Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ladies' Night In Saydnayya

As you walk through the souq, you might notice that nearly all the shops are run by men. Warda is one of the few women working on the main street, in an artist’s shop. She is a nurse by trade in her early 50s, but is helping to cover her daughter’s shifts at the shop while she finishes her university exams. She invited me to go to Saydnayya with a group of ladies on Friday. I haven’t had a chance to visit the famous church of Our Lady of Saydnayya yet, so I decided to go.

I went to Bab Touma around 2pm to meet Warda and saw her friend Nadia, also in her 50s, who I had met the week before. Nadia was joining us on the trip too. The first thing she asked me was why I hadn’t visited her yet. I just met her a week ago! But this is common in the Arab world; evenings are reserved for social and family visits, and maintaining these ties are essential for help, support, and to keep from being alone.

Nadia and I waited together for Warda to come pick us up. Finally we saw her waving to us from across the square. She led us to one of these colorful tricked-out school minibuses that are all over Damascus. The bus was filled with women in their 40s and 50s, along with their daughters and grandkids, and one of them had gotten her daughter’s school to loan us the bus and driver for the day.

Warda told me that these women were all in a group together in her neighborhood, Jaramana. They meet every week and collect a little money, so that around Christmas, they can distribute it out. Warda says “We may not have much on our own, but when we put it together, it becomes a lot!” I asked what they used the money for. “If someone needs help, or if they need to buy something, like move into a new house, or a car, or their child’s education, then they get the money.” The other women were bothering Warda for her 50 lira since she missed the meeting last week covering her daughter’s shifts at the artist’s shop.

With the exception of Warda, all of the women work in the home. As a nurse, she no longer has a regular hospital or clinic job but makes house calls in the neighborhood if people need medical care, administers medications and injections, and also assists a local plastic surgeon if she has any surgeries scheduled, like breast implants or nose jobs. “But these women aren’t the ones that tell you it is shameful to work, right?” (Warda has complained to me before about people gossiping about her for working outside the home). “Oh no, they don’t have a problem with it.” “And we all have good husbands. They let us go out and go to restaurants and they are OK.” I responded, “Well, you are all women, so it’s not a big deal.” “Yeah, we are all women so there is no problem. We just want to go out and enjoy ourselves.”
Warda is Muslim, but all of the other women in the group are Christian. But since she doesn’t wear hijab or an Islamic pendant around her neck or any other marker of religious identity, you really can’t tell the difference between her and her friends. She was wearing some knee-high wedge boots with a skirt, so that her knees showed in between, with a white tank blouse and a grey sport jacket. She had light makeup on, some pink lipliner with sparkly magenta lipgloss, and mascara. The other ladies were also all decked out in their Friday best.

One woman was wearing a tan knit shirt with a cutout below the breasts. There was a strip of fabric that hung across the shirt underneath her breasts from the side seams, and it held her breasts up so that they were busting halfway up her chest above the sparkles on the sweetheart neckline of her shirt. She had on tight black pants and black pantyhose underneath which you could see over her waistline when she bent over, and wore dark red lipstick with her jet black hair. Her daughter, who is still finishing school and unmarried, was wearing a tight cheetah-print top with cutouts on the shoulders, tight black pants with vinyl leather trim, and spike-heeled cheetah print boots. She was beautiful, and highlighted her beauty with black eyeliner around her eyes.

Another mother, Sahar, who Warda calls the group “president,” was wearing a sheer black mesh shirt with sequins on the v-neckline, paired with tight jeans and spike-heeled boots. She wore tan lipliner with a mauve gloss, foundation, and mascara. Her black hair was coiffed and curled. Her daughter, who was gorgeous, also wore cheetah print and had long brown wavy hair which she styled with gel. She wore a tiny butterfly clip to hold up a small plait of hair over her face. She needlessly wore a full face of makeup over her unblemished skin, with foundation, blush, eyeshadow and eyeliner, lipliner and lipstick. She carried her toddler son with her, who was about 2 years old.

Ayla was the vibrant, loquacious Lebanese woman who talked the whole ride up. She married a Syrian man and they live in Jaramana. She wasn’t as put together or attractive as the other ladies, but she was spunky. She had dyed reddish-brown hair cut to her shoulders, and it looked like it had been curled a day or two before. She wore a black knit shirt with tight black pants and spike-heeled boots, and you could see her black nylons peeking out of the top of her pants also. She didn’t wear makeup and had rectangular eyeglasses, and brought her two schoolage children with her, about 9 and 11 years old, a girl and boy.

Finally, Warda had invited Amal, her friend of 30 years, to come along, who was visiting. She and her husband split their time between Syria and Quebec.

Warda mentioned to Ayla that I had wanted to go to the church of Our Lady of Saydnayya but she just laughed and belted out “We’re not going to church, I want to drink!” gesturing the motion with a hand to her mouth while tilting her head back.

We arrived in Saydnayya and passed in front of the restaurant off the main road. The ladies had never been to this restaurant before, and there was some disagreement about whether it was worth it. Through the façade of windows we could see that the hall was nearly empty, with only a couple other families sitting and eating. But Ayla insisted that there was people (or at least there would be), and that it would be great. We waited inside the bus as she went inside to speak with the host. Warda and the other ladies, meanwhile, were saying that they didn’t want to sit in a restaurant with nobody in it, that there were other places with better atmosphere and decor. Apparently this was a day to sit and be seen and party it up a little bit, which can’t be done in a quiet empty restaurant.

But Ayla called us all in from the entrance and we followed. After we entered the restaurant apparently reached its critical mass and they switched on some loud Arabic pop music, which blared at us from the speaker situated next to our table. We got a full set of mezze, with the usual baba ganoush, hummus, muhammara, fries, and fattoush, and some other things I don’t see as often, like jarjeer salad, raw meat, and shankleesh.
Immediately, the women started drinking araq (an anise-flavored liquor), while a young female Lebanese singer came on to entertain us. Then a big Syrian man with greasy hair came on and did a set, and then they did a back-and-forth question and answer together. It was cool, kind of like rappers battling except in Arabic song form. These were followed by two young, attractive Syrian male singers. The requisite nationalist expressions were covered by all four singers that came on. “Syria al-Asad!” , “Protect Syria!” , “President Bashar is our faithful leader!” , “God keep Hassan Nasrallah!”.

