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.


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.

Author: adventuresinarabic

I'm studying Arabic in Damascus, living through the Arab Spring and blogging about my experiences hear.

One thought on “And Romeo Had Juliet”

  1. I’m curious how accurate the news reports we’re hearing in the West about heavy fighting in the Damascus suburbs are… Are you hearing/seeing much?

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