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Wednesday, November 09, 2005 

Dom Joly: My brush with the Syrian Secret Service

Returning to the Syria of his childhood summers was to be a trip down memory lane for British comedian Dom Joly. But then he was plunged into a world of high-speed car chases, sinister spies and evil dwarves...

The Independent, UK
Published: 09 November 2005

Here's a dream scenario: someone rings you up out of the blue and asks whether you'd fancy going on a trip anywhere in the world for free. As you check the caller ID to see if it's a friend taking the piss, the person announces that you'll obviously be paid to do it. You can take a friend, oh and there'll be a camera crew coming along with you to record the trip for posterity and Sky One.

Unbelievably, it caused me some consternation. Some people might be worried about how they'd appear with a camera crew documenting their every tantrum and nose-pick. Not me. I gave up any idea of retaining dignity on TV the moment I donned my first squirrel outfit. My problem was more of a practical nature: where to go? Should I cruise the French Riviera in a Bentley? Maybe I should sail to an island in the South Seas?

I'd heard that Harry Enfield had also been offered one of these trips so I rang him up to find out what particular paradise destination he'd chosen, just so that we wouldn't clash. His unusual choice to retrace the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union forced me rethink my options. Maybe I should be doing something with a bit more worth? So I opted for a camping trip in the Axis of Evil. I grew up in the Lebanon and, at least twice a year, my family would set off on extraordinary road trips east into Syria - now prime Axis of Evil territory. My parents divorced in 1987 and I left Lebanon with my mother, never to return. Now I was going to go back and revisit my childhood haunts.

My friend Pete agreed to accompany me. He's an artist, living in the middle of Newfoundland with his wife and daughters. With temperatures at home starting to hit the minus 20s, he was over like a shot at the merest mention of some sunshine.

Three days later we were in Beirut. Beirut is an extraordinary mix of the old and the new. The old Holiday Inn still towers over the city, pock-marked with shell holes from the 1975-76 civil war. Right next to it is the fully refurbished Phoenicia Hotel where I used to go as a kid to get my hair cut. Two hundred metres down the road are the remains of the St George Hotel, a Sixties hot spot for the glitterati. It survived the civil war, but was shattered by the enormous car bomb in February that killed the ex-prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

After sampling some of the Lebanese capital's legendary nightlife, we drove out of Beirut over the Chouf mountains, through pine forests and past hillside Druze villages, just one of the myriad armed factions that have waged war in Lebanon in the last 30 years. Our destination was the Bekaa valley, home of Hezbollah and, weirdly, the Lebanese wine industry. We got hideously drunk at a wine-tasting before moving on to Baalbeck, home of the most famous ruins in Lebanon. We wandered around the breathtaking remains of the Temples of Jupiter and Bacchus completely alone, save for one Japanese tourist who couldn't seem to stop laughing, so we assumed that he'd sampled the Bekaa valley's other main cash crop, hashish.

We didn't stay long, we were nervous about getting into Syria as the political situation was getting tense with the impending release of the Mehlis Report on the assassination of Hariri, in which it was widely assumed that the Syrians would be implicated. The border is a tricky one to cross at the best of times, let alone when accompanied by a camera crew. Fortunately for us, the Syrian Embassy in London had been more than helpful, and told us that the Ministry of Tourism had sent a man to the border to help with the formalities of getting through. As we drove into the Syrian part of the border, there he was. His name was Sham, and we nicknamed him "Jimmy" after Jimmy Pursey, the lead singer of punk outfit Sham 69. Jimmy was indeed very helpful and we sailed through the border. We were about to say thank you and drive off when he dropped his bombshell. He was going to be accompanying us on our entire trip as a "guide". We thanked him for the kind offer but insisted that we didn't need one. Unfortunately, it wasn't an offer.

Jimmy and I did not hit it off. He immediately started to tell us where we'd be staying that night and what we were going to see. I tried to explain to him that I'd been to Syria many times and had a very clear idea of where we were going and where we would be staying. He had this really annoying habit of nodding in agreement and then ignoring everything that I'd just said. So started a series of weird drives where we'd try to lose him by driving incredibly fast. Then, just as we would be celebrating, he'd turn up and we never knew how he did it until we realised that the driver we'd hired for our crew vehicle was also in on the game and they were constantly calling each other on their mobiles.

Jimmy also had an annoying habit of taking what he called "memory photos" - which must translate from the Arabic "intelligence dossier photos". Everywhere we went he snapped away. Say it was a restaurant - he would photograph the exterior, get a close-up of the name, get an interior and then insist that he get a photo of us at the table. We developed a sophisticated counter-espionage technique and told him that in England it was traditional to raise your glass when a photo is taken at a meal. Every night he would be forced to e-mail yet more photos of six people sitting at a table with wine glasses strategically placed in front of their faces. This became a standing joke and became even more bizarre when, at the end of the trip, Jamie, our cameraman, asked Jimmy to show him his snaps. Jimmy was not keen to do this but finally flicked through the memory card very quickly. Not so quickly that Jamie didn't spot the three snaps of several naked women in some sort of Jacuzzi. Jimmy was clearly having a better trip than we'd suspected.

Our trip continued and we clambered over the magnificent Crusader castle of Krak Des Chevaliers and wandered down the totally empty Roman boulevards of Apamea with no one but Jimmy following behind us like some love-struck puppy. It was quite extraordinary: in any other country, sites like this would be teeming with tourists and coaches and fast-food outlets.

Our final destination was Palmyra, an extraordinary ruined Roman town slap-bang in the middle of the Syrian desert. For poor Jimmy, the final straw was when we announced we were heading off into the desert proper to try to find the caves I used to explore as a kid. The plan, if we found them, was to camp there. Jimmy went nuts. We finally had the big confrontation that this sort of television requires; he even put his hand over the camera lens and told us to turn it off: documentary gold. Apparently the problem was that he had to report our whereabouts every evening to Damascus, and "the middle of the desert" was not going to be good enough.

As a desperate bid to restrain us, Jimmy told us that it wasn't safe, that there were wolves and evil dwarves in the desert, but he could see that we were going to go anyway. We left him in Palmyra a broken man, and headed off into the middle of nowhere. All in all, it was a rather excellent adventure. And here's a tip for anyone planning subversive activity in the Axis of Evil: camp.

Dom Joly's Excellent Adventure is on Sky One (UK and Europe) tomorrow at 9pm

About me

  • Written by sasa
  • From Damascus, Syria
  • From Damascus to London via Beirut. Based in and out of the central Damascene hamlet of Saroujah. News and feelings from the streets every day. I'm talking rubbish? Leave a comment. Welcome to the information democracy. See below for info about this site.
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