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Thursday, 30 January, 2003, 10:40 GMT
'My holidays in the axis of evil'
Ben at Leptis Magna, Libya
This Roman toilet is on Libya's tourist trail
Last year the US branded six disparate regimes an "axis of evil". So Ben Anderson set off for a first-hand glimpse of daily life in the axis.

First it was Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Then George W expanded the axis of evil to include Cuba, Syria and Libya. All I could find that linked these countries was that you could travel to all six on a tourist visa. So I did.

George W Bush in silhouette standing in front of the US flag
Iraq: US and UK edging towards war in Gulf
Iran: democratic movement set back
North Korea: nuclear brinkmanship
Syria, Libya, Cuba also named as threats
North Korea was nowhere near as tough as I thought it would be, but Cuba was a real disappointment because it's so touristy.

Tourism is the main industry now, and everywhere you get hustled or begged for dollars. Most of the young women are offering sex; the young men are asking for money or offering stolen cigars.

First up on my itinerary was North Korea. It got just 150 western tourists last year and there's no way the government-run tourist agency lets you wander around on your own.

Underground in Pyongyang, North Korea
The underground in the North Korean capital is a sight itself
The guide was with us from 7am to 11pm. Each day was museum, monument, farm, statue, dinner, bed; a publicity tour to show us how well communism works. But it was still obvious that most North Koreans lead a life of real banality and inconvenience.

Occasionally I got to speak someone in the street or in a museum, but many avoided us because they thought we were American. For Americans are always the bad guys in films there, and a lot of children were afraid of us.

Ancient wonders

In Iraq I had to go with an archaeological group that's been going there for years. The few Iraqis I did speak to were relieved to see Western tourists - they felt that if we were there, there wouldn't be any bombings.

Samara historic monument
The region is packed with archaeological wonders
Iraq should be popular as Egypt as a tourist destination; it's got the Garden of Eden, the first ever city, the Hanging Gardens, yet hardly anyone visits.

Saddam Hussein has rebuilt Babylon and every 100th brick has got his name stamped on it, and there's a billboard with him alongside King Nebuchadnezzar. He really thinks he's going to go down in history alongside these great civilisations.

There are also some incredible sights in Libya. We found an ancient toilet [see top of page], essentially a marble slab with circular holes. The story goes that in winter the nobles got their slaves to sit on it for half an hour first to warm up the stone.

Detained and intimidated

The scariest moment was in Iran. As I was filming the trip for the BBC, I had gone with a producer and handheld DV camera, which looks much like a digi-cam a gadget-mad tourist might have.

I thought 'this is it, I'm going to be the next Terry Waite'

On the third day three guys burst in while we were talking to some students. They took us back to the hotel and turned our rooms over. When they found cameras, tapes and tourist visas, they decided that we were spies.

They took us away and locked us up. Each time I gave an answer they weren't happy with - which was pretty much every time - they threatened torture, prison, even execution once.

I had a bed, two meals a day and I didn't get beaten up. But there were regular moments when I thought 'this is it, I'm going to be the next Terry Waite'. After a week they let us go, but even as the plane sat on the tarmac, I expected to be dragged back off.

Greetings from Iraq postcard
Wish you were here?
Would I want to visit these places again? If I didn't think I'd get arrested at the border, I'd love to go back to Iran. The people were incredible. One night after I'd been released but was waiting to get my passport back, I got talking to these guys in a restaurant.

One had read Nietzsche but his English wasn't great so he'd go off every five minutes to work out a line. He'd come back and say 'that which does not kill me makes me stronger' and then go off to work out another line. It was the first time I'd smiled in a week.

All four programmes in the Holiday in the Axis of Evil series will be screened in the UK on BBC Four on 31 January from 2250 GMT; and will be repeated on BBC Two on 10, 11, 17, 18 February at 2320 GMT.

Some of your comments so far:

It's such a shame you didn't get to see the real Iran, I went there last year a month or so after 11 Sept to see Rep of Ireland v Iran in the World Cup football play-off. I can't say enough about the people, I have never in my life met friendlier people and I'm Irish.
Matt Quinn

I had a wonderful encounter in the Ummayid Mosque in Syria last August. While I was on my hands and knees lining up a photo, I felt a tap on my shoulder. When I turned round a small group of chador-clad women looking very shy but pointing at the camera. One by one they solemnly got down to look through the viewfinder. Judging by the wrinkles round the eyes of one of them I think she must have been a granny, so perhaps that was the first time she'd looked through a decent camera. Had I been a man, there's no way they'd have approached me like that, and it was amusing to see the men nearby itching to look but not daring to approach an unaccompanied female.
Rowan, England

Bad luck that Ben had such a bad time in Iran - I went on holiday a couple of years ago and had a wonderful time. I'm saddened but not surprised that the Iranian authorities have become more wary of foreigners since then, but the same thing has happened in the West.
Richard, UK

I too had a bad experience in Iran - seeing the police beat and whip a boy they arrested for stealing my camera. But sadly, this could happen in many countries, occasionally our own. There is little to justify the ludicrous "axis" tag. Sure, the human rights records of these countries is poor, but isolation and war only makes matters worse.
Daniel, Iran

Can you please show these on BBC America? I can't take much more Changing Rooms, Home Invaders and Ground Force. We already have plenty of home decorating channels on cable & satellite. Please give us British documentaries.
H Sirett, US, formerly UK

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See also:

06 May 02 | Americas
29 Apr 00 | Middle East
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