After the women had finished a few drinks, the beautiful 20-something in our group got up and did an Arabic dance for our table. The entire restaurant had their eyes on her, even though she was directing her attentions only to our table. But she was very sexy, moving her behind around in big circles and swaying her pelvis, with her hands delicately raised to her head. Her body was soft and you could see everything moving through her tight cheetah shirt, from her breasts to her belly and her back.

A big Muslim family, meanwhile, had walked in and took a table a few away from ours. They weren’t too excited about her dance. Nor was the Muslim double-date across from us, who I noticed because they had a big bottle of J & B whiskey on their table. But when the women got up the next time to do a dabka (Arab folk dance), the Muslim family was quite encouraging when they saw our young mother’s toddler try to follow along on the line. They clapped along and smiled at him in his feeble attempts to move his feet. The beautiful young unmarried woman led the line, and you could see everything jiggling when she started to jump and stomp.
As the night went on and the araq kept flowing, the ladies got more and more wild. Their conversation was dotted with cuss words and joking name-calling. “Sharmoota!” (whore!), “Bukhshi!” (my asshole!), “Kul khara!” (eat shit!), “Himaara!” (donkey/ass!), “Haqeera!” (vile, wretched!) were the most frequently utilized words as they traded banter back and forth across the table.

Warda got several calls during dinner asking for her assistance as a nurse in the neighborhood. Sahar, who was getting quite tipsy, decided that she didn’t like Warda constantly replying to the messages on her phone, so she dipped her fingers into her araq glass and splashed it across the table at her.

Not much later, the same situation recurred, only Sahar was drunk at this point, and decided that she would throw her glass of araq at Warda and her phone. But her aim was quite wide of the mark, and instead of aiming across the table past me at Warda, she hit Amal in the face who was sitting two seats down from her. Remember, this is hard alcohol. At first Sahar didn’t seem to realize what had happened or where the araq had disappeared to, since Amal immediately reacted and turned away and held her hands to her eyes. I offered her some tissues and Warda dipped them in water to flush out her eyes.

When Sahar turned her head again and looked back in our direction she saw what had happened, and that Amal’s face, hair, and shirt were all wet and her eyes were red and burning. She tapped Amal’s shoulder from behind Nadia and put her hands together, pleading forgiveness. “I’m so sorry, really, I meant to hit Warda!” I thought it was a curious apology, saying that she was aiming at someone else, since it seemed to indicate that Sahar didn’t see anything wrong at all with throwing araq, as long as it hit the person you were aiming for. But Amal just turned away and kept drying her eyes and face and hair and clothing. Sahar consoled herself for her bad behavior by pleading innocence with the others and hugging Nadia tightly (who was sitting in between them) and telling her how much she loved her and how well they got along.
“I don’t know, Warda,” Amal said in a low voice, “what do you think of this?” “It’s not good, of course, but she didn’t mean it. Really, she is good, one of the best people, just not when she is drinking.” As a visitor, and not a member of the regular neighborhood group, I don’t think Amal was too impressed or pleased.

So for the next 30 minutes we had to watch Sahar pleading with Amal to forgive her, until finally she decided that she had apologized enough so that when Warda mentioned that Amal was going back to Canada in April, Sahar just said “Good. Let her go.” But the others were more polite, saying “Let us know before you leave, and we will all get together and go out.”

Religion wasn’t much a topic of conversation, but it did come up a few times. After his set toward the end of the night, one of the singers came over and sat with us. The first question was “Where are you from?” “Suwayda” (which is generally taken to mean that you are Druze). This led to a small bit about religious pluralism “You know, we don’t have any problem with anyone. Look at us. She is Muslim and we are all Christians, and we are great friends!” There were several other times during the night where it seemed like Warda was a badge of pride for the other women, as their Muslim friend.

But Warda is an interesting case. Sometimes, it seems to me that she is a self-hating Muslim. She worked in Libya during the 90s, and when she returned to Syria, she said everyone was wearing hijab. She didn’t understand what had happened. And she has told me that she has been to church more than mosque in her life. She says she likes church, because her friends go. And during dinner, there were several times when Warda seemed to be asserting her connection and solidarity with her friends by shouting out “I love Jesus Christ!” (بحب السيد عيسى المسيح!), as they drank more and more araq.

I wanted to ask her if she also loved Muhammad, but I didn’t want to damage her by putting her on the spot in front of all her friends. At the same time, she has never stopped claiming her Muslim identity, and she has asked me to take her to one of the mosques I have been working in my research. Is she looking for a way to reconnect with Islam? But if I arrange for her to meet with the sheikh, I don’t want it to appear like a religious intervention, since he will want to know why he should meet with this “ordinary” Syrian and I will inevitably end up informing him that she has mostly lost touch with the Muslim community.

As the night ended the women, most of whom were drunk, commenced planning how to steal the ashtrays and silverware from the restaurant. In Syria, where a majority of the population smokes, waiters come around and replace ashtrays with clean ones as often as waiters in the US come around with water. “Waiter, I thought you just gave us two ashtrays?! Where did they go?!” “I don’t know, maam, I did just give you two ashtrays.” “I really don’t know where they went, can you please get us some more?” This game went on for a couple rounds as they slipped the ashtrays into their purses. The waiter played along and seemed to find it funny in a ridiculous and annoying way. Sahar also made off with a steak knife, which Nadia got irritated over when she didn’t see it at her place setting anymore and she wanted to cut an apple from the after-dinner complimentary fruit tray, which we had obtained by badgering the waiters that “Every decent restaurant gives complimentary fruit after dinner. If you don’t give us some fruit we are never coming back!”

