The web is filled with devastating ‘before and after’ photos of Syria showing how parts of the proud, beautiful and historically rich country have been devastated by terrorism and war. But if one wants to get a feel for what Syria was like prior to the crisis, it would be wise to watch Dom Joly’s Excellent Adventure, originally filmed in 2005, when it was Iraq rather than Syria, on which the world’s eyes were affixed.
The television special depicts comedian Dom Joly, who was raised in Lebanon during the Civil War, on a road-trip down memory lane from Beirut to a cave in the Syrian Desert that Joly used to visit as a child.
In spite of differing political views, I’ve always admired Joly’s unique, clever and deeply entertaining comedy shows. Watching this particular programme now, however, there is an added surreal element, as it often pains one to watch the light-hearted banter of Joly and his sidekick Pete as they tour the ancient monuments and great cities of Syria, which in many cases, now lie in ruin.
One of the scenes which in hindsight is the saddest, is when Joly stays at the Hotel Baron in Aleppo. The hotel was once the largest and grandest in all of the Middle East. Over the decades it has hosted the likes of Yuri Gagarin, King Faisal, General Nasser, Lord Allenby, T. E. Lawrence ‘of Arabia’, Charles de Gaulle, Agatha Christie and many others. In 2005, whilst the hotel lacked some of the modern elements of many international hotels, its well preserved corridors and charm were palpably endearing, even on film.
The hotel now stands empty, though it is still guarded by the widow of the former owner who hopes that one day guests might return.
The city of Aleppo is shown in all of its resplendent charm. Many of the sites will be familiar to those who have seen the aforementioned ‘before and after’ photos of the city.
Joly also visits Palmyra, a city whose magnificent Hellenistic ruins were ultimately saved through a jointly coordinated effort by Syria and Russia, ending a barbaric ISIS occupation.
The Syria shown in the film is clearly not a westernised country, but it is a secular country where women walk freely and Joly was frequently seen drinking alcohol, even during Ramadan. Joly and Pete met many gracious, smiling faces and Joly even jokingly commented that the country is so peaceful he rhetorically questioned ‘is there anyone in this country’.
Joly commented on the ‘police-state’ nature of the country, but even Joly’s government assigned ‘guide’ for the trip, ended up being portrayed as an ultimately friendly if not slightly awkward but harmless character.
The show ends with Joly and Pete comically driving towards the Iraqi border, into what was then as it is now, a war zone. How sad that the safe, placid and friendly Syria shown on the television show is now itself a war zone.
Joly’s Excellent Adventure was a comedy show when it was made. Now it is difficult to watch without shedding a tear. What a truly sad state of affairs.