He’s a lot friendlier than the average cab driver.
“I’m hungry,” I tell him from the backseat of his vehicle in my child-like Arabic, “Where’s shawarma?”
Soon we’ve pulled over at a small road-side restaurant and the owner is sawing chicken off the 5-foot long metal roasting stick on which he impaled 25 chicken carcasses that morning. The meat has been slowly cooking all day and is tender and thick with grease.
We continue down the clogged, smoky streets of Damascus. I slouch down in the backseat of the cab and disappear behind a book. Ten minutes later, dragging my eyes from the page, I look around and realize we are in the outskirts of the city.
“Where is Mezza,” I ask, “Close?”
“Yes,” he smiles, and turns down a dirt road lined with trees, no other cars in sight. I start to get hot under my conservative yet fashionable Damascus-style blazer, “Problem?” I ask, a little feebly.
He tells me there is no problem but I decide to call a friend who speaks better Arabic anyway. My friend answers I and hand over the phone. They’ve been talking or about 30 seconds when I see the freeway ahead. Ah, he’s taken a short-cut. How nice. Sigh.
We don’t say much for the next ten minutes. After all, I’ve just about exhausted my Arabic and he’s probably hoping not to freak me out any more then he already has. By the time we arrive at my friend’s apartment it’s as if those uncomfortable moments on the dirt road happened between a different foreigner and a different cab driver.
I learn over to hand him his money and our eyes meet, his jovial, mine placated and a little embarrassed. Now he speaks to me in English, “You scared?”
“No, no,” I try to assure him.
A slow smile creeps across his face, it reminds me of standing on the balcony of my apartment and watching the morning light inch across Damascus. The sun sparkles in his warm, green eyes and his complex-web of wrinkles are like the densely-packed streets on the city’s own dimpled face.
“I cab driver, “ he looks at me seriously and pauses for effect, “no terrorist.”
We both erupt into laughter.
This is Damascus.
The hazy sketch of Syria we get in U.S. becomes progressively more hazy as to almost loose all definition once you are here. Dangerous? Conservative? Anti-American? Oppressive to women? Backwards? Extremist? It’s not nearly as simplistic as that.
Nothing here fits neatly into my preconceptions. Hell, after 5 months here, nothing even fits neatly into my post conceptions. It is easy as a visitor to mistake Damascus as a relatively open, modern, tolerant society. It’s also easy to dismiss it as a backwards, repressive dictatorship with secret police on every corner. There some truth to both.
An interplay of freedom and constraint in this complex society makes it difficult to determine who has the power and who defines the parameters. People who seem afraid to talk to me will wordlessly pay for my bus fair and look away when I try and thank them. Everyone hates America but everyone loves Americans. It’s a socially conservative environment where I find myself at lavish, all-night dance parties on a pretty regular basis. Nothing is permitted and yet somehow every thing is done.
Mujahareen (The Immigrants)
We live on a hill, a 10 minute walk up steep cobblestone streets, the last of which many vehicles even refuse to attempt. Muhajareen was originally populated by Armenians fleeing the genocide in Turkey in 1912, hence the name. When you get to the top of the hill there is a view of Damascus that at night stretches out like fields upon fields broken glass. Fragments of color shimmer in the darkness and hide behind a dull, gray veil of fog and dust during the day.
From my roof on a clear morning I can map out a path of the places I’ll go that day: the old, walled city where I go to school, the fountain by the juice stand I like, the place where I sit on a park bench smoking apple-flavored tobacco out of a water-pipe, the mosque obscuring my favorite bath-house where I get scrubbed down for a small price every other Sunday.
Syrians speak softly, drawing their words in the air in elaborate, swirling calligraphy and sometimes rounding off a particularly good sentence with sweet, high-pitched inflection. Shopkeepers in outdoor markets swoop their arms through the air like dancers, beckoning the passerby with lavish gesticulations. When people kiss on the cheek they make a loud, smacking sound. Even foreign ministers on T.V. in their stiff suits kiss each other three times on each cheek, muah, muah, muah.
