I arrived at the airport in Damascus, Syria in the middle of the night. I had no name of a hotel, and no notion of where to stay.
The city was empty, with the sense of disuse of urban areas at night. And every hotel was full. "C'est tous les Iranians" -- It's all the Iranians -- the taxi driver said, as we detected yet another poster of Khomeini on the dark glass doors of the hotels around the square.
So what? I thought, wanting a bed for the night and not caring very much who else might be staying in the hotel. But the taxi driver wouldn't consider the nation -- he told me it was forbidden -- that an American women could reside in the same quarters as a group of bedraggled Iranian tourists -- drab, black-frocked women and men in polyester suits carrying bags of pistachios or smuggled appliances. I wound up spending my first night -- and more money than I wanted to -- for a room in a hotel that did not cater to Iranians. It was my first experience of the peculiar Syrian notions of propriety, both political and sexual. In both areas, I discovered, the Syrians have the taboos and fascinations that come from living in a sexually inhibited and politically repressed society.
The day after my arrival I reported to the American embassy, which was to oversee the Fulbright grant that had brought me to Syria. The embassy sent me to St. Paul's, a hospice in the Christian section of the city. After dinner that night I strolled around the grounds and on each lap passed three priests walking back and forth in front of the gate to the street. Slowly they would appear, their frocks blacker than the shadows. I listened to the lorries honking outside the locked gate, glimpsed the fluorescent glare of the felafel store with its bright green walls, and stole glances at the groups of men sitting on the curb and walking in the street. Priests and women, I thought, behind walls in a male-dominated society. When the sun sets, women simply go behind closed doors.
I spent two weeks at the hospice, most of it taken up in the Arab ritual of waiting -- waiting to register for classes, waiting to be admitted to the government-run Arabic language institute, waiting to get my residency permit, waiting to be introduced to a good black-market money changer. Still accustomed to the American notion that time has value, I got frustrated.
When I wasn't sitting in offices, waiting, or squeezing past people on narrow staircases after having been directed to yet another office, I explored the old city and the streets near the hospice. Syria was still hot in mid-October and it was with a certain relief that I entered the covered lanes of the souq. There were very few tourists, but I occasionally saw groups of Scandinavian soldiers from the peace-keeping forces on the Golan Heights. Mostly I stared at the women, in particular at those in the odd uniform of the traditional Damascene woman: a white head scarf, overcoat, black stockings and black high-heeled shoes, In the streets of the clothes market I saw an example of the paradox that nagged at me the whole time I was in Syria: kerchiefed women fingering scarlet red brassieres and low-cut nightgowns.
Rumor had it that classes at the university might start some day, although it seemed doubtful, since the procedure rested on enough students showing up to see if the professor was there and the professor waiting to see if enough students showed up to start teaching. Classes began about five weeks late. After appearing day after day in the office of the secretary, I was finally admitted late to the Arabic language institute.
Finding out where classes met meant piling up in front of a large piece of white paper and attempting to read the handwritten course title and room number -- which was sure to be wrong. Seeing me staring at the cluttered list for long periods of time, students would read the course titles for me and some, smiling at my five-year-old's Arabic handwriting, took my pen and wrote down the information.
I also succeeded in moving into "University City," or the dormitory complex. Home became room 201, Unit 2, UDAM. I soon learned that tea drinking, card playing and gossiping took up most of the students' time, and that academics were remembered five weeks before exams, when students paced the corridors and attempted to memorize a year's supply of lecture notes. Living in the dorms enabled me to meet some of the thousands of students from villages and cities outside of Damascus who had come to the university after President Assad had opened its doors to the non-elite of Syrian society; dorm living also secured me a bed at the modest fee of $25 a year.
"University City" consisted of 15 nearly identical concrete buildings and at first I could distinguish my unit from the others only by the large water tower in front of the door. Syrian and Palestinian flags fluttered on all the buildings and young men with machine guns checked IDs at either end of the two entrances. The dormitory complex resembled a roller rink, with groups of friends -- usually from the same village -- circling the units, chatting and checking out the other sex. I felt like I had been placed back at what I presume a New England women's college was like in the '40s, '50s and early '60s when a man would call for you downstairs, and you needed special permission to stay out late. It was the first time that I had ever been courted by someone who would stand below my balcony and call out my room number. If I was in, I'd go down and my Arab caller and I would start the laps, and maybe go to the cafe in Unit 8 to have a cup of tea thick with sugar and a sandwich of white cheese, and try to yell over the fuzzy Arab music that blared over the speakers.
