And Romeo Had Juliet

This entry is frivolous. The situations developed since the Arab league suspended the observers mission. Damascus suburbs are erupting into protest and engulfing their neighbors in revolutionary magma. The bright young things in the café I’m in are unworried. I’ve upgraded my personal threat level and made the necessary behavioral adjustments, and now I wanna indulge in escapism like the other customers.

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This Anglo-American idea that the is someone out their who’ll understand every contradiction that makes up our personality and love each and every one of them, help us through all our problems and be perfectly attuned to us sexually might not be realistic, but it is peaceful. Theoretically we overcome hardships as we search for ‘The One,’ find them, marry them and live happily ever after with them. That it rarely works out like this is unimportant; the ideal is peaceful.

Syrians happily admit they like their relationships with Drama.

I’m constantly amazed by how reasonable people get themselves into situations Hollyokes would reject as unrealistic and are going to leave everyone hurt. One of my friends, an engineer with three kids, left her husband for an impoverished serial divorcer. She’s insisting that he gets rid of his current wife, number seven, before she’ll marry him, but as she and the children have already moved out of the family house and created a huge scandal her options are limited.

 Usually the Drama, in the sense of ‘who did what to who when’ is too elaborate to understand properly. Stories belong in other peoples stories like the episodes of ‘The Thousand and One Nights,’ they hop between generations, or the different branches of a family, and the basic outline of what happened hides behind the interlocked scandals. When I can make out what happened I still don’t understand it. Your wife was secretly on the pill, so you you stole her families garden furniture, so she refused to cook for your mother, so you swapped your wedding rings for fake ones?

Most Syrians don’t have sexual extra marital relationships and if your doing something self-destructive you might as well do it with style, but no sex doesn’t equal no drama. Your boyfriends neglecting you? Get your friend to say you’ve been hospitalised with love sickness. He’s dumped you? Get his best friends girlfriend to say she’ll end her relationship unless your boyfriend takes you back.

Syrians are jealous lovers, and to an extent I understand this. If you’re a woman without much education or work experience you protect your one chance of happiness, your family. People see things that we think of as controlling, borderline abusive, behavior as a deceleration of love. One of my 17 year old students proudly told the class that her boyfriend made her ‘dump’ her male friends. A friend is pleased her boyfriend loves her so much that she’s got to spend less time with me, apparently I’m a foreigner so probably a lesbian on a recruiting drive.

Every culture has exponents of the agony and the ecstasy approach, but in the West we usually grow out of it. We prefer the idea of being Cinderella and Prince Charming to being Romeo and Juliet. I reflected on this as a friend sobbed between cigarettes and explained that she wants to remain married (to a man who’s never worked, beats her, and spent her life savings on taking a Czech prostitute to a 5 star hotel in Lattakia). She also wants a lover who’ll understand and care for her for ever, while helping her make her marriage work. I told her I thought that was unrealistic and that anyone who loved her that much would want her to commit to them.

‘Not everyone wants the same things you know,’ she glared at me through the smoke and the snot. ‘Not everyone wants to live with a lover and a white picket fence. Layla loved Majnoun you know.’

Layla almost certainly did love Majnoun in the 7th century, but to protect her reputation Layla’s family separated the lovers. Majnoun, formally called Quais, was unable to contain his passion and it erupted out of him as poetry and insanity. He was nicknamed Majnoun, ‘Mad,’ and although his poetry is still read Layla’s family didn’t think it qualified him to marry their daughter. Although he was hansom and rich, they wouldn’t consent to the marriage Majnoun’s father proposed. Majnoun wandered the desert composing poetry, and another marriage was arranged for Layla.

A 12 century Persian poet, Nizami took the story, combined it with sufi philosophy and turned it into a metaphor for the souls journey, and its his version that’s remembered in Arabic as well as Fasi.

Nizami went in for more plot development than reality, if you wanna know everything buy your own copy.In the story Layla heard passers-by reciting Majnouns verses and wrote her own poetry on scraps of paper that she entrusted to the wind. When people took them to Majnoun they consoled his heart, but it didn’t return his reason to him. Its beautiful, but not as a blueprint for living your own life.

I suspect that in reality Layla did all she could to make the life she had work but in Nizami’s version she remains a virgin, gradually fades away and dies. When Majnoun and Layla spend a night together in a garden they don’t consummate there love, they know their love will be tarnished and diminished if it becomes physical and that you can only love the whole of someone with the whole of yourself when they are an idea, not a person.

‘This is our culture,’ my friend snarls, ‘It is our poetry.’

‘But Majnoun dies of grief on Laylas grave,’

‘After being king of the animals,’ my friend interrupts in a growl that Majnouns protective lion would have envied, had he been there witnessing the conversation taking a turn for the surreal.

‘But most people don’t want life to be poetry,’ I say, ‘I mean, when most people fall in love they wanna live happily ever after, not be king of the animals.’

‘How can you love someone if you live with them,’ my friend spits at me.

                                                          …

I think it’s this idea as much as lack of contact between the sexes that explains why fully grown, straight men listen to James Blunts ‘You’re Beautiful,’ and the theme tune from Titanic. I think this is as important as shear boredom in explaining why people have such complicated relationships. People grow up with the idea that true love is unobtainable, the is no happy ending and its better not to try for one. The usefulness of this idea in a society where peoples sexuality is still mainly controlled by others it obvious. But I think its wound up with the idea ones suffering is enriching and explains why people make such elaborate relationship choices.

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Damascus and Me

As passionate as mine and Damascus’ love affair is, if she was a man I’d leave her. She’s just not very nice to me.

