No Sex Please, We’re Syrian: on Syrian Sexual Humor During War

15 March, 2022
Syr­i­an actress Dana Jabr has posed sala­cious­ly for social media, reveal­ing far more skin than in this can­did back­yard shot.

 

Malu Halasa

 

A dra­mat­ic reap­praisal of sex and sex­u­al mat­ters by Syria’s younger gen­er­a­tion of activists swept the coun­try fol­low­ing the upris­ing. Ordi­nar­i­ly before 2011, twen­ty-some­thing Mus­lims used euphemisms to vent their frus­tra­tions. Deroga­to­ry lan­guage was not con­sid­ered polite or accept­able in a tra­di­tion­al soci­ety firm­ly anchored by fam­i­ly and hon­or. Now social media has pro­vid­ed a plat­form to air more explic­it views. One young Syr­i­an wrote “dick bitch” twen­ty times on his Face­book Page and then added: “Now do I have your atten­tion? Four-hun­dred peo­ple died in Syr­ia today.”

For some, sex has become one way to deal with the vio­lence around them, accord­ing to a 29-year-old woman jour­nal­ist and activist who asked not to be iden­ti­fied. “A lot of people’s rela­tion­ships have col­lapsed and new rela­tion­ships have begun,” observed Lay­la (a pseu­do­nym.) “As a gen­er­a­tion we used to be obsessed with what peo­ple were doing or what they thought. With so many depressed, impris­oned or dead since the begin­ning of the rev­o­lu­tion, it’s under­stand­able that many peo­ple are mov­ing to the extreme.”

As much as some Syr­i­an activists have been able to express them­selves, in the front­line of a polit­i­cal bat­tle, sex has been used to under­mine pub­lic fig­ures. In 2012 a pho­to­graph of a woman pos­ing in skimpy lin­gerie, with her back to the cam­era, was includ­ed in a cachet of hacked emails alleged­ly belong­ing to Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad. The woman, lat­er iden­ti­fied by activists as pres­i­den­tial aide Hadeel Ali, was respon­si­ble for coin­ing Assad’s new nick­name bataa (“duck” in Ara­bic) to great hilar­i­ty among Inter­net pranksters. The author­i­ties too were not above dirty tricks and released an embar­rass­ing pri­vate Skype con­ver­sa­tion between a free Syr­i­an Army com­man­der and his sig­nif­i­cant oth­er. Since then, the com­man­der has been dis­cred­it­ed and dis­ap­peared from view.

Unknown in the west, Syr­ia has always had a rep­u­ta­tion among the coun­tries of the Mid­dle East for rau­cous sex­u­al humor, which has its ori­gins in the souk. How­ev­er the humor was one that was rarely expressed in wider, bet­ter behaved soci­ety. I first encoun­tered it while research­ing the country’s racy lin­gerie cul­ture, with the Lebanese artist Rana Salam. Soon we dis­cov­ered a uni­verse of mobile phone thongs, and panties and bras, which played pop songs, vibrat­ed, lit up or fell apart at the clap of a hand. The time we spent in the lin­gerie fac­to­ries, and with the sell­ers of lin­gerie in the souks of Dam­as­cus and Alep­po became the basis of our book The Secret Life of Syr­i­an Lin­gerie: Inti­ma­cy and Design that was pub­lished by Chron­i­cle Books in 2009.

The under­wear was shaabi — pop­ulist and vul­gar. It was a design cul­ture that became an estab­lished home­grown fash­ion indus­try and under­ground export suc­cess sto­ry, which flour­ished under dic­ta­tor­ship. Here were prod­ucts designed and man­u­fac­tured by reli­gious Mus­lim fam­i­lies for an obser­vant clien­tele, which in the malls of Sau­di Ara­bia as well as Mid­dle East­ern trin­ket stores in West London’s Shepherd’s Bush Market.

It is an indus­try with sin­is­ter under­tones, as explained by Lay­la. In her view the lin­gerie reflect­ed “the habit of a deeply repres­sive soci­ety but one that was sex­u­al­ly ori­ent­ed and car­ried on the tra­di­tions of Scheherazade’s One Thou­sand and One Nights. It keeps peo­ple absent-mind­ed and lat­er exploits them in a vicious net­work of tra­di­tion, reli­gios­i­ty and authority.”