While sitting outside with friends I would hear the "ping ping" of the custodians' keys tapping the iron bannisters to signal the women's 10 o'clock curfew. How I began to hate that sound! I would arrive back to my room on the second floor, where my roommates would be gossiping, making tea, or up visiting girls from their village clique who lived on the fifth floor. One of my roommates was a fourth year dentistry student, and various plaster-of-paris impressions of her teeth lay around our room.
There were no kitchen facilities or dining hall in the dormitories, and what little cooking occurred in our room was done on small, gas-fed burners that we lugged across the street to be filled up. Neither I nor my roommates became whizzes at one-burner cooking, and all three meals consisted of pressing pieces of bread into plates of yogurt, spices, pickled eggplant or fried eggs. If we got ambitious, we fried potatoes out in the hallway or on the balcony.
The first sound I heard each morning was the screech of iron as the girls pulled their beds away from the wall to tuck in their blankets. Then the high heels, which they all wore, tapped on the tile floors. My roommate would flick on the radio, and the whine of Arab music filled the room. By American student standards, the dorm conditions were less than desirable: Cats howled in the hallways; the Turkish toilets stank; and if my unit got hot water, it was at midnight on Thursdays. But the rooms were heated in winter, something I soon came to appreciate.
Although it is true that women studied medicine and law and, along with the boys, had to attend army youth camp every summer during high school, most of the women in my unit seem most preoccupied with their looks and their clothes. My roommates spent much time discussing shoes, trying on a different colored lipstick, or, in the frankness typical to Arab women, comparing my figure to a friend's and assuring her that hers was much nicer.
I was considered too thin, something everyone felt free to tell me, like the masseuse at the baths who warned me that I would never find a husband unless I beefed myself up. At times I did feel incredibly unattractive, with my short hair, flat shoes, unglossed lips, unpainted nails, unplucked eyebrows, unwaxed arms and loose jeans. The natural look was not the mode in Syria.
Women dressed for classes the way I would dress for a dinner party. The demure Moslem girls in head scarves and long-sleeved shirts often wore sheer stockings and sling-back heels below their skirts. I finally realized that the below-the-knees exhibitionism was an attempt at sexual self-expression for women from conservative families whose fathers or brothers pressured them to cover their hair. I never really got over my surprise at the coy atmosphere inside "University City," and grew tired of the furtive looks between the sexes. Above all the atmosphere was a young one, with the silliness and venom of cliques, made worse by the fact that they were often formed on religious and geographical lines.
The nursing students, who lived in the unit next to mine, had a reputation -- deserved or not I don't know -- for being a bit looser than the other female students, and most of the young men would go to the cafe in Unit B via the nurses' dorm to see if they could pick someone up along the way. I once asked a Druze friend why this was, and he answered that nurses learned things earlier than other women and besides, most of them were Alawite, the ruling minority regarded as presumptuous provincials by the urban population.
Unfortunately I was never allowed to forget that I was a western woman, an American at that. Arab men's impression of American women as sexually permissive came from such television programs as Love Boat.
One day I met a friend named Kamal in a restaurant. Our conversation was pleasant enough, half in English, half in Arabic, but it quickly slipped into a common theme: What America and Europe have that Syria doesn't. In this case it was places for couples to go.
"For example," he said, "If I see any girl in the street and I look at her and she look at me and I comfortable her and she comfortable me she will not talk to me. Why? Because she is afraid from what the people will say.
Kamal later gave me a ride to class but via, I soon found out, the airport road, "where there were many nice trees." I got him to turn around, but then he said "I want to take from you a kiss. What is your opinion about this?"
That I was used to doing things alone was perhaps the biggest indicator that I wasn't Arab -- otherwise I could have easily passed for a fair haired Syrian -- since Syrian women were seldom alone.
I could rarely coax my Syrian girlfriends to go exploring. Either they saw no point to wandering around the old city, or it was too cold, or the activity would go past the curfew and where would we all stay?
Living in the Middle East made me painfully aware that I was not a man. One day as I walked alone through the traditional quarter high on the mountain, I passed through streets dotted with shabaab, or young men, and I wished that I was a man, unencumbered by the restrictions men have placed on women, and to be subject neither to the hisses of the men sitting with machine guns across their laps or worse, the confusing sense of shame when I have looked down a lane, hoping it led up the mountain, met a man's eyes, and projected his thoughts onto myself: harlot, what are you doing up here alone?
