A guest writer, a native Syrian man, tells his secret of self-discovery in a very secretive culture. He ponders why Syria has little understanding about homosexuality. This is followed by a very different narrative by a gay American visitor about his steamy night in a bath house in Damascus. He finds “Gay Syria” an eye-opening experience.
March 12, 2004
A Personal Story
The Arabic word “Loti” used in Syria, and eventually the Arab world, to describe a same sex attracted man. This term came from the name of prophet Lut, who was sent to people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Obviously, the word itself has a historical meaning that makes the people nowadays feel as we “gay people “came form that era.
My story with homosexuality started very early, when I was about 6 yrs old. I was in my early classes of primary school in Syria. During that time, I heard a lot of criminal stories and parental warnings about men who rape boys. This affected me highly as I made special notions about gay people full of crime, hate, and fear. As I grew up, passing through classes with success, I changed physically and mentally, started a new level of my life, which characterized by careful exploring the gay world.
A fact that is known for every one is that Internet has made the change. Internet was the real change in my life. I found that there are gay communities around the world, which made me feel that I am not alone in this world. The thing that made me see my position in Syria and its society in a new perspective. As a man that has rights and projects.
As a result of my new view to life, I tried to identify the problem between us “gay people” and the society. Remembering all the events, notions, and talks that passed through my life, I started to identify the problem. And finally I concluded to some points that I believe it strongly contribute to our gay issue in Syria.
First the faith issue. A Syrian gay might be Muslim, Christian, or Jew. All these religions consider homosexuality as a sin that must be vanished. This concept creates a great paradox of being a gay and at the same time believing in one of those religions. Therefore, gay people try to hide their identity and feel shame in their deep, in the fear of society and religion.
Second issue is the ambition. Gay people in Syria, as every one around the world, are very emotional and sensitive. However, the problem is that they do not try to use these feelings to boost their desire to let the society in Syria have a real knowledge about us. They are afraid.
Third issue is in silence and ignorance. In Syria, there is a city called Idlib. Many jokes are told about the people of Idlib as homosexuals, boys’ lovers, and all that stuff. The paradox here is that in Syria we laugh at those jokes a lot, but then when meet a man from that town; we never talk about homosexuality seriously without strange looks and fake smiles. So as you can see, the ignorance of the problem and the absence of real to desire to seek understanding is part of the whole issue.
Finally, the reader can feel that the responsibility is distributed among all Syrians, including gay people. I believe that blaming others and waiting them to take the first step is not the solution. Syrian gays should start thinking seriously about their future in Syria as an important block of the Syrian society fort. (Syria has a sodomy law, punishable by up to 3 years in prison.)
A Visitors View of Gay Damascus; Hot Hammams (bathhouses)
By a gay American visitor
Damascus itself is really great. Much of it reminds one of a fading, post-communist city such as Budapest, with hideous socialist architecture standing side-by-side with graceful Art Deco buildings from the 20s or 30s that are quaint in their dusty elegance. The fact that you’re in a near-totalitarian state is ever apparent: pictures of Bashir Assad (current president) and his father look down from every government building and are displayed in almost every shop, restaurant, and office.
And there is internet access, but, frustratingly, access to the mail portions of MSN, Yahoo, etc., is blocked, as are, of course, almost any sex sites. I was fortunate to have checked www.cruisingforsex.com before leaving Kabul so I had some foreknowledge of the Damascus situation and scene.
Our hotel, a Meridien, was elegant in an overdone way, but the furnishings and fixtures were dated and some parts of the hotel were simply closed off for lack of activity. It was the type of hotel where corrupt French politicians and officials would make shady deals with Syrian arms merchants in the shadow of a belly-dancer’s armpits. But it was clearly the happening place in town, as many elegantly-dressed men and women were sipping tea and coffee in the atrium lobby along with, curiously, nice-looking young men late in the evening who were usually sitting by themselves seemingly waiting. For whom?
Well, as it turns out, there is actually a fairly lively gay scene in Damascus. And, in that secular Arab way, it appears to be tolerated, as long as one sticks to one’s assigned social role. I found that out when I went to the Al Jadid hammam (public bathouse), which I got from the above-mentioned website.