 

Pho­to from the exhi­bi­tion “Secret Life of Syr­i­an Lingerie.”

Dirty Jokes

Equal­ly as lurid as the lingerie’s grab holes, reveal­ing net­ting and unex­plained zip­pers were the sex­u­al jokes and ban­ter that some­times took place between Syr­i­an men and women, in closed quar­ters, at pri­vate par­ties. The Syr­i­an polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Ammar Abdul­hamid pro­vid­ed an exam­ple of a joke. It con­cerns a ladies group that met for morn­ing cof­fee once a week and chat­ted about their lives.

A woman look­ing unac­count­ably hap­py joins her friends, which prompts them to ask her, what’s going on. She tells them: “Yes­ter­day my hus­band Abu Ali came in from work. As he changed his clothes I stuck my hand between his legs and told him, ‘Abu Ali, your balls are very cold. Can I warm them up?’ It was a night to remem­ber!”

At the next gath­er­ing of the women, anoth­er in their group also seems con­tent and her friends quiz her. She explains, “When my hus­band came home from work he was chang­ing his clothes. I stuck my hands between his legs, say­ing, Abu Antar, your balls are very cold, can I warm them up?’ It was a night to remember!”

On a third occa­sion, a woman arrives to the cof­fee morn­ing with a black eye, and a limp, which shocks her friends who cry out, “What hap­pened to you?”

“Well,” she says, “when Abu Muham­mad came in from work and changed his clothes, I put my hands on his balls, and said ‘Hey, Abu Mohammed, why are your balls warm, not like the balls of Abu Ali and Abu Antar?’ It was a night to remem­ber!

The vul­gar and misog­y­nis­tic joke has a vio­lent twist at the end, like much Syr­i­an humor. It echoes a famous car­toon by the country’s pre­mier edi­to­r­i­al car­i­ca­tur­ist Ali Fer­zat. A tor­tured pris­on­er hangs in a cell filled with body parts. Sit­ting on the floor, the man’s jail­er watch­es a soap opera on TV and sobs. Just as Lay­la sug­gest­ed, romance and sex are dis­trac­tions from day-to-day real­i­ty of totalitarianism.

Her late father, a promi­nent polit­i­cal dis­si­dent, relat­ed an exchange of trag­ic humor, which he wit­nessed dur­ing his incar­cer­a­tion in Tad­mor, a noto­ri­ous prison locat­ed near the famous archae­o­log­i­cal site of Palmyra in remote east­ern Syr­ia. An inmate had been bad­ly tor­tured by guards, after a mass demon­stra­tion by pris­on­ers had gone bad­ly wrong. Once the beat­en man was returned to the pris­on­ers’ hut, the oth­er inmates sur­round­ed him. Every­one felt ter­ri­ble and guilty except for one pris­on­er, who pushed his way through the men to the front. He asked the tor­tured man, “Did they curse your mother’s vagi­na (kiss imak)?” To which every­one burst out laughing.

Noth­ing else mat­tered, Lay­la shrugged, “rest assured, [the tor­tured man] could go to heav­en. He and his family’s hon­or were intact.”

Of course, the ques­tion remains: Isn’t humor and chat­ter about sex some­how “too triv­ial” to indulge in — espe­cial­ly when at the time of writ­ing esti­mates place 60,000 Syr­i­ans dead; 2 mil­lion dis­placed inside the coun­try; and near­ly 1 mil­lion lan­guish­ing in refugee camps in Jor­dan, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey? In the cur­rent tragedy as in bro­ken soci­eties else­where through­out the years, gal­lows humor is a typ­i­cal response to polit­i­cal hor­ror. Sex and humor are sub­ver­sive ways of reaf­firm­ing one’s human­i­ty in the face of oppres­sion. And satire is itself a barbed weapon. Mock­ery and deri­sion are the last things the Baathist regime seems able to cope with. After car­toon­ist Fer­zat breached what he described as “the bar­ri­er of fear” and start­ed draw­ing satir­i­cal car­i­ca­tures of Bashar Assad – some­thing he had nev­er done for the cur­rent pres­i­dent or the pre­vi­ous one — he was attacked by pro-regime thugs in 2011. They told him, “Bashar’s boot is bet­ter than you,” and broke his hands. Fer­zat, who has since healed, lives in exile in Kuwait and has start­ed draw­ing again.