My landlord took advantage of my brief trip home to steal my furniture and change my locks. I’m reconciled to camping in my new flat, but I want Decembers rent, which I paid in advance, back. Owning white goods is the only ‘proper adult’ thing I’ve ever managed, I felt if put ‘own a fridge,’ on my CV it would prove that I’m not just a bum. Alas, I no longer have this tenuous claim to maturity.

My now ex landlord sits smoking, laughs at me, ‘teaches’ me new swearwords and then tells me lies. He maintains that a friend told him I’d left Syria, so of course he could rent my, now furnished, flat out to someone else. When I rocked up from Jordan too tiered to be angry, with hardly any Syrian money, he let me crash in a flat that has a family living in it, although they weren’t around. He thinks that after such munificent behaviour I cant make any claim on him, I think it confirmed he’s got a borderline criminal take on contract theory.

After an uneasy night waiting for Little Bear to come home and do his ‘someone’s been sleeping in my bed, and she still is’ act, I went off to the ALC to collect my pay checks. My colleagues were as cheerful as I was; the Americans had shut the place down and we’d all been made redundant.

This was the prelude to a series of sofa surfing adventures, the highlight of which was staying with a friends family. The husband is rich enough to set up a second home, complete with an additional wife. The first wife doesn’t like the idea and is attempting to up the family expenditure by breaking the furniture so it has to be replaced. Her sister in law, my friend, thinks this is typical Syrian jealousy, but I think her objections are fair enough and we spent an enjoyable morning chipping the varnish of a wardrobe that’s so hideous it has to be expensive.

My landlord has erected an ingenious paper fence between him and any sort of responsibility. The flat was built even more illegally than usual, so my contract was for a legal, but non-existent, house (troublesome foreigners such as myself are always running round waving our bits of paper at immigration officials, inconsiderately causing problems for slum landlords). The last person with a contract for my flat is the very Syrian who ‘stole my stuff and said I’d left.’ We’re at a bit of an impasse which the landlord failed to break by offering my friend money to say it was all his fault.

The friend saved most of my stuff, having had a call from the landlord demanding money, so I’ve still got my clothes and books; it could have been worse. None the less Damascus, what have I done to deserve your displeasure?

Damascus doesn’t treat me as well as I expect men to, but she gives me just enough to keep me interested. How can I dump the alleyways of the Old City when she’s lit by candles and I half expect to walk into one of The Thousand and One Nights? Yes, during the six hours a day she withholds electricity its too cold to manipulate a pen, but the air is clear enough to see the necklace of mountains that form a crescent moon around her. Covered in snow, they look like clouds that have become too solid to float and have sunk to earth as hills.

We seek refuge from the cold in cafés and discuss my friends unusual exam season problem. Men have two years in the army after education, and if an added disincentive for doing it now were needed conscripts stopped being released after serving their time in about April. My friends are trying to fail enough exams to fail the year, but not so many that their kicked out of uni. They reckon that the countries got several years of civil war ahead of it and I don’t see how they can spend the next 15 years as undergraduates, but then I don’t see what else they can do either.

Damascus, you are cruel to your lovers.

Dimashq ya habibiti

When I left Damascus on the 23rd of November I didn’t really expect to come back; going home and getting a new visa was like clapping during Peter Pan. If enough people do believe in fairies and in Syria, despite all the evidence, Tinkerbell will recover and Syria will not implode.

Me leaving coincided with a decline in the situation that many thought was terminal. The Arab League decisions and the grenade attack on the Ba’th party HQ seemed to bring the scale of the problem home to people. Suddenly my well educated, successful, pro-regime friends and acquaintances were researching ways to get out. As of yet most haven’t gone, more because they to believe in fairies than because they cant, but when they do go I doubt they’ll be coming back. At the time I was missioning around and sorting myself out to leave it was impossible to cross Damascus without running into pro governmental rallies. In September they were intoxicating, who can resist being part of a happy crowd with a slogan and a belief in something? By the time I left they were thoroughly miserable affairs that no one was enjoying. The crowds seemed to be there to mourn the passing of the Syria they knew, rather than because they believed the rallies had any purpose. My anti friends all thought this was Bashar’s end, but were not optimistic about what would happen next. As I said my goodbyes my friends inshalla’s, possibly the most pessimistic word in Syrian Arabic, were even more dismal than usual.

Damascus’ collective faith and fear has kept the city habitable and I’m home, but its not the city I left. Back in the beginning, before the shooting of the ‘Deraa 22’ everyone was saying that Damascus was a city without fear for the first time in living memory. My friends were newly youthful and optimistic. They projected their excitement and belief on the city and no one imagined that the empowered could be re-interred in their own minds, that anyone could ever be permanently scared again. They were wrong, and a month and a half more worrying has taken its toll on the city. Its become meaner spirited, more aggressive. No one ever gets change from serviece drivers any more, the is more sexual harassment, we’re not ‘all in it together,’ we’re all out for ourselves. Syrias proud of its religious tolerance, but a passer-by said ‘Christian,’ rather than ‘foreigner,’ as I walked through the old city the other day.

One of my neighbours works for the red cross and I spent the Friday of the second bombing sat in his flat, watching Al Jazera between blackouts, waiting to find out what was happening. He left to help as soon as the bombing, in a passionately anti Assad neighbourhood, was announced and reckons the government transported dead bodies to the site. It doesn’t really matter whos behind it, everyone believes what they want to, but its kicked the stuffing out of a city thats already as depressed as its weather.

My anti friends reckon that the pros are too angry, have some how had too much of their dignity taken away from them for any sane person to be able to predict what they’ll do. Its certainly clear that when Syria does implode, when the revolution really arrives in Damascus it will not be pretty. Like the lost looking Assad supporters in November I to am mourning the passing of the Damascus I knew.