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1 Syria postpones U.N. draft resolution on human rights and sexual orientation 4/03
2 Have Syrian authorities threatened gays in Syria? 8/03
3 Book Review: Cleopatra’s Wedding Present: Travels through Syria 9/03
4 Using gay "liberation" as a war guise in Iraq and Syria 4/03
5 Syrian woman thanks open-minded Iraqi cleric 3/04
6 Fear and Hiding in ‘gay’ Syria 6/05
7 Syrian youth receive information on HIV/AIDS 6/05
8 AIDS Patients Should Be Stoned before Spreading Their Disease 11/05
9 An American traveler spends three weeks in Egypt… 1/06
10 Warning from a gay Syrian regarding sexual activity in public hammans 6/06
11 The Road Back to Damascus 6/07 non-gay backgound story
12 Eastern promises: Gay Israeli travelers… 11/07
13 Death sentence: gay Syrian teenager facing deportation 3/08
14 In Syria, Gay Iraqis Seek New Life 6/08
15 Syria’s gays, lesbians fight discrimination 12/09
16 Gay Travels Through Seru 2/10
17 Syrian authorities crack down on gay men 6/10
18 Gay life in Syria 6/10
19 Syrian authorities release the group of men alleged of “gay parties” 7/10
April 25, 2003
Syria votes to postpone U.N. draft resolution on human rights and sexual orientation
U.N. Commission on Human Rights decided, in a recorded vote of 24 in favour and 17 against, with 10 abstentions, to postpone consideration of draft resolution (E/CN.4/2003/L.92) on human rights and sexual orientation until its sixtieth session.
The draft resolution would have the Commission express deep concern at the occurrence of violations of human rights in the world against persons on the grounds of their sexual orientation; stress that human rights and fundamental freedoms were the birthright of all human beings, and that the universal nature of these rights and freedoms was beyond question; and call upon all States to promote and protect the human rights of all persons regardless of their sexual orientation.
The results were as follows:
In favour (24):
Algeria, Argentina, Bahrain, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, China, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, India, Kenya, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Thailand, Togo, Uganda, Viet Nam, and Zimbabwe.
Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, France, Germany, Guatemala, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Republic of Korea, Sweden, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
Armenia, Australia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ireland, Paraguay, Peru, Russian Federation, South Africa, and United States.
August 14, 2003 – GME
Have Syrian authorities threatened gays in Syria who have corresponded with GayMiddleEast.com?
Is it possible that the Syrian authorities have threatened gays in Syria that have corresponded with GayMiddleEast.com? As we cannot ask the gays in Syria if indeed they really have been threatened, we cannot present you with a concrete answer. However, we will present to you the developing situation.
Lately, following a real "wake up" of the gay community in Syria, GayMiddleEast.com has received many e mails from readers in Syria wanting to put up personal ads on the site. However, few were willing to write a few lines about gay life and conditions in Syria. The letter we received from one Syria man on July 8, 2003 invoked many reactions. We also read with interest the article that appeared on August 7, 2003 on the internet site of Al Bawada. In this article, the writer speaks of suppression by the police, arrests of gays in Syria that were simply to "keep the gays in their place."
As he wrote, "Sometimes the police come and if the guys are doing anything "out of the ordinary" like dancing to music, kissing or looking "too gay" – the police take them for a while." Accordingly, this courageous gay person in Syria ended his letter to GayMiddleEast.com stating: "I think the gays in the middle east sure need protection."
S. A. Getenio, manager of GME states, "As soon as I saw the letter from Syria on our GayMiddleEast.com site, I was concerned that the Syrian authorities would react negatively. This is basically the reason that we kept a low profile on the letter. We could have made a red headline out of it. It isn’t everyday when we hear about the jailing of gays inside Syria. When we saw the Al Bawada article, we were again concerned for the welfare of our Syrian readers. Two days after that article appeared, GayMiddleEast.com received an e mail from the Syrian who’s letter we had put up on the site. He requested that we remove it immediately.
In Syria there is a law called Article 520 of the Penal Code of 1949, that in fact gives the authorities the right to prosecute homosexuals and to give them up to a 3 year prison sentence.
Book Review: Cleopatra’s Wedding Present: Travels through Syria
(Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies)
by: Robert Tewdwr Moss
A languorous, yet exciting trip to a complicated land
This absolutely remarkable story brings to life the sights, sounds and smells – in all their beauty and ugliness – of Syria. The book recounts the journey of one gay man has he spends several months traveling around this complex and exotic country, which was actually part of Mark Anthony’s love gift to Cleopatra. Robert Tewdwr Moss was tragically murdered in London just after this manuscript was completed, so he never got to realize the fruits of his labors. This is such a pity because Moss was an extremely talented writer, who had a wonderful capacity to totally reinvent travel writing. This memoir works in many ways – as a profound treatise on the Middle Eastern Society; a chilling history of ethnic crimes – particularly the Armenian genocide – a picaresque adventure story, a compelling travelogue, and a touching and affecting tale of sexual self-discovery.
Moss certainly captures the essence of the Middle East – from its indescribable poverty, and its government corruption to its chaos and the unconditional hospitality and uncomplicated generosity that is offered by many of the local people. The story begins with a description of the "hot winds," "the blinding heat," the "fine brown dust" from the dust storms, the "chaos of the streets and the air "clotted with diesel fumes hanging like a cloak around us." As the story progresses and Robert leaves the city of Aleppo to travel to Damascus, he infuses the narrative with descriptions of this suffocating yet exotic world: the dirty collapsing towns that have had a "great past and no present" full of "the old merchants you see here – sly, and leathery, survivors."
Moss had a gift for describing the intricate details of everyday life, from the clothes to the exotic foods, to the markets and bazaars, and of course, the Arab frankness towards sexual transactions, which "are regarded in a purely practical light." The text recounts Moss’s trips to various ancient sites, and there are some gorgeous descriptions of the ancient towns of Palmyra, Basra, and Lattakia (Have a map of Syria handy so that you can trace his journey). There’s also an excellent introduction by Lecretia Stewart that fills in the blanks about Robert’s life and work and talks, quite frankly about his horrific murder and about his somewhat closeted sexuality. Cleopatra’s Wedding Present is profound and beautiful, and is without a doubt, one of the best travelogues of the Middle East that I have ever read. Robert Tewdwr Moss was a real talent, and as this story shows, his loss was just terrible.
April 17, 2003 – Bay Windows, Boston, MA
Using gay "liberation" as a war guise in Iraq and Syria
by Mubarak Dahir
Gay and lesbian people who endorse the war in and occupation of Iraq – and possible future military action against other countries like Syria – need to stop using the guise of caring about the plight of gay Arabs to rationalize their support. It’s an argument fraught with emotional manipulation, hypocrisy, intellectual dishonesty and factual error.
Even the most vehement opponents of military intervention in Iraq rightly concede that there were plenty of reasons to topple Saddam Hussein and his government. He was a harsh and brutal dictator, and it is near impossible to find anyone, regardless of his or her political leanings, who is sorry to see the rogue gone. Gay and lesbian proponents of the war and the occupation should stick to this core truth when arguing their case. Invoking the supposed freeing of GLBT people actually weakens their position rather than strengthening it.
It’s easy to see why advocates of war who are speaking to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities would invoke the freedom of GLBT peoples in trying to win over their audience. But we shouldn’t fall for that kind of insincere play on our emotions.
It’s laughable to argue that "liberating" gay and lesbian Iraqis is one reason to support the war in and military occupation of Iraq. The truth is that the plight for gay and lesbian Iraqis – just like those of gay and lesbian Afghanis – will change little under whatever new government is installed.
There is no denying that GLBT people in Iraq and other Arab countries are persecuted. But the forces of oppression that keep down GLBT people in the Arab World are complex, and cannot be altered by simple "regime change."
Religion, tradition, culture, family pressures, ignorance of the contemporary understandings of modern psychology – all these things and more factor together in various ways to make life extremely difficult for GLBT people in Iraq and other Arab nations. But to believe that life for GLBT people will be better – or different in any real way – than it was under Saddam Hussein is willfully naïve. The social, religious and cultural forces that oppress GLBT people will not have changed one iota under a new Iraqi government.
Furthermore, the line that invading Iraq, and now possibly Syria, will "free" gay people there is heaped in hypocrisy.
The most obvious element of hypocrisy is that the forces that are supposedly emancipating our downtrodden GLBT brethren are themselves hyper-homophobic. How can anyone seriously argue that the United States military is an instrument for GLBT liberation? From there, the layers of hypocrisy only deepen.
Gay hawks mouth the mantra of GLBT liberation in Iraq and Syria, and go to lengths to point out how oppressive those regimes are to homosexuals. Yet what about other neighboring countries that border Iraq? Saudi Arabia is probably the most socially backward nation in the world, run by unsavory dictators who are infamous in the Arab World for their suppression of freedoms of all kinds. Saudi Arabia even allegedly executes openly homosexual people. Not to mention that 17 of the 19 hijackers involved in September 11 were from Saudi Arabia. If ever there was an argument for overthrowing a country, Saudi Arabia should take the prize.
But the Saudi leaders – who are sitting on what is by far the world’s largest oil reserve – are our political allies. Hush, then, any talk of invading them.
And what about Egypt? Right now, the Egyptian government is carrying out a choreographed crackdown of gay men and gay life in that country, arresting and jailing dozens of gay men through entrapment, Internet stings, informants and possibly even telephone wire-tapings. International human rights groups have documented torture, threats and beatings against gay men there. Even our own government has spoken up against the outrageous persecution.
But are gay hawks urging that we send the Marines to Cairo to "liberate" the gay men suffering there? Hardly.
The final and perhaps most personally infuriating aspect of the hypocrisy around the argument that we are invading foreign countries in the interest of freeing gay people is the way we treat gay Arabs and gay Muslims here in the United States.
Most gay Arabs and gay Muslims in this country come here specifically seeking the incredible social freedom to be gay that they would never have at home. But particularly since September 11, gay Arabs and gay Muslims have felt under attack here, even from within the GLBT community.
I have been personally spared most of that prejudice. Though I was born in Jerusalem to a Palestinian father, I had an American mother, and I was primarily raised in this country. I don’t have dark skin or an accent or any of the other telltale signs of my Arab heritage, other than my name.
But in the past two years, and particularly as the propaganda on the Iraq war went into overdrive, I know from friends and colleagues and dozens of sources I’ve interviewed that the gay community has often been prejudiced and discriminatory and unwelcoming to Arabs and Muslims living here. To talk about "liberating" gay Iraqis in Baghdad while we mistreat gay Arabs and Muslims in our own midst is just too much to stomach.
March 5, 2004 – Middle East Times
A Syrian woman is giving thanks to the open-minded Iraqi cleric whose understanding led her to have a sex change operation.