Sex and the Sin­gle Muslim

A selec­tion of Syr­i­an lingerie.

The nov­el The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees, trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by Max Weiss, explores the inter­twin­ing of humor, sex and vio­lent intim­i­da­tion that is Syr­i­an. Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished as Al Samt Wal Sakhab in 2004, it tells of a day in the life of Fathi, a banned writer who sur­vives cen­sor­ship and threats by laugh­ing and hav­ing sex. Sirees, a writer from Alep­po bet­ter known in for his his­tor­i­cal tele­vi­sion series “The Silk Road,” did not suc­cumb to the feel-good fac­tor that per­me­at­ed the ear­ly years of Bashar Assad‘s pres­i­den­cy. He too had been one of the country’s intel­lec­tu­als who had high hopes for change dur­ing the short-lived 2000 Dam­as­cus Spring. When out-spo­ken crit­ics and peti­tion sign­ers were impris­oned, Sirees with­drew, watched and wait­ed. The Silence and the Roar is the fruit of his frus­tra­tions. The nov­el is set against a hys­ter­i­cal day­long mass march, dur­ing which crowds pro­claim love for the “great leader” under the men­ac­ing eye of the secret police oper­at­ing in an unnamed country.

The tense frag­ment­ing of the fam­i­ly — the one insti­tu­tion, which should pro­vide a safe haven from an intru­sive state — is at the heart of the sto­ry. Fathi’s 56-year-old wid­owed moth­er spends her time on her bed, and watch­es the march on TV, as she preens her­self for an upcom­ing mar­riage to a regime offi­cial, who has in his sights his wife-to-be’s son. Mean­while Fathi, dis­turbed by the roar of the crowd, seeks solace and silence in his girlfriend’s bed. In the west, sex is often seen a pri­vate, con­sent­ing act between indi­vid­u­als. In a coun­try where peo­ple are pawns by the state, Sirees believes an active unfet­tered sex life can be an expres­sion of free­dom and a very pub­lic stance against repression.

Sex and the Citadel asks impor­tant questions.

At the begin­ning of the Syr­i­an rev­o­lu­tion in 2011, there was a lit­tle-known off­shoot to the strug­gle that no one acknowl­edged in pub­lic. Syr­i­an artist Khalil Younes, orig­i­nal­ly from Dam­as­cus, called it “shy tri­als,” or exper­i­men­ta­tion with chang­ing sex­u­al attitudes.

As a ful­ly fledged war engulfed the coun­try, he said more young Syr­i­ans are reveal­ing their pri­vate lives in detail: Who they’re look­ing for, what they want and how they feel on their Face­book page sta­tus updates. It has become a trend among the young because they are encoun­ter­ing so many Syr­i­ans like them­selves engag­ing in can­did self-reflec­tion. This is led to more open atti­tudes towards sex.

With lev­els of vio­lence ris­ing across the coun­try, it is under­stand­able that peo­ple retreat into their bed­rooms. Anoth­er 28-year-old activist believed there has been a marked sea change among peo­ple in his gen­er­a­tion towards hav­ing. As we dis­cussed, the waves of chil­dren born in the Dheisheh Pales­tin­ian refugee camp in the occu­pied West Bank — the prod­uct of months-long lock­downs and no elec­tric­i­ty from Israel in the 1990s – he sud­den­ly cried out, “This is exact­ly what’s hap­pen­ing in Syr­ia today.”

How­ev­er, Lay­la wasn’t con­vinced that a Syr­i­an sex­u­al rev­o­lu­tion was in full bloom. Too many peo­ple, she’s stressed, have fled the coun­try and some of those who remain at home have grav­i­tat­ed towards what they know best – con­ser­vatism and religion.

