Whilst dentist Rima was checking my teeth I was quizzing her about the recent news that the Syrian government had banned the veil at Damascus University. “Is it an attempt to appeal to the west?” I ask her provocatively; knowing she is religious and partly veiled herself, “If it is to appeal to the West” she says, “It is wrong, Obama is as bad as Bush as far as we are concerned. What has he ever said or done about Gaza?”
I watch nervously and wince bravely as dentist Rima roughly plucks out a temporary filling from my problem tooth and then pokes a large needle deep into the empty canal.
For a moment it amuses me that this British boy had decided to have this necessary (and painful) dental work done in a country labelled by his own government as ‘Beyond the Axis of Evil’, a rogue state and a state sponsor of terrorism.
But before I know it Rima is coming at me again, this time with a needle for my gum, she jabs hard directly into the abscess itself, straight through my gum, as the syringe forces the medicine into the abscess a crippling pain freezes the side of my face, I cannot (however much I try) hide the tears in my eyes – I’d heard that dentists were good and cheap here but dear God I’m now wondering if this was the right move.
I try to distract myself by looking at the pictures of the Koran on her wall, and then the other religious items on her desk. Out of the corner of my eye I see more veiled women enter the room – they sit and turn to face me, entertained by my childlike performance, they murmur in Arabic to each other… I imagine them asking each other if my crying is for real or not. I realise I am surrounded, this is now a woman’s world, a veiled world, and I feel very out of place.
This grown man from the north of England, England the warrior nation, empire creator, freedom bringer, is now squirming like a child in the dentist’s chair to the obvious amusement of a gaggle of women hidden behind their veils. “It really hurts” I say pathetically, “Don’t worry Sean, it will pass soon” dentist Rima says with a smile.
“The veil is the woman’s right, in the Koran we can choose to show our face or not, it is up to us”. “Will this patient remove her veil for treatment?” I ask looking at a woman in black, “Of course” dentist Rima says laughing, “Just as soon as you leave the room”.
As the pain subsides and the tears dry I push my luck by suggesting that in this male dominated society it must be the man who decides what the woman does and what she wears… “Not in Syria” dentist Rima insists, “Here it up to the women, our personal choice, in the West you are misled by your understanding of the veil, we are not at all like Saudi Arabia. Syria is a far more tolerant society and we are not an Islamic state, here it is secular. A lot of what you read in the west is wrong, here women are respected, we don’t need shelters for beaten women like you do in England and America”.
“We are like Iraqi’s” dentist Rima continues, “We are a well educated nation with culture and history. Saddam provided all this to his nation but the Americans don’t like educated Arabs so they got rid of him. But they will never remove our president he has the complete backing of his people and after the war in Iraq he is stronger than ever”.
As I sit in this dentists chair in Syria I think to myself how funny it is, the strange, muddled, ideas we have of each other’s societies, how we misunderstand each other, sometimes deliberately, but often at our peril, whilst firmly, and without fuss, dentist Rima seals the root canal with yet another temporary filling.