Words by: Claudia Basrawi
Visuals by: Nicolas Siepen and Claudia Basrawi

This article is part of the “The Wawa Complex” issue

It seems like everyone knows Jean Genet. He is significant for many Palestinians, because of Sabra and Shatila and Prisoner of Love. And yet, it doesn’t seem like many were anxious for someone to make a film about him. Jean Genet is more Alessio’s and Nico’s project. I only came along because I know my way around here and can make contacts.

The below text is adapted from Mittelmeer Anämie: Damaskus, Beirut, Kairo (2009), which I wrote about our time in Damascus in 2004. It narrates the circumstances of the production and development of the project; it was  “guerilla filmmaking” where we all had many jobs – filming, playing roles, and doing post-production. This piece is an exploration, a perspective, to take the reader with us through the process.

Alessio tells us that Genet had lived in Damascus for almost a year during his time in the French Foreign Legion, around 1928, and fell in love with a young hairdresser. He asks my longtime friend Dana about prostitution in Syria; he’s interested in Genet’s characters. I translate to try to convey what Alessio wants to know. It is evening. Although the restaurant is full, Dana manages to organize a table for us with a view of the open kitchen, lit by bright fluorescent light. We look at large glass containers of spices and see the waiters running back and forth. Dana orders babaganoush, mtabal, fatouche, tabouleh, makdous and lamb chops. 

She says that there is no prostitution on the street and that everything takes place in cabarets. But, these cabarets are not as clear-cut as they were ten years ago, and the boundary between simple restaurants and nightclubs is a fluid one. Once, she says, she was out with a visiting friend, a comrade from the PFLP, on Qasar Street, a shopping street that starts just off Bab Touma. She was going to meet him at a restaurant that her father used to take her family to.  When they arrived upstairs, the windows were covered with dark curtains, it smelled like Arak, and there seemed to be only men in the room, except for a singer on a stage illuminated by spotlights. She wore shiny tights and a miniskirt, had large protruding breasts and her hair was “like this” – Dana makes a sweeping gesture to say that the hairstyle was enormous. Thinking they had ended up in the wrong place, Dana went downstairs and inquired of a man if this was the family restaurant so-and-so, to which he said yes, and confirmed the name.

Clip from Film ‘Prisoner of Love’, 2006.

They went back up. The singer had just finished her show and the lights remained low. Dana had to realize that the hall was full of Palestinian leftists. She even knew one of them quite well and asked him what he was doing there. As I get a feel for everything, Alessio sees his Jean Genet out of sight. The armed struggle is no longer taking place here, at least not visible to us so far, he says.  

I ask how it is with lesbians, whether there is also a law there. Dana says that sex among women is not an issue because it is assumed that it will happen. She said that there is nothing unusual about women sleeping in the same bed no matter the age, and this includes having sex; it’s only considered wrong or strange when they make love. She knows some heterosexual women in the cultural sector who, after reaching a certain age (around 55) are suddenly attracted to (often younger) women and have lesbian relations with them. 

Alessio brings up Akram Zaatari, who made a film about gay people in Beirut.1 Dana, who knows the film, says that, unlike Syria, people could find places to be openly gay in Jordan and Lebanon. Syrian society, however, is more inward-looking; therefore practically everything exists, but there is no public negotiation about it. In the places where gay men meet, there is nothing to indicate that they are gay except the secret signs through which they communicate with each other. 

Alessio asks Dana about “Freddy’s Bar”; we were told that Genet was a regular guest there. Dana says that this bar can actually only be known to people from Damascus who have spent their whole lives here. Certainly, Freddy’s Bar is such a place for drinkers, also called a humara (wine bar), an old Arabic word from the time when there was no alcohol but wine. She herself had never been there, because only men frequented it.  
We really want to shoot a scene at the legendary Freddy’s, the bar where Genet is said to have frequented, but none of our friends know where it might be. I guess it’s in the Christian quarter Bab Touma because there are some bars and also discos there, and in the evening, the three of us start looking for it. We walk along Straight Street towards the East Gate Bab (Sharqi), look into every store, and read the names of all the stores. A man sells liquor and wine, and there is also a table where a few men are drinking. That’s how I imagine Freddy’s, but it’s not the right store. Finally, I ask a few people if they know Freddy’s – I only approach men who are a little older and would assume that they drink. It makes me uncomfortable. One man knows a pharmacy called Freddy, the others say they can’t help us. When we’ve almost given up on it, someone tells us we’re in the wrong neighborhood. Freddy’s Bar is near Salihiya, a shopping street in the city center.

Clip from Film ‘Prisoner of Love’, 2006.

The next day we go to Salihiya, an area I know quite well. There are a lot of shoe stores here and a pedestrian mall. Again, I ask about Freddy’s. At a kiosk that sells newspapers, I am lucky – the man can tell us exactly where to find it, on a small side street where there are also some simple restaurants. He asks us to wait a moment and then leads us directly there. The store is narrow and painted blue and white stripes in wood grain. Next to the entrance are two oval glass cases, each displaying a Campari and a Cinzano bottle, and one or two more bottles whose labels I can’t make out. Next to them are porcelain figures in kilts, probably old advertising objects for a whiskey brand. Above the door hangs a sign that says “Freddy” in Arabic script.  

Inside, a few men are sitting and drinking Arak. Some have brought something to eat from next door. The patron, a man with a big belly and thick black hair, looks a bit surprised about our visit, but he is very friendly when we tell him that we are interested in Jean Genet. “Yes, Jean Genet – he can do something with that.” He says that his father used to own the place, and it’s true, Jean Genet is said to have been a frequent guest here for a while. The other guests in the bar also know who we are talking about. One of them speaks French and has something to do with theater. He finally steps in when we ask the patron if we can film a little scene here at Freddy. Yusef, the patron of the bar, shows no enthusiasm for our project but agrees and gives us his phone number when we ask. The phone is right on the counter and is at least fifty years old, as is the entire interior and decor of the store. Freddy’s Bar looks very French, like many places in Damascus that are a bit older.

Clip from Film ‘Prisoner of Love’, 2006.

The next day, we finally shot the Freddy scene with Dana and Alessio. We get up early and pick up Dana, who all of a sudden doesn’t want to be filmed. I persuade her, finally. We have made an appointment with Yusef, but now we are standing in front of a closed door. We find Yusef nearby on the street, chatting with friends. Slowly, he comes with us and unlocks it.  We shoot undisturbed at first, but little by little, a few men come in and fit perfectly into the scene. They said they were intellectuals or academics. The one with the French degree has a white bandage wrapped around his head, running along under his chin. Asked about Jean Genet, he replies, “j’adore Jean Genet!” Dana and Alessio are dressed all in white, looking like they’re in a Marguerite Duras film adaptation. And, actually, there could have been a bar like Freddy’s in the Saigon of the 1930s.

Clip from Film ‘Prisoner of Love’, 2006.

We should shoot the hairdresser scene with Nico in a modern store, otherwise, the film will be too exotic-romantic.

After the shoot, Alessio and Nico drink Arak with the men and try to talk about Jean Genet.

A week later in Beirut, Alessio meets his Jean Genet character after all during a walk along the Corniche.

Film ‘Prisoner of Love (2006)’ Will Premier on My Kali’s Youtube Channel as of October 12th, 2023

Full film here

Director: Alessio Bonaccorsi, Claudia Basrawi, Nicolas Siepen
Cast: Al-Hassan, Al-Shihabi, Alessio Bonaccorsi,
Claudia Basrawi, Nicolas Siepen
Script: Alessio Bonaccorsi, Claudia Basrawi, Nicolas Siepen
DOP: Claudia Basrawi, Nicolas Siepen
Original Score: Nicolas Siepen
Editing: Nicolas Siepen
Sound Design: Nicolas Siepen

  1. Akram Zaatari (dir.), Al-Ilka al-Hamra (Red Chewing Gum, 2000); Shou Bhebbak, (How I Love You, 2001)