Young men have impeccable style. They grease back their carefully groomed, sometimes shoulder-length hair and go the barber-shop twice a week to get the perfectly lined stubble on their cheeks trimmed for a rough and sexy look. The average guy wears tight jeans and a flashy shirt, usually with the top two (or sometimes three) buttons undone and a tangle of chest-hair spilling out.
The way that men are affectionate with each other blows me away. When a man sees another man he knows on the street they immediately touch hands. It’s not the brief slap we’re used to, it’s a gentle clasp that may last for 2 or 3 minutes while each one inquires about the others family, health and business. Then it’s drags out for another 2 minutes as that berate each other for not visiting more often.
For a briefer encounter, men will clasp hands and then kiss the spot where their hands met or sometimes a man will grab another man’s chin and pull down, drawing his fingers together like the invisible strings of a coin purse and then bringing the tips to his lips for a kiss.
Secrecy and Descent
“How much is the fare?” a woman on the bus asks me.
“Ten lira, where are you from?”
“I’m from Iraq.”
“Really? I’m American.”
She nods. We sit in silence.
“Stupid Bush is a son of a dog,” I offer in my rough Arabic.
“True. That’s right.”
“Thanks to God.”
She turns to me for the first time and looks at me carefully.
“American people are good, your government is bad.”
“Some Americans are good, some are bad.”
“True, thats the same in every country.”
It’s not hard to connect with people here when it comes to their disdain for governments, be it the U.S., Israel, Iraq or pretty much any government in the region. It never ceases to amaze me what a clear and compassionate distinction people I’ve met in the Middle East make between American policy and its people. It’s our governments that are warring over large, mostly economic issues, not us.
“Bush bad, you good.”
It’s something I hear on a regular basis from friends and strangers alike. It’s far more difficult to discern how people feel about their own government. Large, reassuring shots of President Al-Assad adorn almost every shop window in Damascus. At every rally, play, concert or hip-hop show there’s a part of the evening devoted to an intense display of nationalist fervor. Large crowds of people will spontaneously erupt into chants about the president and poets will recite ethereal verse in his honor.
How much of it is deeply felt? That’s not really talked about in polite company, especially considering that people tend to get thrown in prison here for next to nothing. In wealthy neighborhoods mukhabarat (secret or not-so-secret police) are stationed at every corner wearing black suits and expressions as cold as the steel of their weapons. Sometimes they will stop to ask you where you’re going, why you have been standing in one place for more than ten minutes or simply why you are pointing at something. Countless books and a whopping 50,000 internet sites are banned, including face book and u-tube. It’s something you get used to, a culture of secrecy marked by an incredible openness at the same time, you just have to learn when to be which.
My high school students are reading a novel. A young city boy is lost in a forest. He’s been walking for days when another boy of about his age finds him. The boy is very concerned about the lost traveler so he finds a cave for him to rest in and then dresses his bloody, blistered feet. I ask my class, would you do the same for a complete stranger? Is there anyone in the world whose feet you would wash?
“My mother” one boy says with a solemn look and instantly the other boys nod their heads approvingly and chime in in agreement. I raise my eyebrows in surprise, after all, I usually can’t trust these boys to give me a straight answer. They do everything they can on a regular basis to derail my lecture, including physical intimidate and sexual harassment. Even if they appear to be listening to my lecture I suspect most of them are actually ogling at my breasts.
“Teacher, of course I would wash my mother’s feet.”
People’s lives revolve around their families. Some of my male friends in their 20s still have to be home by ten o’clock to eat dinner with their parents. Every night. Another friend’s family plays cards and watches T.V. together 7 days a week until 2 or 3am. My students write about their favorite place in the world being “at home with my family” where everyone understands them. Another friend had me over for dinner and his sister explained to me that “Muslims girls don’t stay out late. If we did, what would we do? There no reason to be away from home.” Her extended family all live within a few blocks from each other, “For us freedom comes from within,” she smiled at me, “it’s different from the West.”
Bodies and Art
Two inches of skin followed by 3 inches of shiny black leather heels peek out from underneath a long, conservative coat. Her headscarf is a thin-effervescent thing tucked into her collar, her dark-red lips and black-sunglasses are stunningly set-against smooth white skin.
