Searching for joy on the streets of Basra

A powerful three-part BBC drama, 'Occupation', tracing the lives of three British soldiers in Iraq, was inspired by an ancient Iraqi poem, says the writer Peter Bowker

I would like to boast that, in order to achieve true authenticity in making a drama about the Iraq war, I spent six months embedded with the Scots Guards in Basra, sheltering behind Ross Kemp. But I didn't. I made it up. That's my job. And I find the obsession with a writer's real-life experience of fictional situations to be a bizarre and contradictory one.

I did read a lot of books and blogs and I spoke to half a dozen soldiers – mainly with naïve questions about weaponry. I was relieved when I asked one soldier how you go about clearing a building and he replied, "You know when you play war as a kid? It's like that. You stick your head round a corner and hope it doesn't get shot off. Then you wave your mate on and he does the same for you at the next corner." What that soldier gave me was information but, more importantly, he gave me an insight into the bloody-minded black humour that seems to pervade the forces – a necessary protective shell of piss-taking and sarcasm.

These are characteristics which happily play to my strengths as a writer. For reasons that are complete mystery to me, I specialise in portraying emotionally inarticulate men trapped in profound circumstances that require an emotional response. Men that hope if they make enough jokes that the demand to speak about feelings will go away. "Getting deep", my Dad used to call it, with a tone that implied it was bad for your health (which in Manchester in the 1970s it very probably was).

So I started with three men in a tank, each armed with their own finely-honed techniques of emotional evasion. Playing it by the bat in Mike's case, playing with fire in Danny's case, and hoping for the best in the young Hibbsy's case. And when they step out of the tank, I give them a shared incident to deal with, an incident that comes to define them and to which they respond in three different ways: with love, greed and conscience. And if, at that time, they had read an ancient Iraqi poem, "Gilgamesh", they might have had pause for thought. "Gilgamesh, what you seek you will never find. For when the Gods created Man they let death be his lot, eternal life they withheld. Let your every day be full of joy, love the child that holds your hand, let your wife delight in your embrace, for these alone are the concerns of humanity."

Derek Wax, our exhaustingly rigorous executive producer, had first quoted these lines from the poem to me. That was disturbing, not just because Derek is a Manchester City fan and not even on nodding terms with joy, but because we had already locked three hours worth of scripts, which our director Nick Murphy was about to shoot. Derek was now suggesting that "Gilgamesh" should provide a thematic thread that could run through the entire three hours. But he was right because pure realism was never going to be enough when making a drama about the Iraq war.

From 24-hour rolling news channels to camera phones, the modern media and new technology means this is the most visually documented and filmed war there has ever been. Indeed, key incidents have often been filmed and broadcast simultaneously. Books on the subject started to be published by the end of 2003 and haven't stopped yet. I should know, I have read most of them. There is no point in documentary realism if the documentary makers have got there first; no point in a drama that reveals something we already know. The war itself had already blurred fact and fiction with the imaginary "weapons of mass destruction", so a fictional response seemed timely and appropriate.

When Derek first approached me with the idea of making this drama, he used Apocalypse Now and Three Kings as the way in: both fictional takes on a real war, both highly stylised and both emphatically about more than specific responses to a specific war. They are about what it is to be human in the most inhuman of circumstances. They are about making connections where none seem to exist. And they are about the consequences of making those connections.

So our drama is driven by the notion that – emotionally, psychologically, politically – "what you seek you will never find". Looking back, putting an Iraqi poem at the centre of a drama about Iraq seems pretty much a no-brainer. From the start, I had been determined that the drama should portray Iraqis neither as swarthy villains nor noble victims. They were to be proper multi-faceted characters at the centre of the drama, and not narrowly defined by their ethnicity or religion.

Thankfully, my depiction of Iraqi characters was riddled with happy coincidences. I decided that the local fixer, Yunis, should have studied at university in Leeds and this should come out late in the story, in a passing remark. This was inspired by a solider telling me the first local he met in Basra had been a solicitor on the Edgware Road in London for 20 years, but hoped to cash in on the opportunities that were sure to open up in the new Iraq. It then turned out that Lewis Alsamari, the actor playing Yunis, had fled Sadaam's Iraq in the 1990s and pitched up in Leeds. One-nil to the imagination.

There are those who might think it arrogant, even culturally imperialist, for a white Englishman to put words in the mouths of men and women from Iraq, but I am a great believer in fiction and the imagination. I think that the moment we declare it impossible – or wrong – to imagine what it is like to be in another person's shoes, then we have waved goodbye to the cornerstone of our humanity. Or, as Gilgamesh might put it, we are well and truly stuffed.

Peter Bowker is the writer of the three-part drama Occupation, which will be shown tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday on BBC1 at 9pm.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Highly Competitive Salary + Commission: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL BASED - DEALING ...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape