Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Sex And Politics

Eastern Syria, apart from a conspicuous green belt of irrigated farmland along the Euphrates, is dry and empty. I therefore thought I would only stay one night in the regional capital of Deir Ez Zur, long enough to pop down to some Roman/Hellenistic ruins, before heading off again. In the end I stayed for three nights.

The reason for my tarrying was a student called Mohammed. We were sitting next to each other on the bus to Deir and exchanged pleasantries, and although he wasn't very talkative I could see his understanding was good. When he heard I was planning to stay at a hotel he offered for me to stay with him. He was living in what probably passes for halls of residence in Syria: a couple of basic buildings around a decrepit courtyard with largish, boxy rooms devoid of any furnishings except for a couple of plastic mats to cover some of the concrete floor, two wafer-thin mattresses and a couple of blankets for bedding. In one corner was a jumbled pile of assorted pots and plates along with the all-important teapot and heating element for making tea. I'm not fussy so I wasn't in the least bothered, though I doubt I would want to live in a place like that for an extended period of time. And although Mohammed had so little he consistently refused my offers for paying for anything, even to take him out to dinner.

The welcome I received was boisterous as the (exclusively male) students all tried to practice their patchy English at the same time and grab my attention for themselves. During my time with Mohammed and the students I went with them to some classes, drank a lot of tea, chatted, and generally just lazed (which pretty much sums up 99% of their activities). The conversations, when they didn't consist of a long list of Arab celebrities, who I'd never heard of, for me to pass judgement on, were the most interesting aspect of my stay, not only because I started to pick up a few words of Arabic, but also because it gave me an insight into the hopes, fears and preoccupations of the people from this much-maligned country. And two topics of conversation that are worlds apart, unless you happen to be a British cabinet minister, dominated: politics and sex.

The politics aspect is unsurprising given that Syria is deeply enmeshed in the miasma that is the Middle East Situation. It is still technically at war with the Israelis and part of Syria, the Golan (or Jolan in Arabic) Heights, is occupied by them. So my unfeigned antipathy towards Bush, Blair and radical Zionism made me instantly popular. Though they seemed unable to comprehend that I could also support some of the things done by the West. For them politics is black or white and there seems to be no room for disliking someone and yet approving of some of their actions. The Israel situation seems to loom large in the national psyche and Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah command enormous grassroots support throughout the country, as can be seen by the countless posters of the bearded cleric and green-and-yellow flags. There might even be as many pictures of Nasrallah as of the Assads, Syria's de facto ruling dynasty (present president Bashar, his brother Basil, and their father an ex-president Hafez who died in 2000). It is this pictorial ubiquity that reminds you that, despite appearances to the contrary, you are in a police state (for example, less than a day after arriving at Mohammed's the infamous mukhabarat, secret police, came knocking to ask a few questions and to take down our passport details) and political dissension is weeded out with efficiency. Apparently there are so many informants that even families will refuse to discuss domestic politics amongst themselves in their own homes. However, the young president (he was only 34 when he took office, leading to a hasty re-jigging of the constitutional age-limit for the head of state), who was plucked from obscurity as a London ophthalmologist, really does seem to have popular support amongst ordinary Syrians.

Politics can be a touchy subject and so you can never be sure of getting the right picture, so at least on the topic of sex in secular Syria there is less likelihood of self-censorship. It's only natural that since my companions were hormonal 20 year-old males in a society that forbids pre-marital sex they have video phones full of porn and kept asking me about my own adventures; questions that I tried to sidestep diplomatically, not least because since I've been travelling alone for over two years my sex life is nothing to write home about (not that I usually write home about it, but still). And yet on the other hand they look down on sex as something dirty and shameful, and Western society as decadent and immoral. When I pointed out the hypocrisy of their position and that, incidentally, all their parents must have had sex it caused a fair amount of mirth, but also an outburst of: "Khalas (enough)! There is no sex in Syria, it is moharram (against Islam)! No more talking of sex!" Although this same guy, not ten minutes later piped up with, "...so, in Scotland, if you see a girl can you..." They seemed to oscillate between viewing women as simple sex objects and placing them on some untouchable, virginal pedestal. They cannot even comprehend the idea of having a purely platonic friendship with a girl. Which pretty much sums up the behaviour of young men in many countries I have travelled through, not just Syria, where there is little or no everyday interaction between the sexes: the men, who invariably have the power, are unable to view women as people in their own right, worth listening to, with a point of view and with something to contribute (other than cooking, cleaning and making children). It is one of the things that I think the West has got right (at least in theory, although in practice there is still room for improvement) and many cultures are losing out big time by marginalising 50% of their own population.

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