Hiba, 33, faced years of trauma – both as a woman ‘trapped’ in the body of a man, and – over the past year – as one of the Arab world’s few transsexuals. But after 19 attempts at suicide, Hiba says she has been saved. “I feel I am a complete female now.” Hiba recalls the depression she felt when Imad, as she was called, discovered he was not a “complete man.”
“ I discovered at 18 that I was incapable of any male sexual behavior and I was deeply embarrassed by the girls who looked at me with pity and preferred to stay away,” Hiba said. “I took poison several times and tried to drown myself.” When his conservative father threw him out of the house in 1997, Imad tried to start a new life working in a Gulf Arab country. But his problems followed him. After three years, Imad was fired and admitted to a mental hospital where he tried to commit suicide three times. He was also jailed for failing to pay back a bank loan and for homosexual behavior, a sin in Arab societies. But it was then that things took a turn for the better.
“ The most important thing that happened to Imad during his sojourn was that he met an Iraqi cleric who sent him to a gland specialist, who in turn established that Imad’s original gender was female and that he should recover his nature,” Hiba said. “ The cleric assured Imad that having a sex change did not contradict the teachings of Islam, which aim to serve the interests of humanity and ensure the happiness of people,” she said.
Medical tests confirmed that Imad’s genes were mainly those of a female, and that his female hormones were more active and pronounced than his male ones.
Dr. Muhammad Hassan, the plastic surgeon who performed the surgery by replacing Imad’s atrophic male organs with female ones, said, “Such an operation necessitates solid medical tests proving that the transformation could be possible, as well as psychological reports and legal approvals allowing the change of gender in the official records.”
Hassan said cases such as Imad’s were not very common in the Arab world, as many who suffer genetic disorders tend to conceal the fact. “ I now live in peace with myself,” Hiba said. But only Hiba’s mother has accepted her transformation, “as God’s wish.” The rest of her family has rejected her.
June 2005 – GlobalGayz.com
Fear and Hiding in ‘gay’ Syria
GlobalGayz.com receives messages from around the world but rarely from Syria. It’s no wonder. Re-read stories #2 and #3 above and a reader needs little imagination to understand that Syria appears to be one of the most repressive states for LGBT people in the Middle East.
Confirming the fear and hiding that gays suffer in Syria is a recent message sent to this web site by a Syrian native who has managed to live–temporarily–outside the country.
This person writes: "It must be told about the suffering of Syrian gays under the old and the new Assad presidents. Almost no one dares to write any comments in Syrian newspapers or tell private news about gays arrested or persecuted. The only mention of homosexuality is as a disease and a perverse illness."
It’s no surprise the reports have been so few about such persecution in Syria. Even when such message are sent anonymously to web groups or sites such as GlobalGayz.com or GayMiddleEast.com the writers often become very paranoid that somehow the Syrian authorities will identify and seize them, even outside Syria.
In item #2 above it was reported the writer asked to have his comments removed. So too did the writer to GlobalGayz. His exact words were taken off but they reappear–much edited–in this brief report posted to re-emphasize the level of fear and danger gays live under on a daily basis. Closeted and anxious gays have no where to turn; perhaps to a trusted friend sworn to secrecy but clearly not to any human rights organization inside Syria.
The writer continues: "In my country there is a dictatorial president and regime, so gays are frightened to speak about such matters as human rights, which are not real in Syria now. Many gays have been arrested and are now in Syrian prisons. We don’t even know how to begin opposing the Syrian regime. We need information about getting asylum in Canada or UK. We cannot fight here, only leave our families and homes. Also in Europe you can’t be arrested if you are homosexual, but Syrian police can come to arrest you."
His final painful words are, "don’t leave me alone in this world, I lost everything as I try to find a difficult way to freedom. But am I really free? I had to separate, yes divorce, from my wife and children. I am no longer able to do my work and I am a foreigner to my own home. It was too painful to leave my old parents alone."
So he continues to pursue the very narrow path of asylum in western countries that proclaim the high value of human rights but are surrounded by dense bureaucracies that tie up asylum seekers into knots of frustration.
From another writer to GlobalGayz (July 2005) the painful message continues to come out of Syria. Here is a more recent description about LGBT citizens there:
"Thank you for helping me in the publishing of the true situation of gays in Syria. The gay life must be very secret in Syria and dangerous when the police or neighbor or relative or Muslims fanatic discovers you, especially now after many terrorist organizations were discovered in Syria such a sham army and Muslims fanatics. Some gays are afraid of meeting in the street or restaurant or cinema or Turkish bath in Damascus or Aleppo or Hama or Homs Lattaquia. All Syrian cities are not safe areas for gays.
"The syrian police look for gays to arrest them. After the arrest, they lead them for medical test using outdated methods to prove you had anal sex; they do it with fingers and put a special thing in the ass (the same instrument a doctor uses when you have problem in your ass). I knew many gay were arrested and examined for that reason gay always are afraid to be discovered by such shameful methods.
"Many gays decide to marry to escape from the pressure of the Islamic life, but we still have a very high danger of getting arrested by so-called Syrian moral police or sex police. They have a special military court that can condemn gays to 3 years or more of prison. All gays in Syria have pressure from theirs family to marry.
"The government doesn’t have any social or medical help for gays nor do they give any information about HIV or AIDS. I hope some of the LGBT world can put strong pressure against Syria to do some campaign to protect Syrian gays. I advise all gays who want to visit Syria to give help and if they meet others for sex to use condom always.
"Homosexual behavior in Syria is illegal; section 520 of the penal code criminalizes any carnal knowledge against the order of nature with a maximum penalty of 3 years imprisonment. Homosexuality cannot be admitted openly.
"There is no visible social support for gay and lesbian rights; according to the Syrian embassy in Washington homosexuality is not recognized by the authorities in Syria. The ambassador suggested that if a homosexual person does not want to be harassed or discriminated against he should keep his sexual preference a secret. Amnesty International in the UK had campaigns for imprisoned gays in Syrian but many Syrians fanatics tried to delete those topics about gays on the Internet and on Syrian web sites.
"Many sexually active gays try to avoid the police in public areas such certain parks in Aleppo or WC’s in Damascus or Aleppo, so I advise gay Syrians or tourists gay who come to Syria to be very careful because it’s dangerous. Even the Australian embassy in Lebanon had advised visitors to avoid Syrian gay life. Now it’s a high risk for gay in Syria because they found many Muslim fanatics are working in secret ways in Syria. Nervous police can do a ‘razzia’ against areas where gay hang out. We live in hell life, I can confirm that police arrested many Syrians gays and put them in different prisons. I knew one transsexual man who was raped by Syrian criminal police and violated him. He had long hair, he was raped behind the Biblous Cinema in Damascus in Marja Square 2 years ago.
"I hope all organizations can focus to help gay Syrians and investigate our jails. It’s time to have our freedom like Spain now has the right to marry–and maybe Turkey in the future. We are near such countries who were one time Muslim countries. Turkey is still mostly Muslim so I hope all gays can start now to defend their rights as a minority in our Muslim society too."
13 June 2005 – IRIN News
Stria: Focus on HIV/AIDS
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
Syrian youth receive information on HIV/AIDS
Damascus – Syria is a low prevalence rate country for HIV/AIDS but in spite of this, efforts to tackle the issue are being stepped up.
The aim is to try and prevent the disease spreading because of lack of awareness, particularly among young people.
" I do not want to die because of ignorance. I want to lead a better life. I am aware that inadequate information about the transmission of this disease and not receiving proper counseling could leave us to suffer in silence and not seek help," Suha, who only gave her first name, said as she took an AIDS test at a centre for counseling youth.
The centre is affiliated to the Syrian Family Planning Association (SFPA) and offers voluntary AIDS testing. The primary objective is to prevent and control the spread of HIV/AIDS through sex by changing sexual behaviour, a largely taboo subject in Syria. " I am impressed by the services offered here. It gives me great comfort, because this centre provides reproduction services as well, hence, nobody will notice that I am visiting the centre for an AIDS test," Suha added.
HIV/AIDS cases in Syria
The number of HIV/AIDS cases reported between 1987 and 2004 was 330, of which 126 were foreigners and 204 Syrians, according to government statistics. Dr Haytham Sweidan, director of the national AIDS programme at the Ministry of Health (MoH) said they were providing people with access to effective HIV prevention and treatment. Sweidan explained, however, that non-Syrians testing positive were immediately deported to their own countries.
Out of the 204 Syrians infected, 80 were HIV positive, while 124 were living with full-blown AIDS, of whom 101 had died. The majority of those infected were male and aged between 19 and 45. Mother-to-child transmission represented 4 percent of the transmissions and infections through blood transfusions stood at 11 percent, he explained.
The trend is that more young women are being infected than young men and although many cases may be unreported, Syria still has a low prevalence rate, the official said.
Awareness and Education
The government programme in place since 1987, has developed a strategy to prevent the spread of the disease by providing information, preventing mother-to-child transmission and expanding care and treatment such as provision of antiretroviral(ARV) drugs for children and parents living with HIV/AIDS.
The message of the programme is communicated through print, the electronic media and various publications, in cooperation with the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF. " We continuously hold training courses for young people on HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases," he said.
HIV/AIDS awareness has also been integrated into secondary school curricula within subjects such as science and literacy, as the most serious epidemic threatening human beings. " The Ministry of Education (MoE) is currently developing the school curriculum and has put more focus on this epidemic," Ghalia Zuhour Adi, head of the curriculum department, MoE said.
UNICEF plans to expand protection and support for orphans and children affected by HIV/AIDS, including fighting discrimination against those living with the virus. Dr Lama Mouakea, SFPA’s executive director, said the main concern now was that poor awareness could bring a rise in prevalence rates among the youth. " The only weapon against this deadly disease is prevention."
Rula Qeteb, a volunteer at the centre for counseling youth said most visitors were university students. "We receive approximately 10 cases every day, some for counseling and information about the disease; others come for the rapid AIDS test. A number of cases were positive," she explained.
A hotline has also been established for counseling and information.
" The average person just doesn’t seem to be able to grasp the immediacy of the threat of HIV/AIDS, as some visitors are not careful, they don’t get themselves tested, even though they have more than one sexual partner," Qeteb added.
Working with Experts
The Syrian national AIDS programme is supported by UNAIDS. This ensures that global policies are applied in combating the disease, supervising training and educational courses, conducting studies on AIDS and taking care of those living with the virus.
There are no special hospitals for those with HIV/AIDS, because there is no need to quarantine or isolate HIV/AIDS patients as it cannot be transmitted through daily social contact, Sweidan said, pointing out that HIV/AIDS patients should not be discriminated against or stigmatised.
