this contrived altercation did make me think and still makes me think that when I see some similar controversy in the press or on TV, whether in fact the situation is exactly the reverse of how it is presented in the media.

Either way I thought that that was that the crisis was over but I could not have been more wrong. A few weeks later me and my wife Linda were out for a walk round our neighbourhood when about 11.00 my agent rang me and said “We’ve just had a phone call from a man who says he’s sergeant in the Special Branch at New Scotland Yard and he needs to talk to you urgently, he’s left this number.”

Unfortunately when we phoned the number he’d left it turned out to be the traffic division and they didn’t know what I was talking about. A little while later my agent phoned once more and said, “That guy from Special Branch has called again and left a different number and he still says it’s urgent.” When we called that different number it proved to be the personnel department.

I phoned my agent back and said “Look if he calls again tell him we’ll go to our local police station, Holborn at 5.00 and we’ll meet him there. But I’m sure he won’t show, I’m certain this some kind of a wind up. It’s probably Dom Jolly”. When we got to Holborn police station a little before 5.00 I said to the woman police officer on the desk, “look there’s been some guy who’s been phoning me all day saying he’s Special Branch but I’m sure it’s a wind up.” “No” she replied. “He’s in with the chief superintendent now and they’re waiting for you.”

Me and Linda were buzzed backstage and shown into an office; there we were greeted by an older man in a uniform with gold braid all over it who had been chatting to a younger, burly gingerish guy wearing a suit. This was the Sergeant from Special Branch. He introduced himself and told us that the day before Cumbrian police had arrested an Egyptian man and charged him with attempted murder for assaulting his wife, this man was known to them as a fantasist and a liar but nevertheless in some kind of demented plea bargain he had claimed he was aware of a plot by an Iranian man living in Liverpool to murder me, presumably in response to the fuss about my Syria to Jordan film.

Though the police had stated they thought there was no truth whatsoever in this the man’s solicitor had still contacted the Liverpool Echo and told them about the alleged plot to assassinate me and the paper despite pleas from the Cumbrian force were going to run with the story the next morning. (Oddly enough I have only required police protection twice in my life and both times it has been the result of articles in the Liverpool Echo. I am glad they are being replaced by the internet.) The Special Branch officer told us that in the meantime if our landline number came up as a 999 call, what was then known as an “ARV” – an “Armed Response Vehicle” would be at our door within ninety seconds. At that time for their mobile gun crews the Metropolitan Police used a fleet of Rover 800 fastbacks equipped with a pump action twelve gauge shotgun, one or two Heckler and Koch MP5 9mm submachine guns and a couple of Glock 9mm pistols.

The danger of this situation was obvious, the Iranian guy was being dealt with but if the story got more publicity it might put the idea into the head of somebody more determined or demented to kill me for real. Even though the Cumbrian police were certain the Egyptian was lying, in the morning the Echo still irresponsibly published the article, my agent phoned a little later saying: “The Richard and Judy show have called and they want to know if you’d like to come on and talk about your fatwa.”

I did not accept their offer, our strategy was to totally state that there was no fatwa and the Echo story was false, in fact the paper even phoned my mother, someone who could be a volatile element in a crisis but in this case she stuck to the party line.

In the end the Daily Mirror also ran the story but it never gained any traction beyond that and a little while later the sergeant visited our home and said: “Well our colleagues in Merseyside police have been to see the Iranian man and if he ever had any ideas of killing you he doesn’t have them anymore.” It’s funny how your sympathies can change when it is you who is under threat, I have always as a lefty been dubious of the motives of the police but I somehow imagined that the Merseyside police had worked this Iranian man over with rubber hoses and I was glad they had.

After that we had a nice chat, us and the gingery policeman. He told us that he was the only member of Special Branch tasked at that time with looking after Middle Eastern affairs and he felt overwhelmed, even in those pre 9/11 days it was still clear that this was a region that was only going to provide more problems for the security services days in the coming years. Also he confided in us that he was dyspraxic hence the confusion over all the phone numbers. And finally that truly was that.

I don’t know what it does to you to be a war correspondent, Syria is the only place I have been that has collapsed into civil strife and I feel genuine pain when I see footage on the TV, I can’t imagine what it must be like if your whole world is like that. If you go from trouble spot to trouble spot and everybody you meet is at risk.

Secondly, you could say I was a victim in a tiny way of the repressive and despotic Assad regime and my experience taught me that they do not take kindly to being challenged, even by a documentary about railway journeys so I always felt it was a terrible mistake for Obama and others to state that Assad definitely had to go for there to be a resolution to the conflict. This left him, his Shiite Alawite clan and also the other minorities, Christians, Armenians, Palestinians, Druze etc who had looked on him to shield them from the Sunni majority with nowhere to go apart from supporting the dictator.

While this particular mess is not at least in the short term, as opposed to the long term, entirely the fault of the West we didn’t make much of an effort to prevent our allies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf from arming their own packs of Jihadi loons. Now what we have is a proxy war with the UK, USA, Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Gulf states on one side and Russia and Iran on the other but the hopes and dreams of the poor people of Syria have been forgotten. In the end the lesson is as it has always been that our governments in the West should stop malevolently interfering in the affairs of other countries.

The only other lasting effect is that sometimes when guests are slow in leaving after a dinner party or don’t seem to be enjoying my rant about The Balfour Declaration and the Sykes Picot agreement, my hand hovers over the phone wondering if I dialled 999 would an ARV still be at my door in 90 seconds.

Alexei Sayle: this piece was jointly commissioned with New Writing North.