Perhaps the funniest thing about the whole night was that Sahar and a couple of the others are fasting for Lent, the fast period before Easter. So they were eating only salads and vegetables, no meat or dairy or animal products. Yet somehow the drinking and cussing and stealing just didn’t seem to be in the spirit of continence that the priest might tell us fasting is supposed to obtain.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

“La Migra,” Syrian Style (Al-Hijra wa Al-Jawazaat)

A bad picture of the Immigration office. You get the idea.

I arrived in Damascus in September 2006, and immediately began working on getting my iqama (residency permit). We were told by the American Embassy that once an application for an iqama is turned in, it can still take three months to actually have the iqama in-hand. Immigration has to catch up to your file in its backlog, and it takes time for the authorities to check up on you and your activities in the country. Mukhabarat, or secret police, often come to interview you as well.

In my case, as a researcher, I considered the iqama as extremely important to guarantee my status in the country and to allow me to move more freely and to talk to people in the street and carry out interviews without worrying as much about getting kicked out. Nevertheless, it is now February, and I still am not sure if I will ever get my iqama. This makes me feel a bit insecure, because it means that I have to report to immigration every month or two in order to extend my visa. And each visit to immigration offers authorities a potential chance to get rid of me, for whatever reason. Perhaps I said something they didn’t like. Perhaps I spoke to someone they don’t want me associating with.

The latest installment in this drama of my facing the Syrian immigration authorities goes like this: my Embassy has always maintained that the Syrian Ministry of Culture was the office responsible for offering me official status as a researcher. We have been working on getting a letter of agreement for my research from them since October of last year. This finally arrived in late January, even though we were promised that it would take “a couple of weeks.” (For those familiar with Arab culture, any date/ time promises usually carry with them a connotation of at least a doubling of that amount [i.e., tomorrow ~ day after tomorrow, and two weeks ~ a month]). In the meantime, I kept visiting the immigration office every couple of weeks to see if the letter had arrived yet in a disorganized file stuffed with official papers dedicated to researchers in the country. Not surprisingly, whenever I visited over the past couple months, it had never arrived.

Finally a week ago or so, I was notified by my Embassy that they had received a copy of my letter of agreement from the Ministry of Culture in their office. I went to pick up a copy of it to prove that the letter did, in fact, exist, even if the immigration officials couldn’t find it. I was then told that I was “taken care of” in the eyes of the law, and all I had to do was go to immigration and turn in my application forms to finally get the process rolling.

Instead, I went down to immigration and was told that I need another letter from the Ministry of Work as a researcher, and a chest X-Ray to test for tuberculosis. I explained to him – as I had been advised – that I was not working and didn’t have any Syrian source of income, that I was living off a fellowship. He told me “It doesn’t matter. As a researcher, you have to have a letter from the Ministry of Work also. I have researchers from all over the world in my file. They all had to get this letter too.”

“Then why does the Ministry of Culture, and my Embassy, say that all I need is this letter?”

“Because they don’t know. It’s a new law. And you have to go to Bab Musalla to get your tuberculosis test.”

Great. So I have to pit my Embassy and Syrian immigration against each other in order to get anything done, since my Embassy insists that I am ready to apply for an iqama and that their responsibilities are over with, but immigration, on the other hand, insists that I still need more and more. The worst thing about it is that I took an AIDS test in November (which is mandated for all foreigners staying long-term in the country), and which is now technically expired. And this TB test, if it is indeed a valid law and not just immigration’s way of making my life difficult, then this regulation only came into effect after the new year. If the letter from the Ministry of Culture hadn’t taken so long, all these problems wouldn’t have happened.

In order to understand how unpleasant a visit to any government office is in Syria, you must know that there are no lines, that the only way to get to an employee to help you is to push through a thick crowd of frustrated people (crowds which are only getting worse with Iraqi refugees flooding into Syria daily) who push against you with full-body contact, and try to avoid the people who crowd by pretending that they are friends with an employee at the window (“Mahmoud! How are you!? I just need this form stamped…). For those familiar with the classic Arab parody of government bureaucracy Al-Irhaab wa al-Kabaab (The Terrorist and the Kabob), the sensations and atmosphere are exactly the same.

As it stands, an employee at the Embassy is currently trying to flex her “back-door” muscles and wasta (intermediation through connections) by calling a friend whose father knows an upper-level manager at Immigration to request that they put my iqama application through and stop making trouble for me. So far, no news has come. Perhaps this is a measure of the near-trivial influence the US Embassy has in Damascus. Many of my Syrian friends have offered to call in their connections with immigration as well. It seems that everyone “knows someone who knows someone.” Or, at least, they would like to think they do so they don’t have to feel helpless themselves.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Eid in a Druze Village

After an interview in the south of Syria, a friend of mine invited me and my husband to spend the night in his family’s majority Druze village. As we drove back from the interview, I translated for my husband who was talking computer languages to a Computer Engineering student at Damascus University who had accompanied us to the interview. It was a funny thing driving out of the Golan Heights and listening to the universal language of computers being shared between a man who speaks no Arabic and has no background in Middle Eastern studies and a young, vibrant, opinionated Sunni woman from a southern Syrian farming village.

We picked up a minibus driver and paid him for private service to the village together, and we watched the sun set over the landscape and turn into a starry sky as we rode along. About an hour later, we pulled off a dark country road up to his house in the village. His father was outside waiting to greet us and invited us into his entertaining room. Every family has a large room situated at the entrance of their house for easy access to welcome guests. This greeting room is a very important tradition for the Druze. Every house has one (because you are not a real man if you don’t) and any passerby may enter and stay the night without prior invitation for three days, in the true Arab bedouin tradition, no questions asked.

