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.


Anonymous Mikey said...

You're experiences in Syria have been amazing Lindsey. I've read each blog with great interest. Not that I'm surprised, but you're showing some incredible strength in those situations. It is inspiring. Good luck and I'll be reading. Mikey

9:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Lindsey,

Sorry you had to go thru all of that. I am sure it is not pleasant. It is not for any of us...unfortunately we women have to deal with this stuff. for you, being in a foreign country makes it harder to deal with these issues but my advice to you is to brush it off as much as you can. What works for me usually is to imagine myself beating the poop out of that person who made the stupid remark and I end up feeling better :))) Ignore those questions and you know your life better than any of these people so just stay focused and soon enough you will be back in Boston.


8:08 AM  
Blogger Bint El Golan said...

I think the problems you faced in Syria, is not linked to your sex as much as to your "skin", and here i am not suggesting that Syrians are recist!! not at all!! i am saying that the consciousness of Arab people is very much paranoid and at the same time attracted, because of this paranoia, to the other "white" cultures.

whereas, as a Syrian female, i have difficulties crossing streets, bridges, merely becasue i am not putting veil on!!

anyways! i hope since we meet Lindsey, if you don't mind!

contact me whenever you up to it!


5:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hurray for another update! Yippee!

It sounds as though you are truly getting acquainted with the nitty-gritty nature of Syria, losing the sort of foreigner-tourist status and gaining a priceless heart-to-heart with a native whose daily struggle with her people's obsession with sex and fidelity has now become yours for a time. I have to give you much credit for gaining this experience in a country whose borders I never wish to cross even though I'm a man and therefore may get different treatment somehow. In any case, I would think it no surprise from what you have written about that a nation so touchy when dealing with its Middle Eastern brethren is so paralyzed by suspicion and mistrust on the person-to-person level. Maybe if some people in Syria would learn to treat each other with the respect they deserve, they would in turn learn to treat other nations with respect. I'm sure there are other decent people there like Reena who would think the same, but the other three-quarters (as she put it) spoil it all.

Ah well. How much longer will you be in Syria? While your studies have taken you across the globe, mine have taken me right back to square one in my hometown, where I now work as a learning tutor for the middle school that I didn't go to (there are two). So far the job has been enjoyable and has kept me busy on most days, but who knows where I'll end up next. I've thought about moving to Boston as I was trying to do earlier, but soon Boston will look just about as good as anywhere in the US as people I know at BU continue to graduate. For the moment I'm comfortable living back at home, but I know I can't and shouldn't stay here forever. At the moment, I can only say who knows where I'll end up next.

Stay strong, and maybe when you come back to the US, we can catch up!
~Jeremy (from Birthright Winter '06)

6:44 PM  

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