Sami from Syria
** This week we are once again doing something different. This is a fantastic story but it’s longer than normal. Because of this, the story will be split into two parts. Check back in in two weeks for the second half of the story. **
A tale of two identities
The neighborhood I grew up in in Damascus used to be a camp for Palestinian refugees. Now, it’s a huge neighborhood with both Palestinians and Syrians. Of course a lot of it is destroyed now, but it used to be a very lively place. My neighborhood was in an especially conservative part of Damascus, which is already an especially conservative city in Syria.
My family comes from an ethnic minority called Alawites; it’s actually the ruling minority in Syria. We have very different interpretations of Islam. For instance, we don’t fast and we don’t do the typical five times a day standing prayer. We pray on your own, any time we want. Another difference is that women don’t wear headscarves. It’s actually forbidden to cover your head. Women wear things that I wouldn’t exactly call conservative but they don’t show a lot of skin either. They might wear skirts, but to the knee. Show body is ok, as long as it’s not the sexy part of the body.
Historically, especially in my grandparents’ generation, our people came from an agricultural background. Since everyone had to share tasks and work together in the fields, there was not really any separation of men and women like there is in a lot of the Islamic world today. That’s where my parents come from. Both of my parents, but my mom in particular, came from a very progressive family. Now that Alawites are more mixed with society though, we are now subjugated to mainstream Islamic rule. Most of the freedoms my grandparents had when they were younger, we didn’t have by the time I was growing up.
The only thing I could consider extreme in Alawite tradition is that you aren’t allowed to marry out of your sect. They don’t care who you marry but he or she must be Alawite and in the very least, for sure not Sunni.
The Alawites developed a lot of their own understandings and traditions because they were segregated from the rest of the Islamic people for more than 300 years. There were a bunch of massacres against the Alawites so they fled to the mountains. There, they were in contact with Christians and Jews who had also fled. I think they call it religious entanglement; where the groups all influence each other. Alawites took from Jews and Christians quite a bit, which is part of the reason that you find really striking differences between Alawites in Yemen, Syria and Morocco.
Syria in the 80s until the beginning of the 21st century was a socialist country. Though a socialist military regime, which is quite different than social democracy. In many ways, Syria is some how progressive but then there is this other side that kills everything progressive about it. There is even a quota in the parliament for women. Of course these elections are fixed, but we still have a parliament and it still has lots of women. Then at the same time, in day to day life, women aren’t treated equally.
**Editors note, apparently there was a quota enforced in 2014 but according to the World Bank, in 2018 only 13.2% of parliament seats were held by women. A large gap from the mandatory 40%. **
My mom told me that the 60s and 70s were very different than the 80s and 90s. In the 60s and 70s, girls would wear mini skirts. They were a part of this sexual revolution but in their own way. There wasn’t much sexual freedom but they used to dance the twist and go to concerts. Then, something happened in the 80s and 90s, there was a backlash and they started going towards conservatism. My parents really tried to instill this more liberal view of the world in my brother and I but that wasn’t always possible with the world around us.
For a while, I was fairly religious. I didn’t go to Mosque or pray, but I would fast for Ramadan. It was important to me to always be the good guy and not let the devil tell me what to do. I was always conflicted though because we were told that masturbation was a sin and if we did it, we were going to burn in hell. Even while I was doing it, I felt so guilty. I always told myself this would be the last time, but in the end, the shame was never enough to actually stop me. I think everyone who is religious has this guilt conflict. You do something that your body tells you that you need to do and then you feel guilty and awful about it.
When I first ejaculated, it only strengthened the shame cycle. I didn’t understand, I thought I peed. I thought, how did this happen? Did it again, more stuff came out. I was scared to masturbate but still had the urge to do it. I was scared because I thought I was peeing my bed and that there was something wrong with my penis. Maybe I masturbated so much that now pee is coming out. What’s next? Blood? I got really paranoid. But no matter how scared I was, I would always keep doing it.
Religious sex ed
At some point, I got curious and asked someone where babies came from. They told me that Allah somehow puts the baby in the woman’s belly but it didn’t really make sense to me. I remember drawing a picture where a man and a woman were having sex and I drew this connection line between the two and this cloud in the sky. Like a phone line between the people and god.
Then in the second grade, another friend asked me if I knew where babies came from. I still didn’t really understand so I said no, tell me what you know. He told me the man and the women would sleep together, but he used the very street term, not like have sex but closer to fuck. That was the first time I heard that word in that context. It’s the same thing as fuck in English. You say the word in different contexts so you could say something like that’s fucking amazing and it can also mean the act of having sex. He told me that the man and the woman go to bed, they would have sex and the man would ejaculate inside (I also didn’t know what ejaculate meant). Then, they decide if they wanted the baby or not. If they didn’t, the man can punch the woman in the stomach and the woman will go pee or poo the baby out in the toilet. God had something to do with it, but I don’t know how he linked the two.
The hidden gender
A lot of our poor information in Syria probably came from the fact that everything is more or less gender segregated. Because my mom was quite liberal she didn’t care if I played with girls, especially whenever she would visit a friend that had a daughter. She didn’t want me bothering them so she didn’t care if I played with the daughter of her friend. I could never play with girls on the street though, my mom wouldn’t have cared, but society would. A lot of my male friends growing up never even had any kind of interaction with a girl that wasn’t related to them until they were much older.
Girls were these mystical figures that we knew nothing about. My friends would go to the girls’ school and watch them as they left, maybe find a girlfriend. Communication would happen between girls and boys through letters. If you know my cousin for instance, you would give my cousin the love letter or the shitty mix tape and she would bring it to me and then bring a love letter back because it was so difficult to meet. You could try to walk her home but it was really dangerous. There was always the fear that someone might see us walking together.
Another reason I was luckier when it came to girls was that I always had summer classes; mainly English. Those classes were always mixed so I had female friends. Most of these teachers don’t give a fuck about what you do but no one ever tells you that before you sign up. There are certain rules in the normal schools because it’s the law, but in these summer schools, the management decides what happens. They don’t have segregation but still you would find guys sitting on one side and girls on the other. Some really progressive teachers would tell us try to mix but it only worked sometimes. Not many kids wanted to learn English during the summer so they all missed out.
During one of these summer classes, I fell in love for the first time. We didn’t really understand what we were doing, we knew we really liked each other and we started kissing. It wasn’t even on the lips, it was on the cheek, but it was a really big deal. A kid actually ratted on us and the teacher slapped both of us on the face incredibly hard. We were traumatized. We didn’t know it was a big deal or something we shouldn’t be doing.
When I see my female cousins, I kiss them on the cheek, so that wasn’t a big deal in my environment but outside, it was a very big deal. Boys and girls don’t kiss. In the Sunni communities, not even cousins kiss on the cheek, especially once they reach puberty.They barely say hi to each other. After that, the girl stopped coming to the summer school. I always missed her. She was my first love.
I don’t think they ever told my parents. I don’t think they wanted the parents to know these kinds of things were happening under their watch. Maybe if she told my mom what happened though, it might have been good. The way I saw it, I thought had done something really bad. I can’t be positive but I think if my mom found out what had happened, she would have gone and slapped my teacher. My mom has a really strong personality when it comes to her kids. Once in fifth grade, a teacher punched me in the stomach and I told my mom and she went and punched him in the stomach and slapped him in the face.
She is really a badass.