Here we are free

I awoke this morning feeling fat and bloated with much too much Hummus in my belly. I’d rounded yesterday off with a big plate of Tabbouleh, Baba Ghanouj, and Hummus (again) oh dear… the burnt aubergine dish (Baba Ghanouj) was really great as was the bottle of Syrian rose wine I had with it. A meal for just over 3 quid, wine included!

Michael was supposed to call this morning at 5am along with a worker and a tractor to take us to his land but he never came.

So instead I made my way again into the pretty town of Safita and spent the day sitting with Adnan an English-speaking Syrian who had spent most of his working life as a construction worker in Kuwait. He has now retired back to Safita and is setting up his own little restaurant selling Hummus Falafel and a wonderful Zatar bread (a delicate mix of Sesame seeds and Thyme that they add virgin Olive oil to and spear on thin pieces of dough that is baked in seconds in front of your eyes, dangerously tasty). He has invited to the official opening on Saturday

Today is the first day of Ramadan I say in passing, no worries here Adnan smiles, “This is a Christian village and the only Muslims here are Alawite” (a less strict branch of the Shi’a, only found in Syria and Lebanon, here they are the dominant sect, ruling the government and military).

A couple of girls pass in low-cut tops, bright make-up, and tight jeans, these girls are Alawite Muslims Adnan explains, “Here you cannot tell the difference between us, here we really do live as one” Adnan says proudly.

– If I am honest I have to say that seeing some of the fully veiled women last week on the beach at Tartous did depress me a bit, but maybe that is purely a result of my western ignorance, my inability to simply ‘get it’, and maybe it is the woman’s free choice as I hear, maybe they do feel ‘free’ behind the veil, but, as I said, I just don’t get it.

Najat an artist who moved from Tartous to Damascus recently says his city was never like this, “Before women wore what they liked, years ago we had bars in Tartous but not today”.

As Adnan pours another coffee he reflects on the ‘good old days’ when women were freer in the Arab world, “Saddam was good for women he says now Iraq takes a step back into the dark ages for them”.

Sadly in my own life I feel I’m seeing history turn its ugly head, one always imagines that with time you always got progression not regression, but one thing that saddened me about the changes in Iraq was its move towards being a more religious state; one where (possibly because of continued male dominance in the Arab world) women invariably seemed to lose out.

Saddam was no doubt a murderous psychopath running a tyrannical state but I did see many progressive women groups on my visits to the country in 1995, no veils just powerful positive female voices. Sadly when I left Iraq for the last time in 2004 there was chaos all around and women feared being seen outside without a veil, Christians included. Ironically most of Iraq’s Christians have fled to Syria from the new democracy for safety in Syria’s dictatorship.

Last week whilst watching imprisoned lions, tigers, and bears, in one of Syria’s illegal and cruel travelling zoo’s I met a Syrian of Greek decent whose family had settled here at the end of the last century, he too was angry about veiled women, “It’s a fashion from Saudi” he says. We watch a ‘blacked-out’ lady follow a man wearing a baseball cap and t-shirt on the beach in temperatures of 45c, “It was never like this, it is a macho thing for some of the young ones, but if you look in the Koran Mohammed treated women as equals and valued their efforts not as subordinates like these young ones today”.

At night in Safita the young fill the streets with scantily clad girls looking for boys roaming like high season, no veils here far from it, beer, whiskey, arak, is everywhere. “It’s nice to feel at home in Syria” I tell the waiter as he pours my rose wine. “Here we are a mix of Christian and Alawite, you cannot tell the difference here by how people dress” he replied.

What makes Syria so interesting to an outsider is its apparent tolerance to the many religions here – areas of the country are very religious yet others more modern, western, and ‘open’. As Adnan pours yet another coffee he looks out in the quiet early morning street, “Here we are free, this isn’t like Kuwait or Saudi, here you can do as you like and be left alone”.