As large parts of Syria are being torn apart and threatened with increasing paralysis or eradication, Damascus is also changing, but in a slightly different way. The city is now fragmented by governmental checkpoints: what were once short drives have been forcefully elongated into one-hour commutes. Electricity and water have been rarefied into luxuries. Life in many parts of the city is growing more and more difficult: food is becoming scarce, products expensive. Shelling and fighting have made being out on the streets in many outlying parts of the city dangerous.
Still, there remains a relative normalcy to life in the Syrian capital. Parts of its night scene have managed to survive, allowing people to lose their war in a newfound feeling of social and cultural freedom, conditioned by chaos. As society’s convictions and fears increasingly get directed at new behaviours and actors, individuals have found themselves less burdened by policing eyes. Within this paradoxical space, where geography is tightly monitored but social space has become, to a certain extent, neglected as a result of war’s more pressing distractions, Syria’s LGBTQ community has found itself able to step, however briefly, however partially, out of the shadows.
Before the outbreak of the conflict, members of the community led what could be called a double life. The threat of both social ostracisation and punishment loomed over them, with homosexuality prohibited by law since 1949. Being caught meant jail, torture and humiliation. “Before the revolution, the gay community was very locked up,” explains Danny, a young man from Damascus. When I ask how he came out to his father, he recalls a troubled time in his life, full of fights between the two of them. He remembers one confrontation, which ended with him shouting the secret in his father’s face. Unable to come to terms with the news, Danny’s dad kicked him out of the family home, forcing him to abandon Syria altogether. He didn’t return until 2010.
Ruham, an openly bisexual woman in her late twenties, has spent her whole life in Damascus, where she has been an active member of the underground LGBTQ scene. It was a fragmented community, she explains. Gay men and lesbians, for example, rarely mingled. “We relied a lot on our trusted circles. Most things we did secretly, but sometimes we felt comfortable within our smaller communities,” she says.
Whether underground or out in the open, what was once considered deviant in Damascus is today up for debate. The conflict has invited change, and a growing number of people are declaring themselves atheists, discussing sex and sexuality more openly and publicly and, most surprisingly, allowing the LGBTQ community to try and come out from hiding.
My father, Samer, a loyal resident of Damascus, has refused to leave the city throughout the ongoing conflict. Many others have found themselves in a similar position, afraid of what might happen if their homes are abandoned; worried about the difficulty – or impossibility – of travel. When we speak, my father always shares stories from this ‘new Damascus’, mindful to routinely reweave my connection to the home I once knew. He recalls sitting in a crowded cafe in Bab Touma amidst people smoking their shishas as if each puff were their last, muttering in between ravenous inhales their frustrations with ISIS, the regime, the opposition and the international community as a whole. “What God?” his friend asked in a playful way. “Let’s just smoke in peace. I don’t believe in God anymore. All I believe in now is this shisha.”
Still, the looming threat of intensified conflict is always there; the knowledge that killings and abductions are not far away, not even from the age-old alleys and open squares inside the protective walls of Damascus’ old town.
When I was growing up in Damascus, we started frequenting bars and clubs at a very young age. On a typical Thursday evening, we would gather in one of a number of small establishments tucked away in the old city – some place with a cave-like ambiance to match the area’s historical aura: the ancient pavements, the wooden facades, the labyrinthine alleys and passageways. Or we’d visit a more contemporary club in the city’s more chic parts, like Abou Roumaneh or Mezzeh, depending on what was in vogue in a given month. We would crowd these tiny, dark spaces pumping with a melange of Western and Arabic pop. We all knew each other, for the most part.
There were probably LGBTQ couples among us, but we weren’t aware of them at the time. Their identities, like Danny explains, “were limited to the circle of gay people. It was mostly about casual sex and side relationships and people hoping that the issue of being gay would just go away.” To avoid persecution and alienation, members of the community had to keep largely out of sight, gathering discretely in hammams, small cafes and parks, where they felt somewhat safe.
“The bars and cafes we frequented were not places where we could kiss or hold hands and be openly gay, but the owners knew we were homosexuals and didn’t turn us away,” Ruham explains. Hammams were popular meeting points for the LGBTQ community, allowing people to gather day or night. Since they were already segregated by gender, they didn’t arouse much suspicion. New LGBTQ spots were popularised through word of mouth, friends and friends of friends guiding one another on where to go. Online chat rooms and gay blogs also played a role in stringing together the loose community. The most popular gatherings, however, were private parties where people didn’t feel the need to hide their sexuality, but even these weren’t devoid of risk. In 2010, Ruham recalls, “the biggest gay arrest happened when a house party was raided and 32 men were detained for three months without charges.”
While financially well-off members of the community were able to gather in select bars and clubs, the less privileged, Ruham tells me, had to meet in parks late into the night. To remain invisible, just like they were to the larger society. “But if they were caught by the police or secret service, that would mean humiliation, torture and, worst of all, rape.”
In Damascus, especially among the social elite, reputations have always been sacrosanct. Growing up, we were expected to remain composed at all times, projecting the illusion of perfection so that our grandmas and their friends could find us suitable marital partners without our ‘behaviour’ getting in the way of the immaculate futures and legacies they were trying to construct. Today, many Damascenes have left the city, and those who remain have found themselves tasked with building a new society as their old one crumbles around them.
Prior to the revolution, there were certain norms that most Syrians were expected to abide by. No premarital sex (no talk of sex at all, actually), no disrespectful or shameful behaviour in public, keep to inter-religious or inter-class relationships. But since the eruption of the conflict, people seem less concerned with the safeguarding of reputations and more worried about their day to day survival.
“People in Damascus – even my parents – are too preoccupied with all the other problems in Syria right now to care about who I sleep with,” says Elie, a gay Syrian man in his late twenties who now lives in New York but still travels home to Syria regularly. During his visits, Elie finds himself able to visit bars in Damascus’ upscale neighbourhoods that offer a ‘gay-tolerant’ environment.
Sereen, a Damascene in her mid-twenties, is straight but often hangs out at these bars, which all in all don’t total more than four. They’re not gay bars, she clarifies, but welcoming to members of the LGBTQ community. One bar in particular, she says, is run by a manager rumoured to be gay and popular among the community. The regime is suspected of knowing about him and his clientele, but lets the bar operate unobstructed irregardless. No one knows for certain why the regime has turned a blind eye, but since the establishment isn’t officially a ‘gay’ one and is frequented by many heterosexuals, it is challenging for them to raid it. There’s even speculation that the regime has allowed these spaces to operate so that it can monitor the LGBTQ community.
Danny suggests that this change being experienced by Syria’s LGBTQ community is a result of the flood of information that has entered the country from overseas. “For 40 years, the regime blocked every possible source, from the Internet to books. So one of the topics that never crossed the ‘iron wall’ around Syria was homosexuality.” Syrians had long been told that homosexuality is an illness rather than a sexual orientation. Today, the community is better able to negotiate questions of sexuality in conversation with the world beyond the one the regime had delicately constructed and imposed.
In the shadow of war, Damascenes of all sexual orientations continue to embrace the therapeutic night. And even those who choose not to seem less preoccupied with observing and judging others. My father was never a strict man in the conventional sense, but of course there were limits to what I could do and how I could behave. But as our conflict moves into its fifth year, my family has become less concerned with how I navigate my personal life. There’s no one left to judge us. Now, we worry about when we will see one another again. “We don’t care about health or what’s right or wrong,” says Samer, “because tomorrow will probably be gone anyways.”