My friend’s father was an imposing man. Tall, muscular, with huge, meaty hands. He was wearing traditional dress, a black tunic and black pants that are long and gathered on the inseam to allow more freedom of movement and comfort as we sit on the floor. He wore a thick mustache on his sun-beaten skin, and a white linen kuffiyeh over a crocheted skullcap. He noted to me the Druze sheikhs pictured in his posters on the wall, and the Druze leader who helped lead the Syrian revolution, pictured with his white steed in the background. We were soon joined by more members of the family including my friend’s mother, bearing fresh fruit and a traditional Druze treat, something like an unsweetened doughnut.

These are a proud people, full of stories about their success in battle. Once I saw the villagers I wasn’t surprised, with their height and stature a clear advantage in fighting. I noted that most of the people in the village were taller and bigger than the average Damascene. They proudly said it was because they work for a living, out in the fields caring for the soil of their land and their olive trees. The mother’s hands were nearly as large as her husband’s and certainly much bigger than my own husband’s! Her strong, serious appearance was betrayed, though, by an incredible sense of hospitality and sweetness, and a fiery sense of humor (which she let fly when her husband was out of the room).

My friend and his family told us some of the war stories that they share in their village. There was a famous Druze woman whose brother fought against the Ottoman occupation and became famous for killing many of their soldiers as a lone rebel. He became a wanted man. The Ottomans came to her house to force his whereabouts from her, but she ridiculed them saying “You want to come here and fight a girl?! You are not real men! If you want to fight someone go find my brother. He is out there somewhere.” So they went to bribe the other villagers to give him away.

Eventually one villager was promoted as the Ottoman officer’s assistant, and he informed on the rebel. The officer went and cut off his head. They brought the head on a platter to his sister’s door and asked what she thought of them now. “Ha! You think that is my brother? You idiots, that is not my brother! Why don’t you go find him and then come gloat to me about it!” So the Ottoman turned to his assistant and slapped him silly for making a fool of him and telling him to kill the wrong man. When she saw who had informed on her brother, she cut of his head. Her deeds and her cunning are remembered in the village to this day. The Druzes’ fighting prowess is also demonstrated by their storied history of success as special battalions in the modern armies of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.

In the morning we celebrated Eid with the Druze. I mentioned that I thought Eid al-Adha was a Muslim holiday celebrating the end of the Hajj, but the villagers denied any connection and, anyhow, didn’t seem too concerned and made it as much their holiday as any other. The kids woke up early to “make war” in the neighborhood with fireworks and rockets in the streets. Young men walked the village in gangs of ten or so and rode motorcycles up and down the streets. And we experienced how exhausting the Arab custom of visiting can be.

A gang of young men walking the streets.

It is mandatory to visit every member of your family on Eid. “Otherwise they will talk bad about me if someone hears that I visited one cousin or uncle and not the others. So I have to visit them all. In the past it was even more traditional. You would take the entire day to visit every house in the village. I have done this only twice in my life.”

“How is that possible?” I asked, “We’ve spent half the day just visiting your close family and friends.”

“Before we wouldn’t sit and talk. We’d go into each house, ask how they were, honor the owner, take a sweet, and leave.”

It was like speed dating. At one point my husband and I committed a major faux pas. We had almost finished the family visits, making a round of the entire village. At each house, we had diligently eaten a piece of candy or a cookie, at first enjoying the treats. But as we neared the end of the village, we had had our fill of sugar and declined. “Shame! How can you deny our hospitality? You must take a sweet so that we can accrue blessing!”

I also got to show my husband the traditional string of Arab greetings, since my friend’s family gave us a prime example of native speech execution. “Keefak? Shlownak? Shu akhbarak? Keef al-aa’ila? Keef ash-shabaab?” (Loosely, something like, How are you? How are you feeling? What’s the news? How’s the family? How are the boys? Etc…). I had tried to explain this linguistic formula to my husband before, but it’s nothing like hearing a five or ten minute conversation in person where no information is actually being conveyed (since the responses are also formulaic: “I’m good. Thank God. There’s nothing new. They are good. Thank God. They are also good. Thank God.”).

We both thought it was a little extreme to spend so long just asking how you are, when once seems to us to be enough. But when I told him that this string of questions is mandatory every time you see a person, even if you’ve already seen them that day, my husband laughed and thought it was a little ridiculous.

But then I explained how, even if it is a little much for we Americans, it is also a nice custom because it allows people to visit or call each other when they don’t actually have anything to say. It is a way to stay connected even if nothing is new. We Americans can only call each other if there are plans to be made, news or gossip to be shared. Otherwise we end up asking “What do you want?”

Unfortunately Eid celebrations this year were marred by the news of Saddam’s execution. Although none of these villagers supported Saddam or his regime, the execution served as a sad reminder of the violence in Iraq and the volatile situation in the region at a time when people had wanted to forget about violence for a day. When we woke up in the morning, it was the only story on all of the Arab news stations and was on everybody’s lips. Throughout the day the stations continued to play recaps of the history of Saddam’s rise to power, his reign, and the war in Iraq that brought him down. Many of the villagers were unhappy with the timing of the execution. “I don’t like Saddam. But I also don’t like that they killed him on a day when we are supposed to be happy. Why did they have to kill him on the first day of Eid? Now we are all preoccupied with Saddam instead of the holiday.” But my friend’s mother just said “Ahh, feed him to the dogs!”

It didn’t take long for the conspiracy theories to start either. In a region where people have not been able to trust in the transparency of their governments and their media for so long, conspiracy theories abound. People immediately started saying “I heard that it wasn’t really him, it was a lookalike. And Saddam escaped to ____ [fill in the blank].” Others also blamed the American occupiers for the timing of the execution, or the Iraqi governors for being pawns of American demands to kill Saddam as soon as possible. It didn’t matter much that we later found out that American diplomats had actually sought to delay the execution until after Eid. The feelings had already been burned.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Minority Experience in Syria

As noted in my last entry, most Syrians, when asked about the state of sectarianism in their country, will respond with hopeful, possibly idealized thoughts. “We don’t have sectarianism here. We don’t think about religious differences.”

