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.

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