In addition, in every governorate there is a physician in charge of the implementation of the national AIDS programme, to confidentially monitor patients, he added. " Our success in combating HIV/AIDS must be measured by its impact on our children and young people," Mamadou Kiari Liman-Tinguiri, UNICEF representative in Damascus, said in remarks he made during a recent workshop on AIDS.
He pointed out that the agency had supported NGOs in working together to establish AIDS/HIV information centres. They educate young people about the disease and teach them skills in decision-making and communication, as well as improving their self-confidence and ability to make informed choices.
Syria has set a target of halting and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015 as part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were signed up to in 2000. More than 40 million people worldwide are HIV positive.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in May, that HIV/AIDS was still posing a grave threat to the world. However, Annan admitted that the goal of containing the deadly disease by 2015 was no longer realistic.
Sweidan pointed out that the number of infections in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region was increasing markedly, although it has a low prevalence rate at present running at 0.3 percent, one of the lowest rates in the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that socio-economic factors in the region as well as emigration and immigration indicate there will be an increase in the disease in coming years.
Dhimmi Watch – September 11, 2005
Syrian Deputy Minister of Religious Endowments, Muhammad Abd Al-Sattar Al-Sayyid:
AIDS Patients Should Be Stoned before Spreading Their Disease
The following are excerpts from an interview with the Syrian deputy minister of religious endowments, Muhammad Abd Al-Sattar Al-Sayyid, which aired on Syrian TV on August 30, 2005
Al-Sayyid: All the diseases that have to do with sexual organs, mainly AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhea, and so on… When these diseases appeared, they killed millions. More people were killed by these diseases than by wars. The only reason for this is the straying from the divine way regarding fornication, and when I say fornication – "Do not even approach abomination" – this means fornication, homosexuality, and all the sexual deviation it entails.
Host: Everything that has to do with abominations.
Al-Sayyid: "Do not even approach abomination, surely it is a foul thing and an evil way." When Islam set the punishment (for fornication)… This is why there’s a hidden desire in one’s heart… If only we had stoned everyone who had committed this abomination wouldn’t it have been better than letting these diseases infect others, spreading to millions around the world?
Host: Most certainly.
Al-Sayyid: Most certainly. The entire world, from the US to the most distant country, acknowledges that if they had stoned the fornicators, and prevented abomination, things would have been much better. This is the world they want.
January 2006 – Arthur Magazine
(Excerpt from: The Further Adventures of Dr. Moustache and the Egyptian Gentleman)
An American traveler spends three weeks in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria;
Syria’s Aleppo souk is rumored to have the most flagrant of Syria’s clandestine gay scenes
by Daniel Chamberlin
… We take a bus north to Aleppo in the morning. lt’s a long ride and there’s a TV on the bus playing a low-budget Syrian sketch comedy. Aleppo is Syria’s second largest city. Its souk is supposed to be the least touristy in the area. According to some assessments, Aleppo is a depot for young Saudis and Egyptians who want to fight in Iraq. There are several famous radical mosques in the city, and the highway is a straight shot to the volatile Iraqi border.
The cab drivers that wait for us at the Aleppo bus station snatch our bags and run off to their cabs. A small argument ensues while Paul attempts to wrestle his suitcase out of a cab in which we do not wish to ride. There’s more honking here than any other place. The streets are choked with cars and they all honk together, all the time. We drop our bags at our hotel and take a walk through a large public park a few blocks away. It is cut down the middle by a black river that stinks of sewage. It’s mostly men in the part. Paul and I are both tired and Aleppo feels mean. "I’m ready to go home, " says Paul.
He’s tired’ of getting stared at all the time, as am I am. I’m also tired of the all-guys-all-the-time atmosphere of so many public places. With the exception of Lebanon we’ve not interacted with any non-Western women. No waitresses in the restaurants, few female cashiers in the stores. We sit on a decrepit bench and watch lottery ticket-vendors walk from bench to bench. A booth in the middle of the park rents water pipes and blasts high-pitched droning Arab music. Soldiers spread out on the grass, exhaling clouds of perfumed smoke.
The travel is starting to wear both of us down. The pollution, anger and desperation of the Arab worId seems more evident here albeit in subtle ways rather than outright violence. There is much to be celebrated here of course but I am sick of sheisty cabs drivers and having the same conversation with everyone we talk to. Yes, we like Syria. We’re glad you like Americans. We hate Bush too. I’m annoyed at the European tourists here. The only Americans we meet in Syria are students that Paul already knows with their ugly shorts and short-sleeved shirts.
But I’m also annoyed that conservative Muslims are so deeply offended by something as benign as a pair of shins. And I’m depressed again at the repressive tactics the Syrian government uses to keep those easily offended religious radicals under control. Why are human beings so endlessly horrible about everything? And why won’t anyone wear a seat belt?
We meet our friend Blake that afternoon at the hotel bar for a much needed drink. The Baron Hotel is the nicest place we’ve stayed so far. It was built in 1911; T.E. Lawrence’s bar bill is under glass on a wall display, and they say Agatha Christie wrote part of Murder on the Orient Express in one of the antique-filled rooms. Syria is the only country on our itinerary that doesn’t import American brand-name products like Coke or Fritos. Same goes for the liquor, so I order the first off-brand scotch since my college days. We find Blake in a stuffed-chair drinking Arak, the Syrian variant of the aniseed-derived Ouzo. I order another scotch. The soundtrack here and everywhere we go in Aleppo is heavy on soft rock hits from Bryan Adams and Whitney Houston.
The local economy is somewhat depressed apparently. Aleppo reminds me of other second cities–Lyon in France, Manchester in Britain, Chlcago in the United States. We walk around in the souk. I buy a tablecloth.
The Aleppo souk is rumored to have the most flagrant of Syria’s clandestine gay scenes and our travel guide we should not be surprised should we get cruised while we’re here. There are some creative shopkeepers—one sidles up to me with the common but very funny come-on of "Your English is excellent!" And it’s Paul and Blake’s theory that my long hair definitely implies that I am homosexual. "It’s probably kind confusing with the beard though,” Paul says. “Like that cab driver back in Cairo was saying you’ve got long hair which women don’t even flaunt like you do. But you’ve also got a big beard. I think you’re confusing, sexually, for a lot of people.”
After walking through an under-construction mosque at the edge of the soot we’re invited by a teenage guy to join him for tea at his store around the corner. He’s friendly enough and we’re tired of walking in the heat, so we agree. His store is air-conditioned and comfortable and his younger brother goes out of his way to act like a wise-cracking queen. "He’s dressed in a pink Polo shirt. When we’re asked to guess his age–he’s 17, I guess 2O–he rolls his eyes and raises one hand to his face and sighs, “I guess I forgot to apply my foundation this morning.” They ask our ages. I’m 30, I say. “I would have guessed at least 40, but that’s just me,” he snaps. There’s a giant Oscar Wilde poster on the wall in the back of the store. After declining to buy hand-made silver jewelry or $3000 carpets, we make our exit…
June 22, 2006 – GlobalGayz.com
Warning message from a gay Syrian regarding sexual activity in public hammans and the lack of any support for gays
(The message is a little confusing; it’s not clear whether one or two gays were involved.)
Regarding your story about gays in Damascus (http://www.globalgayz.com/g-syria.html, story #2) I would like to inform you about the violation of 2 gays in Damascus in a bath house in Damascus. Homosexuality is forbidden in Syria in public area. It was in 3/5/2006 I saw a gay who was in the steam room jerk with his penis. After I saw the owner come and slap him in his face and the gay was choked and didn’t knew what he can do. After he went out, he was afraid that the owner would call the police. Later I saw the owner pull out the gay’s identity card from his pocket and he registered his name and address in special book.
What I want to say is if the owner informs the police and his family about him they will know what he did in the bath. (When he touched another gay and intended have a reaction with him does that means he is gay?) What it means is that he might lose his job, or even have a tribunal sentence; in Syria homosexuality is condemned to 1 to 3 years in jail.
So be careful. The writer (in the GlobalGayz story) who said in Syria there are baths where one can do same thing, I know he will not find anyone who will support gays in Syria because no there’s organization for gays here. Native Syrian guys will have a more serious result from being arrested but foreigners will escape bad punishment–maybe deported only.
The man I saw faces the scandal to his family and for himself. He was slapped 2 times on his face strongly. I want to say there are violations of the rights of gay and gays; they are put under arrest who do such things. This shows that gays must be protected and have the right to be represented by an advocate who can charge this man who slapped the 2 gays in this bath house.
The risk to Syrians and foreigners to be arrested in a public bath is so high so what we need in Syria is to protects such gays who go there to have fun. I saw this incident and I’m a witness. This gay guy can’t go back home. He must flee his family even maybe he is married and it will be a big scandal to his childern and parents and friends in his work office. There aren’t any organizations in Syria where gays can complain against the owner of this bath house who slapped him hard and told the police about this behaviour of homesexulity!
What I also want to say is that many gays in Syria mostly have a very low level of culture and education. Its’ so rare to find a good educated gay in Syria except the navigators in Internet who can speak and write English. Even the effeminate gays you can see sometimes in the street come from other cities not Damascus, where no parents can see or control them. Of course Damascus gays can’t show thier effeminate behaviour in the street bacause they live in Damascus with their parents or family. Some other gays come from different areas of Syria to have fun in Damascus and to find work but no one can live with his boyfriend in Syria– its not allowed, maybe in secret but it rarely exists!
Thus one can be arrested in Damascus. So I hope someone from GlobalGayz can come and investigate.
Gays have been arrested several times and can’t go back to their family or tell them about such arrests. This secret life of homesexuals must have an end and we must focus in this problem! What kind of work can they find or what treatment they have after they get out from jail–all bad. Sorry to say many don’t want to think about such things because they are poor in education and cultural life. What they do is to continue to be at risk another time; they live under Althura Bridge in that area in the center of Damascus. They live sometimes in a hotel popular in Bab Srigha quarter, especially Arab Hotel. They can pay 1$ per day and take the risk to be in the prostitute market. They don’t have any information about protection against AIDS or use the condoms. They refuse to speak about how they suffer in their lives; it’s a serious problem for gays in Syria. They want somebody who can take care of their problems. I hope you can come and work on such issues. This a big taboo in our society.
There aern’t any places to meet gays in Syria. We have a hell life! You as educated gay can be discovred by the police or neighbors or friends and that scandal can lead you to lose everything! Even some have suicided! So there’s no nice life to us! You must only to masturbation in home when you take your shower or in bath. So it’s not allowed at all to sleep or live with your boyfriend. There aren’t any confidences between gays because some of them intend to blackmail each other as business to get money so we are afraid to make contact via Internet or in the street. It’s very rare one can have a real boyfriend. Maybe only a moment for sex but then no one can say hello to each other in street.
So I hope you don’t mention my name or address email. That kind of think its forbidden in Syria–and correct my English please.
