While hurtling around Damascus in badly driven sardine cans over flowing with humanity I have made some interesting observations about the etiquette of public transport. On the Jermannana – Bab Tuma service that connects perhaps the two most liberal parts of town its fight and fight alike. Women can sit in the front; they can also sit on the floor. On the considerably more conservative Muhajreen-Sana line however chauvinism and chivalry rule. The fight to get on the service is vicious. It usually departs with 15 to 17 people on it, not bad considering they seat, depending on the model, 10-13. A man will always give his seat up to a woman, but it is rude for a woman to force herself on once its rammed, making some man crouch. This is a distinct disadvantage on lines, like Muhajreen-Sana, that fill at the point of departure. Concessions to female fragility don’t come into play until everyone’s on the service; no quarter is given in the fight to board. This puts the elderly, particularly women who are often so fat and inflexible that they need to haul themselves up with one hand on each side of the sliding door, or even roll like an inelegant seal to get onto the raised service, at a distinct disadvantage. I think young to middle aged men give up their seats, not because women can’t sit on the floor, but because the elderly or women wearing proper Hijab are very unlikely to get on it in the first place.
While femininity is respected age isn’t. I am the only young woman I have ever seen give her seat to an old one, and any man who feels he can sit on his seat when I climb on feels that way when a grandmother does.
In many ways I share Syria’s distaste of fat old women in black; I think the Monty Python team must have visited the Arab world before inventing Hells Grannies. I don’t know whether a youth spent worrying about other peoples opinions drove them to it, but they behave appallingly. My Ameyas good enough for me to be constantly shocked by how rude old ladies are to shop keepers. Its generally accepted that a family can lift its children up on the sevicee before the adults get on, and that any one throwing kids on board has a right to a seat. I’ve seen an old woman pick up a kid, put it down off the service and plonk herself in the seat the child was reserving for its now irate mother who was busy putting on its brothers and sisters. Another time an old Bedouin woman hit me until I moved from the seat I had the temerity to occupy before she boarded. I was the only passenger. The Bedouin women are the worst; I genuinely think a lifetime out in the desert sun does something to their brains.
Syrians are pretty scornful of serviecee and taxi drivers. In a lesson about ‘social norms,’ my new students say that to be respectable in Syria one must dress modestly, not drink in public and not drive a serviecee or taxi. Useful advice I’m sure. As a guilty middle class liberal I find their attitude shocking, as an inhabitant of Syria I find it incomprehensible. Drivers are usually employed by the owner, and pay for half the petrol and get half the takings. It’s not their fault the vehicles belch smoke and while they do drive ’em like they stole ’em, so does everyone else.
I feel duty bound in an entry about public transport to relate how the government commandeers public transport on Fridays. The more radical, poorer neighbourhoods are inaccessible on public transport and the government uses the busses and serviecees to transport their supporters around to mount counter demonstrations and beet up protesters, as well as solders. Some say this is to make people think the counterdemonstrators are full on civilians, Fisk relates that the UNFIL forces in Lebanon’s were even more contemptous of the Syrian Army than of the IDF. Isreals might have improved, but I don’t see post cold war Syria boasting more and better equipment than in the 80s.
The point though of this entry is the Bab Tuma – Mohajreen line. It is apparently notorious as the line for Damascus gays that take cruising literally. I’ve heard this from several sources, but as the Damascus definition of homosexual involves men with long hair, men with tattoos, men with piercings and all other men who look a bit different I’ve been sceptical. Besides, everyone knows the French Ambassador was sent home after one scandal to many in the Souk al Bozra hammam (I’ve never bothered to substantiate this rumour), how many cruising spots can Sham have? The fixer though has been convinced Muhajareen-Bab Tuma is the line of vice ever since he was propositioned on it. It’s possible the man was just being friendly, but the fixer definitely doesn’t think so. His liberal concerns and respect for people who defy Syria’s strict idea of what’s socially permissible was almost completely overwhelmed by his annoyance that any one would assume that as a foreigner he was happy to engage in any kind of random sex. He was quite surprised not to find me at my most sympathetic.