The hammams in Damascus are generally clean, well-lit, and very comfortable, as we discovered earlier in the day when we went to an all-male place that was reputedly the best in town, in the old souq. We were not disappointed. Not only was the hygiene level very high, but the crowd was good to look at, including college students who happened to stop by on the way home from school.
And then there was the Al Jadid. Now, I’ve spent enough time in the Middle East to surmise that this was probably a sauna with ‘covert’ action as such places are sometimes described. Well, I was wrong. It turned out to be a sauna with very overt action. Apart from the fact that it didn’t have private rooms, a hot tub, porno lounge, and some of the other accoutrements of gay saunas in the West, in every other aspect it was indistinguishable from those places that we all love.
Heavy cruising and wild action were found in the three smaller rooms off the main hot room where people would wash themselves and each other out of tiny basins. Two of the three smaller rooms were dark. The fact that the third was brightly lit didn’t seem to inhibit anything. I don’t know why the guys even bothered to leave their sheets wrapped around them as they walked around, because they quickly came off in the darkrooms. Even the behavior of the guys was typical…there were macho guys, quiet types, and screaming queens who came in groups and whose lilting voices bounced off the tiles in all directions. If only I could understand Arabic, I thought.
I talked to three guys there. Not many spoke English, but a good English speaker explained to me that there was even another gay hammam in Damascus. I asked if there were guys there “for rent,” and he said that “the queens usually are.” In talking to another guy, a strapping, muscular dude named Samer who worked as a house painter, I found out that there was one Arabic trait that persisted even in the relative freedom of the hammam, the rigid top/bottom distinction.
The ‘kings,’ let’s call them, always boinked the ‘queens,’ and never the other way around. Samer would be talking to me, then he would disappear and return no more than 10 minutes later, saying he had just porked another guy (and sometimes even pointing out the guy). Although there was initial hugging and kissing in the Arab way when guys first met, there didn’t seem to be much affection in the actual sexual act. It was just, wham, bam, thank you Alam.
Truth be told, by the end of the evening I didn’t like Samer very much, because in his broken English he said he rather admired Saddam and Osama Bin Laden, who he said “changed the world.” I don’t think my comparison of them with Hitler and Stalin got very far.
But to his credit, he did admit that there wasn’t much freedom of thought in Syria, and that things were probably better in Western countries where he could “do as he pleased.” He had actually had a relationship with a British guy who worked in Syria as – surprise – an English teacher for the British Council. But the Brit had gone home and there wasn’t even the possibility of e-mailing relationship. I wonder if the Brit had ever tired of being buggered constantly without any reciprocation?
Samer also said that at one point someone walked up to him and said, “why are you talking to that foreigner? He probably has AIDS.” I had to explain to him that not every gay guy from the west was infected, although it was a serious problem. Another cutie from a small town outside of Damascus chatted with me for a while, and said that he was a university student studying French. He also had a relationship with another British guy who worked as a teacher there. Ah, those British poofs, I think they have always had an affinity for Arabs, stretching even further back than T. E. Lawrence. Well, in their pale, pasty jowliness, I think they find the perfect contrast.
All the while everything was going on, the attendants (two or three ratty old men) went in and out, cleaning up cigarette butts (another indication that this was a gay hammam was that smoking was taking place everywhere, even in the most humid places where it didn’t seem chemically possible for a match to be lit), seemingly oblivious to all activities taking place.
Hammams in Syria always end with the attendant wrapping you up in several new towels, including one on your head a la Doris Day, and serving tea as you decompress on high benches in the changing area. All in all, a most interesting way to spend a chilly night in Damascus.
And it’s a chillier night than in Kabul. Our return trip to Kabul, where the writer currently works for an NGO, was delayed by two days because of a heavy snowstorm here in Damascus. Overall this winter has been much colder than last, and feels even more so because the heating in our new apartment in Kabul has still not been figured out very well, necessitating much moving of space heaters around. But it’s a big relief to be out of the foreign “group homes” and into our own place, People are flipping out as the winter drags on endlessly.