The way a typical Muslim Syrian woman dresses would be a complete scandal in Yemen. Though, on the other hand, there’s no such thing as a typical Syrian woman. Some look classy enough to blend into the crowd at an art gallery on the lower-east side of Manhattan; others wear their hijjab drawn around their heads and then literally pinned under their nostrils so that only eyes and nose peek out. Long coats usually serve as the traditional abeya, even in the summer. Some of them are made of silk or some other shiny material and worn tight around the body, others are drab, loose and intentionally unremarkable.
Women cover their bodies with art. The key word being “cover.” The most awesome and sexy you can possibly look is entirely acceptable as long as you are “covered.” It’s common to see women in hijjabs and skin-tight jeans bumping and grinding to hip-hop at night clubs and young mothers in high-heeled leather boots laced up to the knee with silk shopping in street markets with two kids in tow. As long as your wearing a hijjab you can pretty much follow it up with whatever you like. It’s like they are saying, “What? I’m covered, who are you to criticize me?”
Of course, clothes are just clothes. They don’t necessarily say much about the person underneath. One one hand, the sheer diversity that meets the eye and the sometimes shocking extravagance displayed on the streets of Damascus makes me want to understand the structures that lie behind those choices. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s a clear equation that indicates a woman’s religion, family or social status based on her appearance.
A Little Context
My teacher told me out of his 9 sisters only one chooses not to wear a hijjab. Her family criticizes her for it, but her decision is accepted. About 20-30 percent of women you see on the streets of Damascus don’t wear a headscarf. This may be because they are Christian, Allawite, secular or it may be that they are Muslim but simply prefer not too.
Today it seems relatively rare for a woman to be forced to wear the hijjab. Of course there’s an element of social pressure, but from what I’ve heard many mothers prefer that their daughters don’t cover. The fact that in 2009 the vast majority of Muslim Syrian women are choosing to wear head-scarves, perhaps more than ever before in the last 70 years, leads one to wonder, why?
The last generation of Syrian women came of age in the 1970’s. In those days it was a rare thing to see women with their head covered. After all, Syria was a self-proclaimed socialist state that promoted religious tolerance and secularism. In the early 1980s a brutal chapter in Syria’s history began. A fundamentalist group called the Muslim Brotherhood become a threat to the Allawite-dominated Baathist regime and the president Hafez Al-Assad’s brother, Rifa’at, responded by brutally repressing Muslims. There was a very brief period when police threatened women in the street wearing hijjabs. If they wouldn’t take off their head-scarves willingly, they would be torn off.
Today Syrians are living in a different era. Many of the political parties, groups and leftist movements that thrived in the 70’s have failed. After 9/11, the Wars on Iraq and Afghanistan and the deterioration of the Palestinian situation, many people have lost faith in political groups to defend the Middle East from outside aggression.
The result has been a conservative backlash and a resurgence in the importance of religion. “People have no dream” a friend explained to me. The economy is bad, Hamas and the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) have weakened, “when people find nothing, they look to religion.”
The steel roof of the enormous souq blinks down at me with a thousand eyes. Fragments of blue sky escape from small holes, forming a constellation of stars over the long, oblong tunnel. Scores of people bustle through and desperate salesmen beckon from their shops on the sidelines.
A spectacular rush of color, strong perfume, shouts and rhythmic thumping fills the air. A little boy sends a red balloon with heliocopter wings sailing up to the vaulted heavens. He throws his head back and blows at particles of dust floating in the beams of sunlight. Bikes swish by, the smell of brewing espresso trailing in their wake. A man zig-zags through the crowd carrying 5 ice cream cones, clumps of cool, sweet cream and pistachios nuts running down his arms.
There’s no one Damascus. Syria blows the stereotypes I held about the Middle East right out of their shallow water. It’s a rubric of life that I’m sure my ten-cent version can hardly do much justice.
Looking out over my new city, I watch scores of pigeons dip and turn over the steel-grey buildings, their light, airy bodies taking on the wide, blue sky with inexplicable grace. It’s not an easy city. Sometimes from my roof I see old men and women sitting on white, plastic chairs on their balconies, catching a moment of solitude amidst a vortex of dust and exhaust. Amber sun streams through their hair and a gentle breeze smooths their weary faces.