Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Seeming Contradictions of Life in Damascus

I was speaking to a young German student the other day here and he was expressing to me his surprise at what he calls “the mix of culture here.” He was feeling really perplexed by his expectations of Syria, this Muslim country, and what actually goes on here.

It’s true, Syria is obviously a Muslim country. The majority of its inhabitants are Muslim of some color or other – Sunni, Shi’i, Sufi, and some consider ‘Alawis Muslims too. Then there is the 10% of the country that is Christian, along with atheists and secularists from families of different religious backgrounds.
A billiards club.
Some of the things that might surprise a Westerner coming here are the leisure activities of average Syrians. The past couple weekend nights, I have endured visits to what any American or European would consider mediocre clubs in the middle of the night (usually from midnight to four in the morning) in order to see what it is that young people do here. The night usually begins around 10 p.m., when the oriental shops close and the shopworkers go home. Then young men and women partake in a few hours of smoking hasheesh, sometimes from a hand-fashioned pipe or sometimes mixed into a broken-down cigarette. By midnight, we can get ready to go to a nightclub, where the musical offerings range from American top 40 hip-hop to Latin, Trance, House, and Techno, and of course the requisite Arabic pop from artists such as the longtime favorite Amr Diab. As an American sitting back and observing these nightlife rituals, sometimes I can’t help laughing at the songs and dances that the locals love. People go crazy for the remix of “I Will Survive” and stay out on the dance floor during a nasal rendition of the Happy Birthday song.

Perhaps also surprising to an Western observer of Syria is the amount of drugs and alcohol that both Muslims and Christians here imbibe. Last night, a close associate of mine drank to the point of alcohol poisoning, falling down every few seconds all over the club. It took four of his friends to pick him up over and over as they finally made their way to the door to take him home. Perhaps the fact that many of the cabs that passed by drove off as soon as they saw our friend’s condition has something to do with values and expectations of proper behavior. Taxis in New York, Boston, and L.A. recognize that it is part of their social mandate to take home intoxicated individuals after the “Don’t Drink and Drive” campaigns of the last decades. Unfortunately, this man’s tolerance for alcohol is so high that he didn’t vomit, so his body had to endure the alcohol poisoning until the next day when it subsided. This is a story that might sound all too familiar to youth and parents back in the U.S. But this is Syria.

Another thing that might be surprising to observers of “Muslim societies” is Muslim dress here. Of course you can see a variety of Muslim dress as you walk the streets of Damascus. Some men wear the traditional dishdasha, the long, white, high-collared one-piece garments with thin pants underneath that are especially comfortable in the heat. Women can be seen wearing galabiyyas, the long robes that are the female equivalent of dishdashas, or overcoats. But the variety of Muslim dress doesn’t stop there. I was particularly surprised by the combination of hijab with knee-length skirts in Damascus, which is a popular style among fashionable young women. This is a style that one would almost never see sported by a Muslim woman in America. In fact, back home they would call this “hypocritical,” to cover your head but leave your legs or arms uncovered. Another variation that won’t be seen among many American Muslims is the mesh hijab, through which one can see a woman’s hair quite clearly. In Damascus, it seems that in many instances the hijab has merely turned into another garment, an accessory, that women adorn themselves with and use to express their style and personality. In fact, one associate opined that the muhajjibat (women wearing hijabs) here are more stylish than the non-muhajjibat. Although the hijab may still be a marker of Muslim identity, it is not always used to express any particular kind of religious values or a religious way of life.
Mesh hijab.
During one interview, a Muslim man said “I get so pissed off when people say that the Christians here are more open-minded than the Muslims. It’s not true. Just because you’re not wearing hijab doesn’t mean you’re open-minded.” Indeed, a fellow researcher has heard that many of the muhajjibat are more open-minded when it comes to relations with men than are the non-muhajjibat. According to him, many times the hijab is just a front, and that many of these women are more willing to maintain dating and physical relationships with men than are some of the Christian or uncovered women who hold more traditional expectations of themselves and the men in their lives. Indeed, last week I met a group of young Muslim women who couldn’t help but divulge to me that they could never live without male friends. “I love sex too much!” she laughed in my ear. I tried to explain that in the U.S. it is perfectly reasonable to have male friends without any associated physical relationship. “Oh, no, that is not possible here. We have male friends, but they are friends in bed!” I laughed in exasperation at the cultural barrier between us in understanding what friendships and relationships mean.

Although scholars have observed over the past 10 years the higher incidence of wearing hijab here in Syria, this is not necessarily an indication of any increasing Islamization of society. There are quite enough women here who don’t wear hijab to leave an outside observer confused about their identity. The clubs and streets are full of young Muslim men and women dressed in such a way that it is nearly impossible to tell a person’s religious identity without directly asking. Sometimes there are subtle ways to detect religious identity, such as whether one is fasting during Ramadan. But this, too, is not necessarily a sign of whether someone is Muslim or not. Many young Muslims here fasted for the first few days of Ramadan and then stopped. They needed a cigarette.


Anonymous kanav said...

im thankful i read your a filipina designer.i will be assigned in damascus, syria for a kinda hesitant to go there because i dont know what's the country's culture and all..i heard women, even tourist cannot wear short pants and sleeveless we also have to wear what women in syria wear?can u tell me more about damascus..anything..thanks!

3:54 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home