A New Busi­ness Mod­el for Islam

Sex and humor are not new in the Arab world. In the ninth cen­tu­ry, racon­teur and the­olo­gian Al-Jahiz was mak­ing penis jokes in Bagh­dad. His most famous quip about the Al Quraysh tribe of the prophet Muham­mad would make the most ardent Salafi blush today. Sal­wa Gas­pard of Saqi Books of Lon­don and Beirut observed that even though a san­i­tized ver­sion of One Thou­sand and One Nights was told to them as chil­dren in Lebanon, the humor and sex­u­al innu­en­do of the East’s most famous folk­tale were not com­plete­ly lost because kids “could imag­ine what was going on.” Today, there is a cri­sis in Arab pub­lish­ing. The only books pub­lished in their thou­sands and sell­ing like hot cakes in the region’s book fairs, where the Arab world obtains most of its read­ing mate­r­i­al, aren’t the clas­sics but Islam­ic reli­gious books.

“When the Arabs were con­fi­dent they talked and wrote a lot about sex. Once our cul­ture declined and the peo­ple became less self-assured, sex was not dis­cussed in pub­lic,” observed Dr. Shereen El Feki, UN Com­mis­sion­er on HIV and the Law. She explored medieval Islam­ic sex­u­al man­u­als and ency­clo­pe­dias in her impres­sive­ly researched book, Sex and the Citadel: Inti­mate Life in a Chang­ing Arab World.

Abdul­hamid, a for­mer reli­gious fun­da­men­tal­ist, changed his mind about extrem­ism. He wrote a nov­el enti­tled Men­stru­a­tion, and recalled the evening sex edu­ca­tion cours­es at his local mosque, dur­ing which women’s bod­ies; their flu­ids and cycles were much dis­cussed and ana­lyze. This and the con­tin­u­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of Abdel­wa­hab Boudiba’s Sex­u­al­i­ty in Islam, first pub­lished in 1975, sure­ly must counter the pre­vail­ing west­ern mis­con­cep­tion that Islam is some­how prudish.

In the Syr­i­an souk, sex­u­al pun­ning was on dis­play in the form of jokey, fun under­wear on the lin­gerie stalls or behind the glass plate glass win­dows of women’s cloth­ing shops. In pho­to albums, which showed off dif­fer­ent styles of lin­gerie avail­able for sale in the shops, East­ern Euro­pean women mod­eled bits of Lycra and feath­ers — not in a sex­u­al­ized man­ner as seen in the adver­tis­ing of Vic­to­ria Secret or Calvin Klein, but in snaps by local pho­tog­ra­phers, which fea­ture nip­ples, crotch­es and big encour­ag­ing smiles.

Now the lin­gerie com­pa­nies are not sell­ing the vol­ume they did when Gulf Arabs in the niqabs flocked to their whole­sale show­rooms and fac­to­ries. Still, dur­ing the upris­ing, the lin­gerie trade flour­ish­es. As book­seller Stephen J. Gertz wrote in his Book­tryst wrote, despite increas­ing dan­ger in Syria’s cap­i­tal city it was “reveal­ing that the pur­vey­ors of lin­gerie in Dam­as­cus’ souk Al Hamidiyah busi­ness is good if not brisk.” In a BBC report, a cam­era panned along the souk’s stores and stalls, to show tor­so man­nequins out­fit­ted in col­or­ful lin­gerie outfits.

Sex­u­al­i­ty in Islam from Saqi London.

The jus­ti­fi­ca­tion that the lin­gerie served a much-need­ed pur­pose — to break the ice — in tra­di­tion­al, arranged Mus­lim mar­riages between the sex­u­al­ly inex­pe­ri­enced on their wed­ding night — will no doubt paci­fy the Islam­ic fight­ers of Al Nus­tra Front — if and when they final­ly reach Souk al-Hamidiyah. Not even they will be able to stand in the way of the lin­gerie pro­pri­etors. The stal­wart Sun­ni reli­gious fam­i­lies are exact­ly the kind of savvy Mus­lim busi­ness­men whom the Syr­i­an intel­lec­tu­al Sadik Al-Azm main­tained will be at the fore­front of a mod­er­ate and com­merce-mind­ed Islam poised to take over the coun­try once the vio­lence ends.