I looked at the ground a lot when I walked. At times I envied the very traditional women who even in the summer heat wore overcoats, black gloves and black gossamer veils which showed only a skull-like profile. I felt somewhat placeless, not fitting in with Arab women's passivity, and being barred from greater participation with men by both the actual restrictions and the tedium of the sexual innuendoes and of Arab men's possessiveness. Thus the highlight of one of my days was discovering some Ping Pong tables and playing with some Palestinian high school boys, who treated me like a pal.
I found myself dwelling on the differences between men and women, and readdressing the notion of male and female roles. When I was in college at Harvard, I had entertained the idea that the differences between men and women could be modified by social change, and I had excelled in athletics, an area where women are traditionally weaker. But in Syria I found myself thinking differently: nature, fertility, men, women, child-bearing ability; inevitable roles. I also began to ascribe more and more things to fate, like the fact that I had come to spend so much time with a pack of dentistry students from the south, or that from the four choices of colored rooms, I had been placed in one with hot pink walls. The Muslim notion of "Insh'allah -- If God Wills" was both necessary and contagious.
Smuggling was a way of life. If I needed anything from certain shops I just had to ask and wait two days, when it would be smuggled in from Lebanon. Iranian pilgrims to Damascus' Shi'ite shrines smuggled in carpets. Men took wads of Syrian pounds from their pockets in stores in the gold market and purchased dollars on the black market. Small boys hawked Marlboro cigarettes outside the luxury hotels. Mercedes and villas abounded in the two most prosperous neighborhoods, where most of the foreign embassies and government buildings were located.
But things never quite worked in Syria. Electricity cuts and end-of-the-month shortages of basic items like toilet paper and coffee beans were common. Sometimes I sparred with sharp-elbowed women for tomatoes at the government-supplied store. To get anywhere Syrians needed connections, and the few Ba'ath Party-associated students I knew spent much time tending to their contacts, often in hopes of avoiding the mandatory military service. Some students skipped their exams since upon graduation they would have to enter the army.
Although I never felt hostility from being an American or in danger in Damascus, what I never really got used to was a sense of the regime's force, always lurking. Much of it had to do with the fact that the language institute was located near President Assad's house, and moukhaabaraat, or secret police, stood on every corner. There were also occasional reminders like the public hangings. I saw a picture in the newspaper: three men, wrapped in heavy white cloth, their necks queerly slack. But whenever I went to other cities and villages, where the government was not as apparent, the feeling lifted.
I also sensed the trepidation of the people towards the government. One friend, before telling me the latest anti-Ba'ath joke, half-jokingly asked me to shut the window. Most jokes involved sending a donkey to participate in the national assembly or, in 1985, to vote in the presidential election.
The festivities surrounding the presidential election lasted for the first two weeks of February. It was the first election in seven years. "Oh comrades," the announcements at the dorms started, and lasted until nine at night. Downstairs in the lobby of my unit, girls tacked cotton flags of Syria to the walls, hung up portraits of the president and strung pine branches with cotton chains.
The recurring political theme in this virtual one-party state on the reelection of President Assad seemed to be "yes," which in Arabic is a satisfying, gutteral word: na'am. "Yes to the Leader; Yes to the Army; Yes to the People," "Hafez al-Assad: Symbol of Giving," "Our leader forever," "Assad the Combatant," "Yes from our hearts." Lights were strung in the trees and around the edges of rooftops and neon na'am signs glowed on the mountain to the north of the city and on the highest buildings. "We love Assad" bumper stickers, with the Arabic word for "we" followed by a picture of a heart and a drawing of the President, graced most army vehicles.
The government-run paper, al-Ba'ath, reported that 99 per cent of the people voted yes in the election.
Some foreigners said that the Syrian artist community's efforts peaked in those two weeks, because so many pro-Assad ditties were written for the radio. It worked: my roommates went around humming songs that praised the president and the ruling Ba'ath party. The most popular verse, sung by school children with balloons in the street, went "With spirit, with blood, we sacrifice ourselves Oh Hafez.'' My questions concerning the president's popularity met with a variety of responses, but the common consensus was that he was good for Syria, and that he was much better than his brother, Rifaat. "Like heaven and hell," one university official said, referring to the brothers.
When I couldn't bear the attention I received on the street any longer, I would retreat to friends' houses and enjoy the lavish Arab hospitality. Or I would go to the glassblowers where I would sit near the furnace and watch the men dip the long poles into a pool of liquid glass which clung to the pole, rising like the wave in a Japanese print. But I realized that I had adapted to the Syrian lifestyle a little too well, because of the amount of time I spent drinking tea, or hanging off the dorm room balcony watching the rats swim across the brook below, or, if a couple strolled by holding hands, standing up in amazement and wondering if they were foreigners.