Since I had come to expect this token response, you can imagine my surprise when I met a man whose reaction, when I described to him my project on religious pluralism and the relations between the different religions here, was “There are no relations betweens the sects. They all hate each other.”

This man’s evaluation of the situation stems from his own personal experience as a member of one of Syria’s religious minorities, the Druze, and also from his persecution as a political activist (he is a Communist and a student organizer).

The Druze community is estimated at around 3-4% of the Syrian population, which today accounts for more than half a million individuals. The Druze are concentrated in Suwayda, one of the major southern Syrian cities, as well as in the Jabal Druze, the mountain range located in the south, and in the Golan Heights. There is also a suburb on the outskirts of Damascus called Jaramana that is dominated by the Druze community and, according to this man’s estimate, may be home to some 200,000 Druze.

The Druze consider themselves a reformist, Unitarian religion, that branched off from Islam and incorporates philosophers like Plato and Aristotle as well as Christianity into their religious understanding of wisdom in the world. Although they share an Islamic heritage, they are not considered Muslim since they do not follow the Five Pillars of Islam. Unlike the Alawi, who have made some attempts to conform to Islamic Orthodoxy since Hafiz al-Asad had his minority religion declared a legitimate branch of Shi’i Islam by Imam Musa Sadr of Lebanon in 1974, the Druze do not have this luxury of protection. But like the Alawi, they have been brutally persecuted throughout their history, and thus found a place for themselves in the mountains of southern Syria and the Golan.

“People here will lie to you about how they really feel about the different sects. Of course they will tell you that they have no problems and that they love each other and they get along well. But behind the scenes they say other things when they don’t think people are watching.

“For example, one time I was in Dayr az-Zur [a town in eastern Syria] sitting with a group of Sunni men. They didn’t know I was Druze. They started talking about how the Druze are kuffar (unbelievers) and how they hate them and they should go and kill them all.

“I often feel like I have to protect my identity somehow. Like when people walk into the room and say ‘As-salaamu ‘alaykom’ I feel obligated to say ‘Wa ‘alaykom as-salaam’ even though I don’t believe in what I am saying. I’m a communist. I don’t even believe in my own religion, but I have to act this way to protect myself.

“I knew a Professor at the University who tried to start a student group for interfaith dialogue once, but they closed it down almost immediately. This topic is taboo here. I try to talk about these issues too in my work as an activist, because I think we have to talk about sectarianism now when there aren’t any major problems, because if we don’t talk about it now, then when there are problems between us it can turn into violence. But people avoid the issue.

“One time we put on a demonstration at the University against the American occupation of Iraq. I was sitting under the statue of Hafiz al-Asad and a man came up to me with a thick beard and started talking to me. He liked my ideas and he said he wanted to work with me. But the next thing I know, he is offering to blow himself up wherever he is needed. I was just like ‘Why are you telling me this!? Go away!’

“I do have Muslim friends, and we don’t have any problems between each other because of religion. They care about me and they wouldn’t hurt me. But Ahmad and Muhammad and Hassan are not their father, or their brother, or their uncle. And if their relatives came after me to fight, then my friends wouldn’t side with me, they would side with the others, because that is their family. They would have to.

“A couple weeks ago the President visited Suwayda. He gave a very nice speech, promising all sorts of things to the people down there, to bring jobs and industry, to have a special program for Suwayda and a close relationship with them. But he really said all this because he is afraid that the Druze in Suwayda will ally with the Druze in Lebanon against them [the Druze leader in Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt, is anti-Syrian and has stepped up his anti-Syrian rhetoric after the Hariri and Gemayel assassinations]. That’s the only reason he cares about us. The minute we do something wrong, he’ll be down there with the army forces and he’ll take any excuse to kill us and get rid of us.

“I want political change. I want democracy. I want freedom of speech. I’ve been to prison twice for long periods [about a month], and probably hundreds of times for short stints, like a day or two. They have done terrible things to me, like use electricity, and things that I am ashamed to tell you in sensitive areas, but I’m sure you can imagine. I want political change, but at the same time I want this regime to stay. You know why? Because I’m afraid that if the regime changed it would become an Islamic regime and then my situation would be even worse for me as a Druze.”

Based on my conversations with other Syrians, Sunnis and minorities, it is difficult to gauge the likelihood of an Islamic regime taking control of the country in the event of a political turnover. Many Sunnis seem to think that the fears of the religious minorities are unfounded, that the minorities are just overprotective and insular and merely exaggerate the dangers that they face. Perhaps minorities simply translate their experiences of prejudice and discrimination into what they consider their political nightmare – an Islamic regime. Nevertheless, the fears that minority groups such as Christians and Druze experience are real, and they certainly affect the way they interact with and perceive their Muslim neighbors.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Intersectarian Joke

"There was once a Christian man in Syria who was known for how much he hated Muslims. He constantly cursed them and wished the worst things on them. When he grew old and became ill, he asked to be converted to Islam. His family was completely perplexed and couldn't understand why he would ask such a thing when he had always impressed on them how much he hated Muslims and how terrible he thought they were. He said "Don't ask. Just let me convert." So the family respected his wishes and brought the sheikh to witness his profession of Islam. On his death bed, the man called his family over and said "I have something to tell you. Do you know why I converted? So that when I die there will be one less Muslim in the world." Then he passed away.

Yes, folks, this joke is offensive and bigoted. I share it with you, of course, not as a statement of my views, but as a tidbit of anthropological data. When you ask people here about sectarian relations, the first thing out of their mouths is something like "We don't have sectarianism here! This isn't Lebanon. This isn't Iraq. And thank God. We all live together in shared community. We are all brothers. We love each other."

One doesn't need to be too perceptive to realize that this is the ideal and expected party line that they are reciting. It's similar to racism in the US. If someone asks you whether you are a racist, we generally say "No! Of course not!," and we all know the cliched response "I have many black friends...." to prove that we aren't racist. It doesn't particularly matter if we see those friends once a month rather than everyday, although frequency is a significant diagnostic for the social researcher.

