Stories from many roads

Spies and Arab Women


This is a slightly edited version of an email update I received from a friend who is living in Damascus and engaged to a Syrian (congrats again love), and I just really enjoyed her perspectives and insights so much that I asked if I could reprint it here. I changed all the names for her — you just never know — added some subheads and spit up the long paragraphs. The rest is all her, hopefully you enjoy it as much as I did.

Bar hopping with the Mossad

The other day, Mahmoud and I went dancing with James, an Eastern European journalist who’d recently filmed a documentary about Iraqi refugees in the US. After dancing, a tipsy James still wanted to drink more, so we went to a bar in Bab Touma (the Christian neighborhood of Damascus). Some strange foreign guy started chatting James up.

His first comment was, “So, making jokes about Arabs?” and James was confused because he didn’t say anything about Arabs. Then they started getting into an intense conversation which dragged on.

I was getting frustrated, and I wanted to ditch James, but Mahmoud felt that if we left them, they would fight. So he kept on telling James it wasn’t worth it to get into a fight, and James insisted that it wasn’t his intention to fight. He pulled Mahmoud into the nearby bathroom to give him a lengthy explanation, during which the bartender and I told this foreigner to leave. James was really disappointed to find that this guy left.

Later I found out that this guy kept on saying things like, “I’m from Israel” and acted in an intellectually superior manner, which convinced James that he was a spy.

Apparently another roommate of mine saw this SAME guy in the SAME bar a few nights later, and he started saying things like he was from the Mossad. Again this guy was kicked out by the bartender, who had no idea what he was saying. When people explained to him what he was saying afterward, the bartender was really upset, because he knew that he could get in trouble if he didn’t report this incident to the government.

It kind of makes you wonder… How stupid does one have to be to go around saying things like that? That’s like saying you’re with al-Qaeda if you’re in a random bar in New York.

The perils of marriage

Lately I’ve been hearing lots of stories about couples who want to marry, but end up not marrying because of tradition or parents.

For example, this guy named Abdel has a girlfriend named Kholoud. They love each other, but Abdel’s parents told him that they don’t like her, so he will not marry her out of respect for his parents. They are still together, but they don’t have any future.

I just talked to a girl named Farah who was saying that she once had a Christian boyfriend (a foreigner), who was the only guy she’s ever loved. He went to ask her father for her hand in marriage, and in Syria it is against the law and Arab tradition for a Christian man to marry a Muslim woman. On those grounds he refused Farah’s would-be fiance. But because Farah’s fiance loved her so much, he said he would convert to Islam for her.

But Farah’s father said no–he respected Christianity too much to let him do that, and besides their cultures and backgrounds were too different. So Farah never married her love.

Perhaps the most striking story for me is the story of Mahmoud’s Khala Asmaa (Khala means maternal aunt in Arabic). She had a boyfriend who worked with her at some government building (the really nightmarish ones where you run from booth to booth), and she wanted to marry him, but her mother said no.

Ever since then, every time a man would come to engage her, Khala Asmaa would come out looking absolutely hideous, with excessive makeup and disheveled hair, scaring away all potential suitors. To this day, she’s never married. It could be that she loved him that much, or a more pessimistic analysis is that she lost her virginity to her boyfriend, so this was her way of circumventing the consequences associated with losing one’s virginity before marriage.

Engagements and etiquette

I guess I am just talking about that subject because the other day someone came to discuss the possibility of engagement with Mahmoud’s cousin Zeina. Basically it was a delegation of Zeina’s womenfolk and the potential suitor’s womenfolk, and they talked amongst themselves about the possibility of marriage.

Ultimately Zeina thought that her potential suitor was ugly, so the engagement talks were dismissed. People always hear about fathers being really controlling and saying that their daughters have to marry so and so, but I also hear many instances in which the mother chooses the wife for her son. This is because the mother is able to see whether or not the potential wife is good looking.

At engagement parties, sometimes there is a room just for women, and there is a room just for men. In these instances, when there are only women are in the room, they dress in outrageously revealing clothes and start dancing in ways that would be considered scandalous even in the West. Then when it is announced that the groom is coming, everyone immediately puts on concealing clothes. Similarly, back in the old days, mothers would look for potential wives for their sons at the hammam, where all women are completely naked before one another.

Arab culture is so complicated, and being engaged to Mahmoud has allowed me to see a side of it that foreigners never get to see. It’s really weird how you’re allowed to act a certain way only with a specific group of people.

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