June 24, 2007 – The New York Times
The Road Back to Damascus
by Seth Sherwood
I felt someone staring at me. As I discreetly tried to photograph a Damascus sidewalk stand of militant Islamic religious posters — including the Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and his Kalashnikov-toting guerrillas — I looked around and realized that the young, rough-shaven salesman had spotted my camera.
“Where you from?” he said, in English, as women in headscarves battled for plastic shoes from an adjacent sidewalk dealer.
“New York,” I answered, lowering my lens and awaiting a tirade against my country — or worse. Instead, he broke into a smile.
“New York, great city!” he said. “Ahlan wa sahlan bi Sham.”
Ahlan wa sahlan bi Sham: Welcome to Damascus. During a weeklong visit in May — during which I explored the Old City of Damascus (including its proliferating nightclubs), the Silk Road bazaars of Aleppo and the ruins of ancient Palmyra — unexpected welcomes seemed to erupt from every corner of this ancient nation of Bronze Age, Classical, Biblical and Islamic history. No matter where I was or whom I encountered, local greetings were never long in coming. Though most Americans might be wary of sojourning in a country whose authoritarian government stands accused of some serious charges — financing Hezbollah, allowing foreign fighters into neighboring Iraq and assassinating the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — a week among the regular citizens of Syria and its cultural riches is eye-opening.
When I boarded Syrian Air in Paris, I knew only that Damascus claimed to be the oldest inhabited city on Earth and that some favorite writers — Mark Twain, Gustave Flaubert, Agatha Christie — had been swept away by the country’s lore-filled past and landscapes. Many people told me vaguely to be careful, though none had ever been to Syria. My few acquaintances who had braved the country despite its tarnished reputation assured me that all would be fine. Head straight to the legendary Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, they said. Fill up whenever you can on excellent grilled lamb, baba ghanouj and pomegranate juice. And leave your preconceptions at passport control. The country I discovered, in addition to being friendly and largely free of crime and related hassles, even showed glimmers of creaking open to the West after decades of closure. Under its London-educated, 41-year-old president, Bashar al-Assad, Syria has instituted private banking, removed a number of long-standing import barriers and passed measures allowing foreigners to own property. A Four Seasons hotel opened in Damascus with great fanfare in 2005; a five-star Inter-Continental is under construction.
A huge two-panel billboard in central Damascus embodied the changes afoot. One side trumpeted the “3rd Annual Tourism Investment Market Forum.” On the other, the avuncular white-bearded face of Colonel Sanders, ringed in red Arabic script, heralded the arrival of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Syria. GO back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus,” wrote Twain, who visited in the 1860s. “To Damascus years are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.”
He was scarcely embellishing. The Babylonians blasted through under Nebuchadnezzar, before the Persians did likewise under Darius and Xerxes. The Romans captured the country in 63 B.C., and Mark Antony campaigned there against the Parthians. It was on the road to Damascus, most famously, that the Jewish traveler Saul was blinded by the light, initiating his conversion to Christianity and a new identity as the Apostle Paul. And it was on the road to Damascus, six centuries later, that the Prophet Muhammad stopped in his tracks and refused to enter the city, saying that “man should only enter paradise once.” In succeeding centuries, the Egyptians, Ottomans and French all took their turns as occupiers before Syria became independent in 1946.
Today, the route to the inner sanctum of the eighth-century Umayyad Mosque — the spiritual and historical heart of Damascus’s Old City — seems culled from some time-worn star map. First you cross under the Roman archway, just south of the tomb of the fabled Islamic warrior Saladin, who defeated Richard the Lionhearted during the Crusades. Then you enter the vast gates of the mosque, whose stony expanses rest atop a former Byzantine church, which overlays a mostly vanished Roman temple to Jupiter, itself erected on the former site of a disappeared Aramaean shrine. Finally, you make a quick jog across the courtyard, past the mausoleum of John the Baptist and into the tomb of Hussein, a grandson of Muhammad and a martyr venerated by Shiite Muslims.
The afternoon I visited, the stone room echoed with clicking prayer beads, muttered Koranic verses and sobs. Men prostrated themselves, pressing their foreheads to the stone. Student-age girls and toothless, wizened old women in black veils wept openly. One bespectacled young woman cried uncontrollably, grabbing at the walls. Places of powerful faith fill every corner of Damascus. In a small, silent street in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, I tracked down the Church of Ananias, the man who cured St. Paul of his blindness and baptized him into Christianity. Though entirely empty of worshipers, some handwritten notes and trinkets from visitors were stuck between the stones. “Clean and serene for 60 days,” read a green keychain, in English. Utterly different again, and equally haunting, was the reconstructed ancient Jewish synagogue in the National Museum, an evocative time capsule of relics from forgotten Bronze Age cities, vanished Roman outposts and other Ozymandian monuments pulled from Syria’s sands.
Found at the city-state of Dora Europos, a trade center decimated by the Persians in the third century, the towering stone walls of the synagogue glowed with painted panels of temple priests, strange animals, sad-eyed women, scrolls, menorahs, winged angels, horse dancers and serene-faced desert wanderers. “It’s astonishing to find a synagogue that has paintings,” said Michel al-Maqdissi, the museum’s director of archeological excavations, speaking in French. A small radio filled his office with an opera aria. “The Jewish religion forbids painted representation, just like in Islam. It accepts decorative elements, but not the human form. That’s why it’s such a unique piece.”
Nearby, the lanes of the Old City brimmed with energy. Black-veiled women led teenage girls — some in loose robes, others in punishingly tight jeans — into fabric stalls. With chiming bells, bicyclists parted the crowds to deliver loaves of bread while old men rolled Sisyphean pushcarts of pastries and bottles of deep blue bilberry juice. “Ahlan wa sahlan,” said Tony Stephan as he ushered me into his antiques and craft emporium along Souk al-Hamidiyeh, the most famous of Damascus’s venerable bazaars. Elderly and courtly, he gave me a tour of his store, which was stocked floor to ceiling with inlaid wooden boxes, elaborate backgammon sets, hammered urns, mosaics, Bedouin jewelry and rich textiles — many of them woven on a click-clacking loom in back.
“That’s Jimmy Carter, that’s Warren Christopher, and that’s Nancy Kissinger,” he said, pointing out photos of the famous figures who, in times of less fraught international relations — before the White House had declared the country a “rogue nation” and a member of the “junior varsity axis of evil” — had snapped up furnishings and fabrics in his shop. Much more recently, in April, the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her delegation had strode through the souk during an official visit — the first in recent memory by a top American official — prompting local talk of a possible rapprochement. Twilight in the Old City evokes a certain wistfulness. As the final call to prayer echoes through the blue-black evening, strolling couples and families fill the paved lanes around the mosque, licking at ice creams from the venerable parlor Bakdash. In the cafes, old men in threadbare suits sip Turkish coffee and chat. I whiled away more than a few nights among those smoking narghiles, as water pipes are called there, and drinking mint tea at the old world Al Nafoorah coffeehouse, as the nightly pageantry of Damascus flowed past. It was the perfect place to meditate on the city, a great palimpsest on which so many peoples, faiths and empires wrote their stories.
To see the most famous of Syria’s crumbled cities, Palmyra, I set out at dawn. The bus rolled across the arid emptiness, past loping camels, past goatherds in checkered headdresses, past tents of Bedouin nomads. Finally, three hours later, the majestic, blocky ruins emerged. Corinthian columns, eroded archways, theaters, ornate hillside tombs and temples to forgotten gods — Bel, Nebo, Arsu, Baalshamin — spread across the landscape. Here, in Syria’s largest oasis, an ancient Silk Road trade center flourished some two millenniums ago. Someone surveying the landscape then would have seen a thriving market city, echoing with talk in Aramaic and filled with arriving camel trains bearing ebony, dried foods, spices, perfume, ivory and silk from as far away as India and China. From Palmyra the exotic goods would be shipped westward to Rome — which for a time controlled Palmyra — where they fetched up to 100 times their original cost.
Today, a surreal Hollywoodesque scene was playing out among the ruins as hundreds of Syrian teenage boys dressed in gladiatorlike costumes prepared a tightly choreographed dance number for the annual Palmyra Festival, which was scheduled to kick-off at dusk. In the well-preserved amphitheater, workmen were deploying a stage, curtains and lighting banks to accommodate the Bolshoi Ballet and various orchestras on the festival program. This week, the dead city would live again. The miles of stony passages and thousands of shops in the souks of Aleppo, another Silk Road stop that’s now Syria’s second-largest city, briskly destroy flimsy descriptors like “diverse” or “eclectic.” Such hollow words splinter under the tonnage of caftans, coffee beans, lutes, Teletubbies, silk cushions, mosaics, perfumes, gold, carpets, gumdrops and olive-oil soaps.
Dodging mule-carts and mustached men chewing pistachios — a local specialty — I flowed with the thick crowds past ornate Ottoman-era stone warehouses and the eighth-century Great Mosque, resting place of the head of Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist. Time seemed barely to exist. The stone arches, massive wooden portals and iron-barred windows appeared unchanged since their construction in the Middle Ages. Today, the only signs of 21st-century life were the schoolgirls in Barbie backpacks milling about the battlements of the storybook medieval citadel and the screaming schoolboys fighting unseen invaders. A kind of phantom world lurks among the time-worn stones of Aleppo. Strolling the souks, I could not help thinking that I was walking in the footsteps of Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers. As an urban planning student in the 1990s, he spent several months in Aleppo, writing a thesis that argued for the preservation of the age-old Islamic market against the threat of modernization. Later, sitting in a club chair in the bar of the Hotel Baron, a faded grande dame from the era of steamer trunks and ragtime, I half expected Charles Lindbergh, T. E. Lawrence, Teddy Roosevelt or Agatha Christie to descend from their old rooms.
Married to an archeologist who worked in Syria, Christie wrote some of “Murder on the Orient Express” while holed up here. The young Lawrence also worked on archeological digs in the area, though apparently he found time for less rugged and martial pleasures. “These three days have been frenzied rushes and bargains for antiques (we have spent nearly two hundred pounds) from breakfast till after dinner in the evening,” he wrote to his mother in 1912, gushing about having spotted “the loveliest painted and lacquered gilt ceiling that I ever dreamed of.” Back in the Old City of Damascus, midnight settled on the Christian Quarter and a slow-moving line of black S.U.V.’s and silver Audi sedans cruised slowly down the Roman-era Straight Street, depositing the well-heeled and the high-heeled at trendy new resto-lounges tucked in the surrounding labyrinthine lanes. Famous as the place where Saul received his baptism and was christened Paul, “the street called Straight” (as it’s called in the Bible) and its environs are once again witnessing some astonishing conversions, as young, enterprising Syrians transform Old World buildings into 21st century D.J. bars, clothing shops and stylish small hotels.