But as we get to know each other more deeply, we can begin to see the racism of our society that has seeped into our views, even if we have the best of intentions and the most tolerant ideals. We hear the language of people of color being described as "uneducated" rather than "black", even if the person in question is highly educated but chooses to retain a certain pattern of speech for particular social contexts. We hear the disdain for certain "urban" clothing styles and how they are "ragged" or unprofessional. We hear the complaints about the "loud," "unintelligible" music and the television shows that focus on America's minority cultures (like on the WB), or how they are "taking over."

The treatment of sectarianism in Syria is very similar to our treatment of racism back in the US. We know that we aren't supposed to be sectarian or racist, so we say that we aren't (and many times we truly believe this to be the case), and we want to present our society in the best light (particularly to outsiders), so we give them the party line rather than talk about the problems with prejudice that do still exist. And just as in America, comics and humor are given more or less free reign to deal with these sensitive, often taboo, issues (I challenge you to visit a comedy club in New York or L.A. where race won't be the basis for a set), issues that we have trouble dealing with in a head-on fashion.

Yesterday I interviewed the first man I have met whose initial response when questioned about the relations between the sects in Syria responded that "There are no relations. They all hate each other." His personal stance stems largely from his own sectarian experience as a Druze (although non-believing, non-practicing). Stay posted for my reportage on this interview in the next installment.

Thanks to David Bender for sharing the above joke with me, which he heard from a Syrian associate.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Breaking Down in Damascus

Zahira Jadeeda neighborhood.

Sorry for the delay in blog updates, dear friends and readers. It seems I have been experiencing the anthropological “de-exotification” of the culture I am studying, so I have been more hard-pressed lately to identify issues to post. I’ll do my best not to let it happen again.

I cried for the first time in Damascus the other day. In front of people, which is something I usually don’t do. I like to consider myself a strong woman, a tough girl. But this time really got to me and the tears just kept running down my face. Here is the story:

I went to visit my old homestay family in Zahira Jadeeda the other day. I hadn’t seen them in over a month. They live in a conservative, lower-to-middle class Sunni area of Damascus. This family lives in a more traditional style than many families here, owing to their Bedouin heritage. The matriarch of the house has two grown sons and a daughter, all of whom are married and all of whom live in the house together (although they each have their own flat for their nuclear family since the house is 3 stories). The eldest son Wali and his wife Reema live on the first floor with their 3 young children, along with 2 elder sons Wali has from a previous marriage. The daughter, Maysa, lives on the 2nd floor by herself since her husband is working in Saudi Arabia in a makeup factory. The youngest son Muhammad lives on the 3rd floor with his wife Sameera and their 2 young children (Sameera just gave birth a month ago to a girl). If you counted, yes, that’s 13 people.

So I went to visit and it started out just like any other visit. I brought sweets (which didn’t turn out to be very good this time), and we sat around on the couch and watched the children play and the TV. We spoke about nothing in particular and I listened to their conversations. Wali continues to ask me to be his girlfriend as a joke, and no matter how many times I tell him “No thanks, I’m married,” he continues with the same line “No matter. One in Syria, one in America. It’s better that way, no?” I’ve been playing along with his joke to some degree because he has a reputation as a jokester, but lately I’ve been brushing it off more since I thought that if he really is a jokester he needs to come up with some new material.

The night went on more or less like this for several hours. Sameera came down from her flat with the kids to see me and show me the new baby, and then they told me I should go up to visit Maysa. The last time I saw her she was also pregnant but unfortunately she miscarried last week.

When I went up to the 2nd floor Maysa was gone to the doctor’s office. I figured she needed a checkup after she lost the baby. Wali and Muhammad were there watching TV with their mother, and told me she would be back soon. The grandmother offered me tea so I sat down and waited. We spoke about my research project a little, and they tested my knowledge about Islam asking me to recite the shahada and the five pillars of Islam. When I demonstrated that I could do this sufficiently, I thought I might inspire some sort of respect for my knowledge or education, but instead all I got was “Hmm, that’s good.”

After awhile the women came up to see how we were doing. They saw me sitting there with the men and their mother-in-law and asked where Maysa was.

“Leeza [the closest Arabic equivalent to my name], was Maysa here when you came up?”


“Why didn’t you come back downstairs?”
“I thought she was coming back in a few minutes. And she called not long ago to say she was coming home.”

Then there was some commotion and the grandmother was saying things I couldn’t understand (she speaks a Bedouin dialect that I can’t recognize). But later I heard one of the wives telling her husband that the grandmother was asking what I was doing up there with the men, that I had no business being there. So I was very disappointed because I realized they were gossiping about me (which, really, isn’t very surprising).

Finally Maysa came home around 9:30 pm (I had been there since 5). She said she had to wait a long time at the doctor’s and also to pick up food. I stood up and greeted her and asked about her health. The first question she asked me was “Leeza, where is your husband?”

“In Boston. In America.”

“Mmm. When is he coming?”

“In a month. Over winter.”

At this point I got very upset because all the emotional pressure of being here had built up. I was tired of people asking questions about my husband (particularly this group, which already knows where he is and when he is coming), along with all the chiding about being Wali’s girlfriend, along with the gossiping about my behavior that was going on in the house, along with all the comments a woman gets here on the street (it’s impossible to walk anywhere here without being noticed as a woman, or a pretty woman, or a foreign woman, and sometimes you begin to feel as though you wear your vagina on your shoulder). Tears started to well up in my eyes, but I held them back and sat there in silence, even though I had waited 4 hours to see Maysa before I left.

They opened up a tray of kabab that Maysa had brought home for dinner and invited me to eat. I sat back and said “No thank you. I’m not hungry.” Then they told me to come up to the tray and sit with them (Arabs often eat off a large communal platter on the floor). So I moved forward. Then Maysa started talking about my state of being, saying that I wasn’t happy, that something was wrong with me, which was true. Then everybody turned their attention towards me and started asking me what was wrong and who I was upset with and who said something to me that hurt my feelings (they all seemed to want to blame each other). I just kept saying it was nothing, but as everyone was staring at me and pushing the issue the tears started to run down my face. And the fact that everyone continued to ask me questions and get up in my face about it didn’t make them slow down any, nor did Wali’s jokes to try and lighten the mood.

