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Thursday, 30 January, 2003, 10:40 GMT
'My holidays in the axis of evil'
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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