“You can see renovation everywhere,” said Amjad Malki, a co-owner of the jet-set Villa Moda fashion boutique, as we dined on grilled meats and excellent mezze dishes at the stylish Al-Khawali restaurant. In what was a 17th-century stone stable, Mr. Malki’s shop has swapped hay and oats for Prada handbags, Jimmy Choo shoes and Dolce & Gabbana leopard-skin bikinis, as well as dresses by Kenzo, which was host of a fashion show in Villa Moda’s upstairs salon a few months ago. People are buying, and prices have tripled,” Mr. Malki said, ticking off a list of hotspots like Leila’s restaurant and the Talisman hotel, where Ms. Pelosi and President Assad lunched during her visit. “It’s the place to be.” Inside the Marmar nightclub, a Damascus favorite of expatriates and the Syrian upper crust, evidence of the city’s elevating style quotient was all around — D.J.-remixed club beats, madly dancing bodies, low necklines, high hemlines, clinking bottles of German beer, a haze of Gauloise cigarettes, T-shirts reading “Rock Star” and “Tequila Lounge.” Even a few gay Middle Eastern men discreetly mingled in the global crowd, which showed no signs of flagging even as 4 a.m. approached.
“Five years ago, night life was not really a socially acceptable thing,” said Omar Barakat, an extremely tall Syrian electrical equipment importer, battling with the loud remix of “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This” shaking the dance floor. Now, he said, “the scene is improving so much.” Surveying the blissful tumult, Firas Salem, a 20-something Syrian corporate lawyer, couldn’t suppress a grin. “We didn’t use to have people kissing in a public places,” he said. He added that he had once lived in London but was drawn back to his hometown.
“Damascus is becoming a cool place,” he said as throbbing electronica and chatter in a half-dozen languages spilled into the ancient streets. “Something strange is happening.”
How To Get There
Because of United States sanctions against Syria, there are no direct flights from the United States to Damascus. Al Italia airlines (www.alitalia.com) offers flights to Damascus from Kennedy airport in New York with a connection in Milan for around $1,520. An alternative — and potentially cheaper — option is to fly to Europe independently and then use Syrian Air (www.syriaair.com) from any of several European capitals. Flights from London Heathrow to Damascus cost around £296 (about $592 at $2 to the pound) for departures in late June.
A visa is required for Americans entering Syria. It can be obtained from the Embassy of Syria, 2215 Wyoming Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20008; (202) 232-6313, ext. 106; www.syrianembassy.us; the fee is $100.
How To Get Around
Traveling around Syria is extremely cheap. The Kadmous Transport company (963-11-331-1901; www.alkadmous.com) provides comfortable modern intercity buses all over the country. A trip from the Damascus bus station (called Mahata al-Pullman) to Palmyra costs 120 lira (as Syrian pounds are commonly called; about $2.25 at 53 lira to the dollar) and takes two to three hours. A trip to Aleppo, four to five hours away, costs 230 lira for the extra-comfy “V.I.P.” bus. There are several buses a day to and from each destination. Buy your ticket at the bus station about 30 minutes ahead.
Within Damascus and Aleppo, the abundant yellow taxis can be hailed on the street any time of day or night. A daytime journey within the city rarely costs more than 50 lira. By night, few drivers use the meter (il-adaad in Arabic). Just get in, announce your destination, and give 75 lira upon arrival. If you try to negotiate a price in advance, the driver will typically ask for much more.
Safety And Security
In the wake of a 2006 attack attempt on the American Embassy in Damascus — during which one Syrian security guard was killed before the attackers were killed or subdued — the online travel advisory of the State Department urges American citizens “to defer all nonessential travel to Syria.” (A full text of the advisory is at http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_3036.html.) More recently, in April, a Canadian traveler, Nicole Vienneau, disappeared during a stay in the city of Hama and has not been found.
That said, Syria remains a tightly controlled society that is largely devoid of street and organized crime, due in part to extensively deployed police and undercover intelligence services. Militant groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood are officially banned and suppressed — sometimes very brutally — by the nation’s ostensibly secular Baathist leadership. For travelers, the risk of theft, attack or even harassment remains small. In my own travels, I never felt threatened and never once heard of any other tourists being accosted.
What To See
In Damascus, your best bet is to simply get lost in the truly ancient Old City, with its Roman arches, medieval citadel, venerable Islamic madrassas, and Ottoman mosques and palaces.
Built in the early eighth century, the imposing Umayyad Mosque (Muslim Quarter, Old City) is one of the holiest sites in Islam. Its grounds contain the tombs of three remarkable historical figures: the martyr Hussein, grandson of Muhammad; John the Baptist; and the fabled Islamic warrior Saladin. Free entry.
A 15-minute walk outside the Old City walls, Syria’s National Museum (Shoukri al-Quwati Street, 963-11-221-9938 ) contains relics from an amazing array of peoples and civilizations — Hittite, Canaanite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Aramaic, Roman, Byzantine — that flourished or set up camp in Syria. Entry 150 lira. Also in new Damascus is the excellent Atassi Gallery (Rawda, New City, 963-11-332-1720; www.atassigallery.com). It is run by the knowledgeable, multilingual Mouna Atassi, one of Syria’s leading authors on contemporary art, and specializes in the top Syrian artists of the 20th century.
In Aleppo, the gloriously ruined medieval citadel (Old City, admission 150 lira) offers sublime views from its crenellated ramparts. The Great Mosque, just north off the main east-west thoroughfare of Souk al-Atarin, was built in the eighth century and then rebuilt, after a fire, in the 12th. A kind of little brother to the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, this one holds what is said to be the head of Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist. Free admission.
In Palmyra, exploring Syria’s most famous ruined city — a Silk Road stop that was founded around the second millennium B.C. and flourished under Roman control in the first few centuries A.D. — could take a couple of hours or a couple of days, depending on how keen you are to explore every temple, tomb and theater. The ancient city comes alive twice a year, for the Palmyra Festival in May and the Silk Road Festival in the fall.
Where To Stay
The Old City of Damascus is witnessing a boom in boutique hotels. Near Bab Touma gate, in the thick of the dining and nightlife scene, the intimate eight-room Beit al-Mamlouka (963-11-543-0445; www.almamlouka.com) is loaded with Oriental carpets, impeccably chosen traditional Syrian furniture and even frescoes and mosaics. Doubles from $135. In the more tranquil Jewish quarter, the 16-room Talisman (116 Tal El-Hijara Street, 963-11-541-5379; www.hoteltalisman.net) is a neo-Sultanic conversion with a courtyard pool, a vaulted period-rich lounge and a hammam. Doubles from $175. Along Straight Street is Al Khair Palace (Bab Sharqi, 963-11-543-1716; www.alkhairpalace.net). The 12 rooms are smallish but tastefully furnished with Syrian inlaid wooden furniture. Doubles are $90.
The colonial-style Hotel Baron (al-Baron Street, 963-21-211-0880; www.the-hotel-baron.com) in Aleppo is more to be recommended for its history — Charles Lindbergh, Agatha Christie and T. E. Lawrence all stayed there — than for its somewhat worn and chipped time-warp décor. Doubles from $50. The cozy 14-room Beit Wakil (As-Sissi Street, Al Hatab Square, 963-21-211-7083; www.beitwakil.com) is in a nicely restored 16th-century mansion in the Al Jdeidah quarter; it also has one of the city’s best restaurants. Doubles are $100 and $130.
Where To Eat And Drink
Unless otherwise noted, prices reflect a three-course meal for two, without wine.
In Damascus, in an old stone house refitted with slick contemporary furnishings, Al Dar 111 (Christian Quarter, Old City, 963-11-542-3232; www.aldar111.com) does excellent fatoosh (finely chopped salad with tangy grenadine, molasses and pomegranate), baba ghanooj (enlivened with sesame, tomato and lemon juice) and sujok (diced lamb sausages with peppers and spices). Around 1,000 lira. Carnivores will enjoy the mixed grill of skewered meats and the Tunisian sausages stewed in zesty tomato-onion sauce on offer at Leila’s Restaurant and Terrace (Muslim Quarter, 963-11-544-5900). In a stylishly modernized old courtyard house next to the Ummayed Mosque, the restaurant also does vegetarian-friendly baba ghanooj, hummus and burek (cheese pastries). Terrace tables have killer views. About 1,000 lira.
Just off the southeast corner of the Ummayad Mosque, Al Nafoorah is the ideal place to sip Turkish coffee (35 lira), smoke a narghile (100 lira) and watch Damascene life go by.
When in Aleppo, Bazar al-Charq (Karmel Street, 963-21-224-9120; www.bazaralcharq.com) and its Orientalist-fantasy décor merit a visit for the sublime lahmeh bi karaz (kebab in sour cherry sauce) alone. The hummus (with ground lamb and pine nuts) and chicken with sesame sauce are also worth indulging in. About 900 lira.
Where To Shop
Damascus’s Old City is a giant Aladdin’s lair of Middle Eastern treasures. In the main bazaar, Souk al-Hamidiyeh, Tony Stephan (963-11-245-1075) stocks an excellent selection of silver, carved wooden furnishings, hand-woven caftans and shimmering Damascene fabrics, some of them created on site. For contemporary styles, Anat (Bab Sharqi, 963-11-542-7878; www.anat-sy.org) sells modern folkloric-chic textiles, handbags and women’s clothing handmade by rural Syrian women using traditional techniques.
Where To Party
Done up in kitschy Middle Eastern gothic décor, Oxygen (963-11-544-4396), a bar-restaurant in the Christian Quarter of the Old City (a few twisting streets southwest of the Bab Touma gate), is where young Damascenes go to pre-party. The local Barada lager (100 lira) is a crisp Syrian answer to Rolling Rock. After midnight, especially on Thursdays, head a couple of blocks north to Marmar (al-Dawanneh Street, 963-11-544-6425). The 600 lira cover charge gets you three drinks, D.J.-spun dance music and a spirited Syrian and international crowd.
November 30, 2007 – Haaretz News, Israel
Eastern promises: Gay Israeli travelers frequent Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Dubai
by Yotam Feldman, Amman, Jordan
At twilight, the labyrinthine paths of the ancient Roman theater in Amman begin to fill up. Men who have come alone stand in waiting postures, impatient, casting glances this way and that. Others congregate by the wall or on benches, not letting the patrolling police bother them. Occasionally a couple disappears into a clump of bushes or into one of the niches. Many tourists might be confused by the scene, but a gay tourist will get it immediately. Most of the men who approach the tourists are selling sex for money, sometimes mediated by a pimp lurking in another corner of the theater. Relations with those who are not engaged in prostitution also sometimes have a character that makes it impossible to be oblivious to economic power relations. The tourist will invite them for drinks or dinner, for example, or will pay for the hotel room to which they will go, perhaps, at the end of the evening.