The Syr­i­ans, known in the Arab world as “the Chi­nese of the Mid­dle East,” have always found a way to make a prof­it even when on low reserves of for­eign cur­ren­cy, which stopped them from bring­ing machines that made nylon thread across the bor­der. At the height of the Hafez Assad dic­ta­tor­ship, a cot­ton lin­gerie man­u­fac­tur­er told me that he and the oth­er fac­to­ries in Alep­po sold lit­er­al­ly tons of ill-fit­ting under­wear and tee-shirts to the Sovi­et Union — per­haps one rea­son for Putin’s dis­dain of Syr­i­an aspi­ra­tions for free­dom. A new phrase has been coined for a more tol­er­ant inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam born out of the expe­ri­ence of coun­tries in the Lev­ant, which alleged­ly respect cit­i­zen­ship and indi­vid­ual minor­i­ty rights while plac­ing a healthy empha­sis on busi­ness. Its name “Sha­mi Islam” bor­rowed from the clas­si­cal Ara­bic for Syr­ia “Sham,” which lat­er came to rep­re­sent Dam­as­cus, a city known for an ancient mer­can­tile past.

The capital’s sexy lin­gerie indus­try was nev­er con­sid­ered tan­fees. In The Ambi­gu­i­ties of Dom­i­na­tion: Pol­i­tics, Rhetoric and Sym­bols in Con­tem­po­rary Syr­ia, Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go pro­fes­sor Lisa Wedeen iden­ti­fied Syr­i­an cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion — from movies to TV-mini series, even Ali Fer­zat car­toons — as vehi­cles to vent anti-regime views. While it is in the nature of tan­fees, to let off steam in a pres­sur­ized, heav­i­ly con­trolled soci­ety, and this negates the need to bring about real change in Syr­ia that will stop the impris­on­ment and tor­ture of polit­i­cal activists and dis­si­dents. It will be incum­bent on crime tri­bunals to do that.

Between the polit­i­cal elite — both dis­si­dent and pro-regime — on one side and the vibrant and some­times course Arab Street, on the oth­er, there has always been an immense dis­con­nect. This gap due in part to class and edu­ca­tion was also widened because of lan­guage. Mid­dle East­ern­ers of sub­stance and dis­tinc­tion in Syr­i­an soci­ety were expect­ed to write and express them­selves in “prop­er” Ara­bic. The rev­o­lu­tion that will prob­a­bly out­last all those that began in 2011 is the one present­ly tak­ing place in com­mu­ni­ca­tions and social media. Under the pres­sure of the on-going con­flict, young Syr­i­ans have adopt­ed a more direct, some­times crude, lan­guage on Face­book and Insta­gram to con­vey their frus­tra­tions, hopes and desires. For them, sex, humor, and straight talk­ing have become the tan­fees of the Syr­i­an upris­ing, and where that will lead them and their coun­try only time will tell.

 

 

This essay orig­i­nal appeared in print under the title “No Sex Please We’re Syr­i­an: Con­fes­sions from the Lin­gerie Draw­er” in Fetishism in Fash­ion by Lidewij Edelkoort and edit­ed by Philip Fim­mano (Ams­ter­dam: Frame Pub­lish­ers) 2013. The essay was writ­ten on the occa­sion of “Sex and Humor as a Response to Syr­i­an Dic­ta­tor­ship, Vio­lence and Oppres­sion,” a pan­el with Nihad Sirees, Galia Kab­bani and Malu Halasa, chaired by Rosie Gold­smith and sup­port­ed by Eng­lish PEN, at Waterstone’s Pic­cadil­ly Lon­don, Jan­u­ary 30, 2013.

 

sex in Syriasexuality and Islamsocial mediasocial moresuprising

Malu Halasa is a London-based writer and editor. Her six co-edited anthologies include—Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, with Zaher Omareen; The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design, with Rana Salam; and the short series: Transit Beirut, with Rosanne Khalaf, and Transit Tehran, with Maziar Bahari. She was managing editor of the Prince Claus Fund Library; a founding editor of Tank Magazine and Editor at Large for Portal 9. As a former freelance journalist in the London, she covered wide-ranging subjects, from water as occupation in Israel/Palestine to Syrian comics during the present-day conflict. Her books, exhibitions and lectures chart a changing Middle East. Malu Halasa’s debut novel, Mother of All Pigs was reviewed by the New York Times as “a microcosmic portrait of … a patriarchal order in slow-motion decline.”

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