Everyone started guessing what the problem was or what the comment had been that made me upset. At one point Maysa said “She misses her husband and her family.” And I said “Yes. That’s it,” although this was really only part of the issue, but I hoped that this answer would suffice and everyone would forget about it.

The real issue was that I was tired of all the questions about my husband, about where he is, about how long we are going to be apart, about how I could leave him. Even back in the U.S. I would get similar questions and they always bothered me to no end. “Isn’t it hard?” people ask. Of course it’s hard. But there are hard things we have to do in our lives, particularly if one wants to earn a Ph.D. All this was compiled with a comment I had received a day earlier from a British man who belongs to a running group I join each week for some exercise. After he had been asking me about my research and my plans for the year, he said to me “Ah, so you have a part-time husband?” I was so taken aback by such a rude comment and the implication that my marriage isn’t serious that I asked him if he thought of military wives as part-time wives and just walked away as he stammered. And of course, my feelings are tied to ideas I have about the patriarchal notions that are still tied to women’s work and which I have been confronted with ever since I won a grant to go do research, and even before when I decided to go into anthropology.

So as the tears continued to run down my face I tried to explain how I felt that there was no respect for my work, or my studies, or my struggle to be here (which is an effort every day), and most of all for my marriage, which I of course take very seriously but nobody else seems to understand this, since we are apart and in the end I am just considered a woman who left her husband to many people.

The family tried to compensate by saying how many women they know who don’t see their husbands because of work. There is Maysa, of course, who only sees her husband a couple times a year because he is in Saudi, or another woman they cited who has barely seen her husband for the past 10 years. All the while Wali continued to make jokes to try to make me feel better, but I didn’t think they were funny because I take my marriage and my life and my future very seriously, which is exactly what I feel people don’t understand.

After awhile I calmed down when everyone stopped talking about it finally. Then I got my things and said goodbye to everyone and tried to go home. Reema walked me downstairs, and I went to say goodbye to Wali, who had gone downstairs after I got upset (perhaps he got tired of being blamed for my tears with his jokes about my being his girlfriend). Instead, Reema grabbed my arm so tight around my wristwatch that the metal pinched my skin into the bone and pulled me into their living room. Reema and Wali continued to talk to me about it and to tell me that they were just joking with me, that they didn’t mean anything by it. Wali continued to treat me like a child, though, like the issue wasn’t a big deal, so I didn’t respond well. He came over to try to kiss me (on the forehead, they said), but I pushed him away because he has tried to kiss me on the cheek before and I sometimes feel he is pushing me to see how far I will let him go. Plus, even if he is just joking with me I know that he doesn’t treat all the other women who come to his home the same way. Perhaps he thinks that because I am foreign the rules are different, and he doesn’t know how to joke and to remain respectful of me as a person and of my marriage.

Eventually, Wali walked out of the room and Reema started to talk. I was very surprised by what she said, but it made me feel better, and it also blew me away as far as gender stereotypes about the Middle East go. She said “You’re right Lindsay. There is no respect for women here. We respect you, and we know that you are an honorable woman, and they really are just joking with you. I know that you are Lindsay, just like you know that I am Reema. I know that you are a researcher, a scholar, that you are here working for your degree. But you’re right. Others don’t know us and don’t treat us for who we are.”

I said “I know that it is strange for all of you, for me to be here as a young married woman without my husband….”

“No, no, it’s not strange. It’s just that society is wrong. One quarter of this society is right and good, and three-quarters of it is wrong. There is no respect for women here.”

I was so surprised to hear these words coming out of her mouth, a conservative, lower-class Muslim woman living in a traditional family. I had always assumed that she bought into it all, the patriarchy and the control over her life and her whereabouts and her activities. But instead she was telling me how she didn’t agree with society and how she was with me. The anthropologist in me turned on and I started to pay more attention.

“But,” I said, “I know it’s a stereotype, but even still I expected that as a Muslim society somehow people here would be more moral……..”

“No. People here are hypocrites. All of them. Everyone here has a boyfriend or girlfriend, married or not. Including the women wearing hijab. And the ones in niqab too [covering all but the eyes]. Many of them are trying to hide something.”

“Yeah, I heard that some of the women who cover their entire face are prostitutes, so that nobody can recognize them after work.”

“It’s true.”

“But why can’t I walk in the street without being left alone just for being a woman? Why do they look at me as though I’m just a body with no mind?”

“Because the men here have only one thing on their mind, and that’s all they think about. Luckily I don’t have to go out there. My day is spent walking from the bedroom to the kitchen to the living room and that’s it. When I go to the souq [which is just down the street on Fridays] I have the same problems. Men try to touch me, make comments about me.”

“Yes, but my research is in the public. It’s out on the street. I have to be out there to get work done. And it’s just hard after awhile. I’m not accustomed to it. Back home, it’s normal to have friends between boys and girls, because we are people. But here people look at it as if I am somehow a slut.”

“I know Lindsay, but this is the east (ash-sharq), not the west (al-gharb). In the west it is normal to have friendships between boys and girls, right? It’s not a big deal.”


“But here there is always the idea of sex between them. There is no respect for women here. Men don’t respect women and women don’t respect each other or themselves. I agree with you. And it is hard for you because for your research you have to go outside and deal with it and listen to them. But you know what they say about me?”

“No…, what?”

“Wali has a bad heart, a weak heart. So we can’t have sex. Or at least not very often, only a little. I’m fine, I’m happy. But everyone thinks that because my husband is sick that I always want sex and I’m looking for it. They are wrong, but that’s what they say about me. Everyone here is always suspicious of everyone else of having a boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s the same with you. They think that because you’re away from your husband that you always want sex too. It’s the only thing they know how to think.”