There are other places, too, for those seeking cross-border relations: Thakafa Street (thakafa means "culture" in Arabic) in the Shmeisani quarter is a cruising site for a higher-level crowd. Strolling on the well-lit street, amid the ubiquitous campaign posters for the parliamentary elections, are families with children, groups of students and also gay men (mostly young) who are trying to spot a new face in the city’s small, stifling community. The searchers can be identified by their long pauses every few steps or by their many sidelong glances. Iman, a young literature student of Palestinian origin, whose family comes from Hebron, is here with friends to cruise Thakafa Street – "Not necessarily to look for anything, but if the opportunity arises, why not?" He is not ashamed to say that he’s looking mainly for foreigners. "In a small place like Amman, people we don’t know, with whom we haven’t yet slept, are a refreshing innovation. You can find tourists here from different countries – Americans and Europeans – and also many from Arab states, and occasionally also Israelis." Just that morning, Iman relates, he met, via the Internet, a Saudi student who was in the city for a short visit. "It’s been a long time since I met someone so uptight," he says. "He didn’t stop shaking until we entered the hotel room. Anyway, I won’t see him again."
In the evening, Iman and his friends hang out at Books@Cafe, a coffee shop that is considered "gay-friendly" and whose owner acts as an adviser and mentor to his clients. He tells of efforts by the young people to create a sense of community. Two of them, he says, tried recently to put out a magazine for gays, but quickly found themselves in trouble with the authorities, who threatened them with legal proceedings. They shelved the idea. We meet one of them later in the evening, together with a group of his friends, in the gay bar RGB, a relatively new establishment. It’s not very big – five wooden tables around which two groups of young men are milling. Sitting at one of the tables are two women, a couple, who have come from the lesbian bar that opened recently not far from RGB.
Marwan, a successful young Palestinian entrepreneur, originally from Jerusalem, who is at RGB almost every evening, says he is not concerned by the implications of the ties between Jordanians and tourists. "The westernization and Jordan’s economic dependence on the West are facts of life. The tourists, on the other hand, also alleviate our distress." At the same time, he regrets the fact that forging genuine relations is impossible under these conditions. "The end is more or less inevitable – the tourist will leave and we will probably never talk again. It is also unfortunate that it is impossible to find a place for meaningful encounters – all my recent encounters were in hotel rooms or in my car. Sometimes I feel a little like a prostitute."
The anti-erotic element
"They were an instance of the eastern boy and boy affection which the segregation of women made inevitable. Such friendships often led to manly loves of a depth and force beyond our flesh-steeped conceit. When innocent they were hot and unashamed." – T.E. Lawrence, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom"
Gay Israeli travelers frequent Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Dubai. Holders of two passports also visit Beirut, which they say can compete with Tel Aviv as the gay capital of the Middle East, and Damascus, where the gay scene is more secretive. This is not sex tourism, all the travelers who were interviewed for this article emphasized, certainly not in the narrow sense of obtaining sex in return for money. The fear of being exposed as an Israeli heightens the thrill, some of the visitors say. "It’s a state of consciousness, which allows you to overcome the usual inhibitions. The erotic yearning mobilizes additional forces," says Arnon, 35, who works for a human rights organization and makes frequent visits to Arab countries.
The fantasy that lured Western travelers to the Arab world is not new. In the 19th century, writers and other creative artists, Europeans in general and Frenchmen in particular, were drawn to the Levant under the auspices of colonialism. On their return they described places where men slept with other men without being categorized as homosexuals, as in the West.
"What connected me to the East was French literature of the 19th and 20th centuries," Arnon says. "Roland Barthes connected me to Morocco, and Flaubert to Tunisia. My image was of a place where almost every man could find himself in a sexual situation with another man, because you don’t have the Catholic prohibition on sexual contact between males. That is further intensified for a Western man, for whom all the barriers are lifted, in part by material incentives. It is not confined to a bar or a park. The horizon of possibilities is far more dynamic, and it is not just about those who declare themselves gay. It can also be a married man – anyone, really."
And were your expectations fulfilled?
"Very quickly. There are always these types who approach you. For example, in Tunis – you are sitting in a cafe and someone makes eyes at you, comes over and asks, ‘What are you looking for?’ ‘Where are you from? Are you married?’ ‘Would you like to go someplace?’ You don’t necessarily go straight to the hotel. Usually they want to go out, want you to take them drinking, to a discotheque."
And it’s at this stage that the economic dependence is created?
"In the background, there is always the question of what they will get out of it in material terms. It’s not that you are going to send them a hundred dollars a month for the rest of their lives, but relations of dependence form. Some of them told me that their dream is to leave Tunis and live in the West. They asked if I could write a letter to my consul general that will make it possible for them to get a visa. They asked that after 25 minutes of conversation."
What was your reply?
"I think I left it open. I said it’s an interesting idea, maybe I will try."
Does this put a damper on the experience?
"It is the anti-erotic element that bothers me. In Tunisia, for example, someone I met invited me to his cousin’s home. I went with him, even though I did not necessarily want sexual contact. I understood that the sexual thing was the payment I would make in order to see his house.
"We got a cab and drove out to a kind of suburb. It was a large house, what’s known in Israel as an Arab villa, made of concrete, on which construction was completed but hadn’t yet been quite whitewashed or furnished, or maybe would never be whitewashed because the money has run out. The uncle was sitting in the courtyard, holding prayer beads and smoking. We said hello, and the man introduced me in Arabic and spoke with him."
Was the uncle surprised to see a Western tourist in his courtyard?
"Not in the least. Maybe he was thinking that this was exactly what he did with the French who were there 50 years ago. He was completely at ease. Inside we met the cousin – ‘ahalan wasahalan’ – and then okay, let’s go to my room. We entered a room, which may or may not have been his, where there were two wooden beds and a poster of a Hollywood star on the wall. The small talk continued, the same conversation that is repeated on every trip. At a certain point he decides to turn off the light and starts to lean over me. After our pants are lowered the cousin opens the door and turns on the light. I thought there was going to be trouble, maybe he would be appalled, or maybe he would want to join, I don’t know, but he only asked him something, took a pack of cigarettes from him, and left."
Does the political dimension make such encounters highly charged?
"From my point of view, that dimension is critical, because if you leave only the sexual core, nothing would exist. It all comes from anthropological curiosity, political power relations, attraction to him as the representation of something, through my Israeliness and Jewishness. It is absolutely a type of conquest or operation in enemy territory and a speedy withdrawal. I came, I experienced a few things, I pulled out. The moment I have collected intelligence, withdrawal back to the hotel as quickly as possible."
Every trip is political
"The association between the Orient and sex is remarkably persistent. The Middle East is resistant, as any virgin would be, but the male scholar wins the prize by bursting open, penetrating the Gordian knot … ‘Harmony’ is the result of the conquest of maidenly coyness." – Edward Said, "Orientalism"
Lior Kay, 32, one of the founders of the gay forum called Red-Pink in the Hadash Arab-Jewish party, has paid many visits to Arab states, including Iraq. He finds a direct link between his experiences as a gay man in Tel Aviv and his adventures abroad. "There is something very international about being gay," he says. "Gays have a tool that allows them to enter deep into communities that are rooted in the local culture. When you come to someone for a one-night stand, you learn about all kinds of things. You can see the house, meet the friends, have breakfast with them. There is this very deep desire to get to know, even if it is only for one night – things that don’t necessarily happen to tourists.
"I, for example, like parks more than pubs, because there is an experience of disclosure there. You meet people who are outside the mainstream. In parks there are people who have no vested interests. We forget that there are people who do not have vested interests. That’s what I do in Jordan, for example, just talk with people who are wandering around the amphitheater." Kay entered Iraq in February 2004 on a U.S. passport, eight months after the start of the occupation. "On Friday I took a bus from Tel Aviv to Beit She’an. I hitchhiked to the border and then took a taxi to Amman, where I got a taxi to Baghdad. It was a 12-hour trip. We made a night stop in the desert and waited for the dawn, because it was dangerous to enter the Sunni triangle in the dark." There were hardly any tourists in Iraq at the time, he says. He walked around the city and talked to people, but was afraid to look for men.
Are these visits also related to your political attitudes?
"For me, all the trips are political and also social, in the sense that I see up close how people live. In many places I saw the anger at the West’s pillage of resources, and of course at the Israeli occupation.
The trips lent color to my political approach. You have to read books and studies and quotes by Brecht, but you also need color and aroma and soul to determine your political identity."
What is the negative side of being political in this context?
"There is a feeling of a stereotype that is at work on both sides. The fantasy of the West that likes what’s available and hot, and the people who live there, who hope to latch on to the tourists to get out of the disgusting cycle of poverty. Sex in these countries has a very clear economic element: a relationship of exploiter and exploited. Sometimes there is a feeling that you can go with almost anyone you meet, that they want you not because of your personality but because of these relations."
Where is that reflected?
"Everywhere, and first of all in bed. Even the active and passive thing – very often they will not agree to be passive with a Jew. There is definitely a matter of honor."
Do experiences in these countries challenge some of the images of homosexuality?
"Yes. We know the Western definition of the gay person – someone like Oscar Wilde – but in the Arab countries it is formulated in different codes of their culture. There is also liberation from the usual image of the body – less of the Western worship of youth. Many of the normative rules of the West do not apply there. Here we have the gyms, the hair removal; there it is a little less orderly, there are more possibilities."
Legislation is now being formulated that will strip Israelis of their citizenship if they visit Arab countries with which Israel does not have an agreement. Is it possible that you will no longer be able to travel there?
From Egyptian writer Constantin Cafavy "In the Tavernas": "I am a law-abiding citizen, but I don’t know how far my instinct for adventure will be repressed by that. Especially when it’s a flagrantly undemocratic law which is aimed, I think, less at people like me than at Knesset members whose activity might create a chance for peace." Assad watches the men: "I wallow in the tavernas and brothels of Beirut. I live a vile life, devoted to cheap debauchery. The one thing that saves me, like durable beauty, like perfume that goes on clinging to my flesh, is this: Tamides, most exquisite of young men, was mine for two years, and mine not for a house or a villa on the Nile." (translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)
Russell, an American who immigrated to Israel in 1982, first visited Syria in 1993, entering the country on an American passport. His first encounter with the gay community of Damascus was a chance one. "I went into a pizzeria in Damascus. There was only one empty seat. The young Syrian who was sitting next to me asked where I was from, and we got into a conversation. It turned out that he was in charge of renovating the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Damascus.
"Even though the norms are very different in Syria – for example, it is routine for men to walk hand in hand in the street, and usually it doesn’t mean a thing – he somehow tuned me in and quickly started to pour out his heart. I asked him what was happening and where it was happening. He said it was done with a very low profile, a very traditional approach. The fear is less of the authorities, who monitor everything that goes on in the country, including gays, than of family and friends. He told me that people got together in homes, that there was a kind of group of gays who met every so often, and that there was sometimes sex with married men, too, but that there was no true gay life."
And besides the homes, are there other meeting places?
"In contrast to other Arab states, nothing happens in the hamams [public baths], but there are parks."
Russell’s host took him to a park. "He told me it was the cruising park of Damascus and that everyone went there, of all ages, for money and not for money. In the middle of the park there is a huge statue of Assad, who seems to be watching all the men. We walked around a little, said hello to a few people, and left."
What was the atmosphere like?
"Dark and not very pleasant, not friendly. I didn’t feel that I could have hooked up with someone if I had found anyone. I also drew a lot of attention – suddenly there was this new face, white with blue eyes. A tourist in Independence Park [in Jerusalem] might be an attraction, but not a big deal."
Did you get an unpleasant economic feeling from your encounters with men in Arab countries?
"Not necessarily. I’ve been to Jordan 200 times. If you go to Book@Cafe and want to meet someone, you can put out feelers immediately. If it is someone who speaks English and is well dressed, you know he is not after your money. People who are after money will go to the theater area, where the refugees hang out and where there are more needy people. Of course, it differs from one country to another – Dubai is one big brothel, filled with foreign workers, most of the population is not Arabic, and you don’t walk three meters without someone stopping you, whether it’s in a mall or in Starbucks, it makes no difference."
No consideration for Edward Said
From: Gustave Flaubert, "Flaubert in Egypt": "Here it’s quite well accepted. One admits one’s sodomy and talks about it at the dinner table. Sometimes one denies it a bit, then everyone yells at you and it ends up getting admitted. Traveling for our learning experience and charged with a mission by the government, we see it as our duty to give in to this mode of ejaculation." (translated by Francis Steegmuller)
Yair Kedar, who was the editor of the travel magazine Masa Aher from 2003 to 2005, first visited Egypt in 1991, when he was 22. "I went with a gay French friend and an Italian-speaking Korean clergyman who joined us through a travel agency," he says. Kedar started to look for the gay scene where he had been told it was happening: hotel lobbies.
"You are in a very large hotel lobby, in the Hilton, say, and you sit down on a sofa and scan the place. Someone sits down next to you and you start to talk about the weather – ‘It’s really hot today.’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘What do you do?’ ‘Have you been to the pyramids?’ And then he asks you if you would like to have a cup of coffee, and adds, ‘Just the two of us.’ And from there things develop.
"There is also the boardwalk along the Nile, which is a good catching place, these liminal places along the water, where culture ends. You wander around in the evening, there are groups of two-three guys and they start to talk to you, and suggest that they go with you and visit the room."
Do you feel guilty because gay tourism is also sex tourism, in the negative sense?
"That is a moral dilemma, because the visits also derive from good reasons. Is there a conflict between what they are selling and the regimes in these countries, and the economic dimension that permeates the sexual relations? There is a big contradiction.
But I see these contradictions in other places, too. There were travelers whom I spoke to as editor of Masa Aher, and at first they would tell me, ‘I was at the volcano, I was on a trek, I was here and there,’ and then, when things warmed up, they would tell me what they did at night: 12-year-old girls in Colombia and Thailand."
Is there something distinctive about the gay experience in places like this?
"There is a similarity between gay cruising and tourism: you are sold something that looks terrific from the outside by hiding the moral problem it entails – in that something is promised that cannot be fulfilled. In both cases there is a large dimension of guilt. On the other hand, I always thought that homosexuality is a great treasure that enables you to meet people and embark on new voyages with them. It’s intriguing, and you acquire experiences, until at a certain age you discover that you are becoming less patient and less inquisitive."
Benny Ziffer, the editor of the weekly Culture and Literature supplement of Haaretz (Hebrew edition), has written a great deal, in books and articles, about his erotic experiences in Arab countries. He says he chooses to ignore the feeling of guilt that accrues to the economic relations.
"You walk in Alexandria and people offer themselves to you in return for shawarma. If I were political and Marxist, I would not do anything. If someone offers you something like that, you have to cry out to the high heavens. I am doing something bad: I am fulfilling a desire at the expense of these unfortunates. These relations of power are ancient, you know, it was the pattern in the colonial period. People who were nothing in France became great lords in these countries, because they could control the people."
How do you justify it to yourself?
"Maybe in my writing I purify myself, maybe by saying it now. I always travel in order to write, and I have always written; I can’t bring myself to travel just like that – and I am not original in this, I did not invent it. I go to Egypt with the official goal of writing about bookstores, but the real inner goal is for something to happen from the erotic point of view, otherwise I will be very disappointed."
Don’t political relations interfere, in a period when there is critical talk about the East that was created by the writers you read?
"I immerse myself in the erotic and literary East alike, without taking account of orientalism and without taking account of Edward Said. I have my life and my experiences and my things
16 March 2008 – Scotland On Sunday
Death sentence: gay Syrian teenager facing deportation
by Kurt Bayer
His only crime was to be gay. For that he was half-drowned, brutally beaten and then fell into a coma. He survived, escaped from jail, fled his country and eventually arrived, exhausted and bedraggled, here in Scotland. And now the Government wants to send him back. Syrian Jojo Jako Yakob last night pleaded with the Home Office to reverse a deportation order and spare him the certain death he believes he will face if he returns to his country. "I wish to claim asylum and I wish to stay here in Scotland," he said. Gay rights activists demanded that homosexuals, such as Yakob, who were facing clear persecution in their homeland, should be granted asylum. But a spokesman for the Syrian Embassy responded by describing homosexuality as a "disease", which the country sought to "treat". The 19-year-old is now to embark on a landmark legal challenge in order to reverse the deportation order so he can spend the rest of his life in Scotland.
Yakob fled his homeland two years ago after managing to survive a harrowing ordeal at the hands of Syrian police and prison guards, when he was arrested for distributing anti-government leaflets. Following his transfer from police interrogation, prison guards soon discovered that Yakob, a member of the repressed Kurdish minority in the Arab state, was homosexual. He then suffered horrific beatings and was assaulted so badly that he fell into a coma. After being transferred to hospital, he managed to flee to Lebanon making for London, holed up in a lorry. He applied for asylum and was granted extended leave by the Home Office, but was then arrested in Aberdeen last April after being found in possession of a fake Belgian passport. He was handed a 12-month sentence and sent to Polmont Young Offenders Unit in Falkirk. His lawyers say his asylum application was then mistakenly withdrawn and, as a result, he has been served with a deportation order, pending a final hearing this May.
If unsuccessful, he will be sent back to Syria. He has been kept at Polmont as a remand prisoner until that date. His case mirrors that of gay Iranian teenager Mehdi Kazemi, 19, who was this week allowed to stay in Britain after claims that he would be executed if returned to his homeland. Now, while detained at Polmont, Yakob has appealed against a Home Office deportation order and has instructed top Scottish QC, Mungo Bovey, to fight his case. Yakob is terrified of being returned to Syria, where homosexuality is illegal, and believes that if he returns, he faces certain death. Speaking from Polmont last night, Yakob explained why he fears a return to his homeland. "I wish to seek asylum in the UK for a number of reasons," he said.
"My father is a politician with the Yakiti Party – pro-Kurdish and anti-government. I was arrested when I was 15 years of age for possession of anti-government material. These were basic leaflets for my father’s political party. My father was imprisoned before I left Syria for 13 years for anti-government activity." Of his arrest, he added: "I was then tortured. I was beaten. At one point I was put up against a wall and a handgun pointed at me. I was told that if I did not tell the authorities what they wanted to know they would shoot me dead. I did not tell them anything, I did not think they would shoot me. The police officer then shot me in my upper left arm. At that point, I told them what they wanted to know as I believed that they would shoot me dead."
Yakob says he was held in police cells for 20 days without charge and subjected to daily electric shock torture and beatings before being transferred to Ahdas Prison, by the Turkish border. In prison, he formed a relationship with a gay prisoner named Hassain. Yakob explained: "Hassain was serving a sentence, he told me, for 25 years. He told me that the sentence was only because he was gay. "The Syrian government claim that they do not imprison people any longer for being gay and that in any event the maximum sentence is three years. This is not true. The Syrian authorities will always find other charges to bring against a person." After the pair were seen sleeping together in jail, Yakob said he was subjected to systematic beatings, which "went on for days into weeks".
He added: "This was all because I was gay. No questions were asked of me about my father’s political party or any other political activity. All the questions related to me being gay. I was also subjected to cold-water torture, where I was put in a room and buckets of cold water were constantly thrown over me. I could not remember what day it was or how long I had been in prison. One day I woke up in hospital in a nearby town of Kamishli. The doctor who was treating me told me that I had been in a coma for 20 days. He said to the authorities that I could not return to prison as I was not fit and I could not stand trial until I had had a rest. He suggested that I be sent home for recuperation. "
Yakob then decided to flee to the UK. "I went home and after two weeks or so I was feeling better. By that time I had decided that the only option I had was to leave Syria. I left Syria and in 20 days or so arrived in the UK by lorry at Dover. I wish to claim asylum and I wish to stay here in Scotland."
News of Yakob’s case last night sparked outrage among Scotland’s gay rights and equality groups. Stonewall director Calum Irving said: "We have serious concerns about the UK’s immigration policy, especially since it appears that people are being sent back to countries where their safety is not guaranteed and where they could be persecuted just for being gay." A spokeswoman for Edinburgh-based Equality Network added: "I feel that we shouldn’t be sending people back to countries where they will be persecuted, even if they entered the country illegally." But a spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in London denied last night that torture of gay people took place. He said: "Homosexuality is illegal in Syria, but there are no special units to deal with this problem. People are not prosecuted – society looks at this as a disease for which they can be treated – it is a similar position to that taken by the Vatican. I cannot give a clearer answer."
Yakob will appear before a full immigration hearing in Glasgow on May 7 to determine his fate. Yakob claims that he wants to start a new life in Scotland. He said: "If I was to return to Syria, I would either be returned to jail for my political activities, for having left the country and being gay, or alternatively I would be put into the army for the three-year period. It is likely that they would put me into the army on the basis that the army would kill me one way or the other."
June 09, 2008 – aliveinbaghdad.org
In Syria, Gay Iraqis Seek New Life
Damascus, Syria – Maybe one of the of most difficult situations that an Iraqi could be in is to be gay, the Iraqi society in general discriminate against the gay and transsexual people, normally they consider them as people who left their gender and changed for sexual want. Even though most gay people of Iraq have managed to live their lives, being born gay is almost the same as being born with an assurance of death. Most Iraqis don’t accept that homosexuality is something you’re born with, or which is assigned by your genes. Due to the Iraqi cultural and religious beliefs, homosexuality is forbidden and considered a mortal sin, and in many cases the penalty of death is assigned as the solution for it.