As I got ready to go I thought about the obsession with sex in this society, how the idea of sex is considered an ever-present danger, even though we in the West are often the ones accused of being licentious. I also was extremely bothered about the way people gossip about Reema, how the first thing on their mind when they learn that her husband’s heart is ill, they think of her looking to cheat on him, rather than his health or their well-being as a couple. But I was also encouraged by how aware this relatively uneducated and isolated woman is about her situation and the experience of women in her country. I began to wonder, as I rode the minibus home, where she got these ideas from and if she and her friends talk about these issues.

Before I left, Reema invited me to come over the following week, and that she and I and the kids would go to the playground just me and her (no husbands). I think Reema has more to say, and I definitely want to hear.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Reflections on Ramadan

Ramadan light decorations ("Ramadan Kareem" they say, Honorable Ramadan).
Now that I have experienced Ramadan in the Middle East I thought I should describe what it’s all about here. Ramadan is, of course, the month in which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset as an expression of submitting the body and mind to God’s will. Each night, family and friends get together to break the fast, called iftaar, from the word for breakfast (interestingly, the English term for breakfast has the same semantic root, in that we break the fast each morning from the previous evening’s sleep). This year iftaar fell between 5:30 and 5:00 p.m. I was lucky to have the pleasure of breaking the fast with both local families and groups of friends.

Damascus, the usually bustling capital city, has a different rhythm during Ramadan. The streets are still crowded with cars and pedestrians during the day, but come 4:00 p.m. the streets, alleyways, and sidewalks start to empty as everyone rushes home to eat. At 4:45 or 5:00 p.m., you could take a stroll around the city and not see one car drive by or person walking the sidewalk. The city becomes a near ghost town. If you peek into the few shops that still have workers in them you will usually see a quiet group sitting around eating together, too focused on the meal to worry about talking. This tranquil atmosphere is a great feature of Ramadan: it is one of the few times Damascus goes quiet.
Sharing iftaar outside a shop.
One of the nicest rituals in my Ramadan experience was breaking the fast with the shopkeepers in the souq. Each night, they would order food from a nearby restaurant in the Old City (alternating their patronage between different restaurants), and one of the boys would go to pick it up. Another might run to buy a stack of Arabic bread from a bakery stall. I learned a lot about the good local restaurants this month and about the names of many Arabic foods I wasn’t familiar with. There are, of course, the traditional favorites like kebseh (roasted chicken on seasoned rice), baamiya (okra with lamb in tomato sauce), and fetteh (bread and chickpeas in yogurt sauce), but I also got to try many soups and meat dishes that I had never ordered before. All of these main dishes are accompanied by the usual mezze fair that many Americans are familiar with from Turkish or Middle Eastern restaurants in the U.S. such as hummus and baba ganoush. A large tray would be laid out on a stool so that everyone can pull up a chair around it. In the Arabic style, everybody eats off the same serving plates, scooping up food with a piece of bread or spoon.

Since I wasn’t part of the planning process for dinner, I usually brought along some baklawa or other bakery goods for an after-dinner treat. Early on in my stay here (since Ramadan started only a week after I arrived), my contributions to the dinner table would often be chastised by my hosts because of their sense of Arab hospitality and honor (“Why did you bring sweets? We already have sweets of our own!”). Fortunately, I knew I was becoming a staple in their social life when they started to accept my attempts at reciprocity without question.

A sometimes frustrating aspect of Ramadan is that productivity comes to a near standstill. I was unlucky enough to be looking for a house during this holiday season, and I had to wait weeks for a house that I found that I was originally told would be ready in one week, which turned into three before the finishing touches on the renovations were completed.

And don’t think that Ramadan ends with the last day of fasting. This week is Eid, the holiday celebrating the completion of Ramadan. Although the fast is over, this week is a national holiday and most workplaces and businesses are closed. I took my pants to the cleaners on Satuday and didn’t have time to pick them up the next day, which means they were stuck in the cleaners' for the week until Eid ended. But Friday is also a weekend day here, and many shops remain closed for the Muslim day of communal prayer. My pants were at a cleaners’ shop in Bab Touma, a Christian area, so all I could do was hope that a Christian runs the shop and would open Friday to reclaim my treasured jeans and khakis. As it happened, the shop didn't open til Saturday. With Damascus so multi-colored religiously, it is impossible to predict store hours. The owner could be a Christian who takes Saturday and Sunday as his weekend, or he could follow the national and Muslim practice of taking Friday and Saturday off, or he could be a true businessman and remain open both Friday and Saturday. In the end, it sometimes feels that a month of low productivity is followed by a week of zero productivity. We Americans are unaccustomed to allowing ourselves weeks on end of mere visits and socialization. Particularly as a researcher, I sometimes feel that my research is floundering because there are no time commitments during Ramadan. I try to comfort myself with the knowledge that I am supposed to be following the rhythm and flow of life here, not to change it and make appointments of my own.
Plenty of new toys to enjoy during Eid (no matter that this set is meant for a birthday).
In other ways, Eid is reminiscent of Christmas in the U.S. First, of course, there is the week off of school and work. Second, kids and youth roam the streets wearing fresh new clothes. For the youth, one might say that Eid is a time for checking each other out and showing off for each other their attractiveness. Sequined and bedazzled hijabs adorn women all over the city, and some (Christian) girls break out their short skirts for the holiday break. Children receive gifts and sometimes money, so that the few shops that you will see open in the souq are selling toys and fireworks for kids. Makeshift amusement parks pop up in each neighborhood, with swings, mini ferris wheels, and merry-go-rounds operated by the muscle of young men. All in all, it is a time to reaffirm social connections in a society where such connections are already strong and constantly maintained through visits and hospitality. Many of the foreign students take Eid as an opportunity to travel within and without the country while they are off school. But interestingly, for the locals, Eid is about seeing more of the people they see every day.
Makeshift "amusement park" in Bab as-Salaam, Old City.