Some of the Iraqi homosexuals used to live in the Karrada neighborhood, practicing there life normally but still in secret. Although before the war as well they could not show that they are gay, due to the risk of being attacked verbally by the neighbors or the people they live with. No Iraqi organization or NGO was taking care of gay Iraqis before or after the war. Many of them were killed by the hands of militias after the war, some militias were considering killing gay people as a great thing you can do to satisfy God. Because of this many homosexuals and transsexuals tried to leave Iraq, and some managed to flee to countries with less violence against gays, or to Europe.
International organizations such as Amnesty International are working on helping the gay and lesbian Iraqi people, other Iraqis outside the country have created Iraqi organizations that are trying to help gay Iraqis like the Iraqi LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender), this organization used to have about 40 members in Iraq but after the attacks and raids on these groups in Najaf, Kerbala, and other areas by militias these organizations lost most of their contacts inside Iraq. The three Iraqis now living in Syria interviewed by Alive in Baghdad are just a few people affected by prejudice and hatred aimed at gay and transsexual Iraqis and those who dare offer them assistance.
November 22, 2009 – Middle East On-Line
Syria’s gays, lesbians fight discrimination – Law, society treat homosexuals as criminals, outcasts or mentally ill as latters find refuge online.
Written by an IWPR-trained reporter
Damascus – Alaa al-Sayed, 20, is waging a battle for acceptance not just from Syrian society but from his own family since they discovered he is gay. “It’s so difficult to feel that you are a stranger and an outcast even in your own home,” he said. When his parents found out about him after he went out with a man one night, they beat him and locked him in at home. Later, they decided to marry him off, he said. “This is the solution in their opinion. The solution is doing an injustice to a woman for whom I feel no emotional or sexual desire,” he added.
Many gay men and women like Sayed lead a life on the margins of Syrian society, which generally sees them as perverts or mentally ill. They also suffer from discrimination on the part of the state that considers homosexual acts as “moral offences” punishable by up to three years in prison. The Syrian penal code prohibits "carnal knowledge against the order of nature", which is mostly used to criminalise sodomy, so lesbians are less liable to be persecuted than gay men.
In addition, unlike gay men, lesbians are less likely to go cruising in parks and on the street where they could be caught by the police. While most gay people in Syria prefer to hide their sexual tendencies and submit to social norms or lead a double life, more and more say that they are slowly asserting their right to be different. Some say that they are not afraid to display their sexuality in bars and nightclubs in the way they dress or behave.
For many of them, especially young gay men, the internet has helped them to regroup, create a network of social support, and meet others in similar situations. “The internet brought a real change to my life,” said Nouhad Ibrahim, a 21 year-old gay man from Damascus studying economics. “I discovered gay communities from around the world and that made me feel I was not alone in this world.”
Online, Syrian homosexuals can find several dating and chatting websites where they can exchange photos and telephone numbers and sometimes fix dates to meet. But some gay men are also using the internet as a platform to demand recognition and respect. A pan-Arab Facebook site aimed at countering the negative stereotypes about homosexuality has more than 400 members including a large presence from Syrian gays.
Members of the group say that they are trying to muster support especially from international organisations to show how gay men can contribute to the development of society and do not have lower intellectual capabilities. A separate Facebook group called Syrian Gays has 170 members and is used for chatting and meeting partners rather than as a platform for discussions around homosexuality in the country. But for most gay men, the topic of their homosexuality is still a taboo and so they prefer not to divulge their tendencies in a society that values machismo.
Amir, a 24-year-old gay man who works in his father’s clothing shop in Damascus, said that he had to pretend to be very manly in the way he talked and walked during the day. Amir, who refused to give his last name, added that at night among his gay friends he felt more relaxed and able to express his “feminine side”. Syrian gays today say that there are several cafes, bars and nightclubs where they meet in Damascus. Cruising for sexual partners also takes place in certain public squares or gardens during the night.
Gay prostitution is also evident at these sites but many say that the places are monitored by the morality police. Individuals who are caught by the police engaging in homosexual acts are often rounded up and sent to court where they generally receive a sentence of few months’ imprisonment. An official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the authorities do not recognise gay rights and homosexuality was rejected by Syrian society and culture.
“For gays and lesbians not to be subjected to mistreatment or harassment, they must keep their sexuality concealed,” he said. Dr Jalal Nawfal, a Damascus-based psychiatrist, said that the authorities were only responding to the social and religious realities of Syria, where homosexuality is strongly rejected. He added, however, that the government needed to raise awareness about homosexuality.
Although homosexuality is no longer regarded as a psychological disorder in the West, many Syrian psychologists still see gays as mental patients. Some even say that sexual harassment during childhood plays an important role in determining sexual orientation during adulthood. Christian and Muslim clerics who have a strong influence over social attitudes in Syria are more severe in judging homosexuality. According to Mohamad Habash, the head of the Centre for Islamic Studies in Damascus, some Muslim clerics overtly incite the killing of homosexuals. Other less extreme opinions favour providing gays with social support to help them “overcome their illness”, he added.
The media in Syria also consolidates the negative stereotyping of homosexuals by publicising stories that link gays to criminal acts or sordid incidents. Last year, for instance, a court sentenced three men to death for killing a diplomatic employee after having sex with him. Media also reported that a young man died after throwing himself from a balcony in the city of Aleppo to escape two men who wanted to rape him. Many gays in Syria believe the spreading of similar stories harms their cause.
February 2010 – PaperMag
Gay Travels Through Seru
Aleppo was the first really authentic Middle Eastern city I had been to. I was traveling from Istanbul to Tehran, slowly, by rail, bus and air, and it was my first stop inside the Syrian border. Aleppo claims to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and though it can genuinely claim a connection to the "Grand Tour" literati set of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries (Agatha Christie began writing Murder on the Orient Express while staying in the Baron Hotel in Aleppo), it has since lost most of its glamour and all of its celebs. It sits on the edge of the Syrian Desert, the poor neglected sibling to the more sanctimonious Damascus, and from a distance it shines silver, like powdered bone, and stuns you into silence. And in short I was afraid.
I had come to Syria in order to discover more about gay life there, but now, in this medieval environment, I felt a little out of my depth. However, on the cusp of a panic attack I got lucky. I met Mohammad.
Mohammad was 25, tall and splendidly handsome with sallow skin and dark eyes. He was also as gay as Ramadan. I noticed him leaning against a wall in a narrow alleyway near my hotel, and as I passed he spoke.
"Hey! Where you from?"
I felt slightly flustered. "Irish. I’m Ireland." He really was that beautiful.
"OK," he said, pausing before leaning in a little closer and adding, "And do you know the Mr. Oscar Wilde?"
It wasn’t really the question I had been expecting to be asked in Syria. "Yes, yes I do," I replied.
He then leaned in even closer and spoke in more hushed tones. "OK. I… I am like the Mr. Oscar Wilde."
What the fuck? I was beginning to find it hard to breathe. "Oh. Really?"
"Yes," he said, and then he leaned in so close that his lips practically touched my ear and he whispered. "Yes. I am a vegetarian."
I gathered from the knowing looks he was giving me that this was code. Not terribly good code but code nonetheless.
"I see. I am a vegetarian also." I said.
Mohammad was pleased with this.
"I think we understand each other," he said.
Read Article Here
June 23, 2010 – PinkNews
Syrian authorities crack down on gay men
by Christopher Brocklebank
Syrian authorities have raided several different private gay parties over the last few weeks, arresting over 25 men during the most recent swoop. According to gaymiddleeast.com, the majority of men arrested have been charged with indulging in "homosexual acts", while others have been charged with dealing and/or buying and consuming illegal drugs, organising illegal "obscene" parties and "encouraging" homosexual behavior.
All the men arrested are believed to still be in police custody, as their families have refused to pay their bail or even visit them. The mere accusation of homosexuality in Syria carries a dangerous stigma, even if the men are released without charge.
Syrian police are also known to pay special attention to gay cruising areas. Although Gay Middle East News say that to their knowledge no arrests have been made in such places, "there is the presence of what [are]called ‘security agents’ in Syria – commonly known in other parts of the world as ‘secret police’". Syrian authorities however, claim that their presence in these areas is down to an increase in street robberies and that the parties were initially only raided owing to concerns over drug use.
Gaymiddleeast.com have called on the Syrian government to release the men and drop all charges and to repeal the "antiquated" Article 520 of the 1949 Penal Code which forbids homosexual and lesbian acts. If the men are convicted, they face up to three years in prison. An article on the above website said that despite contacting Syrian embassies in London and Washington on the matter, they had, as yet, had no response.
25 June 2010 – LGBT Asylum News
Gay life in Syria
The Gay Middle East website (GME) has published a report summarising the situation for gay people in Syria –a country which is rarely discussed in this connection. Although "carnal relations against the order of nature" are still punishable by up to three years in jail, GME detects some improvement in the authorities’ attitude over the last two years: During this period, gay and lesbians were occasionally harassed or even imprisoned (one notable exception was the case of an asylum seeker to the UK), but the majority, if they behaved very cautiously and did not come out or demanded rights were left alone with minor harassment. However, it suggests that an AFP report last year, headed “Syrian gays edge gingerly out of the closet” was "a bit exaggerated".
The increase of accessibility to the internet for Syrians, albeit under very strict control, has enabled many gays and lesbians for the first time to communicate, network and develop a nascent self-consciousness. The Syrian authorities seem to have been quick to catch up with this trend. Members of the LGBT Syrian communities now exercise extreme caution when contacting each other or exposing their identity on the web. This is because the Syrian Secret police has now increased their presence on the web and try to intercept gays and lesbians by chatting to them as potential dates or mates. Syria has also moved to block various LGBT related sites and search terms. In the last months GME has received increasing complaints … on police raids. In recent raids over private parties 25 gay men were arrested … They are now at least several weeks held under arrest without bail and face a very uncertain future.
22 July 2010 – GME
Syrian authorities release the group of men alleged of “gay parties”
Exclusive! – Zyrian authorities finally released more than 25 men that have been under police custody for over three months for attending/organising allegedly private gay parties. Strong threats were made to them explicitly by a secret police office: "We won’t tolerate any future gay parties!" GME is investigating the circumstances of their release and the well-being of the men who are now returning to their homes and families. Sources in Damascus state that the Syria authorities were embarrassed with the attention given to this case in the British Media through GME’s Editor, hence the quick release without a trail. Whilst GME welcomes this development we feel that the men are not yet out of danger as their families were informed of their “offences”; this puts them in direct danger, and GME urges the Syrian police to take further steps to guarantee their safety, for example, they could publicly dismiss the allegations brought against them, or announcing they were acquitted from suspicious activities. GME is carefully following developments on the ground and will inform our readers with a full report soon.