Tag: veil

Needle and the damage nearly done

Dentist Rima was waiting for me again; veiled as ever “Ramadan is nearly over, it will be Eid next week and we need to get your bridge ordered before then”.

Before I knew it I was back in the chair with a needle entering the roof of my mouth then another to the back followed by 2 more monsters to the gum. “I must prepare the tooth for the bridge fitting”, I murmur some pathetic remark about needles in the roof of the mouth being painful but she ignores me and starts drilling away at the numbed gum around my tooth in preparation to fit the bridge.

My mouth fills with my blood gushing out of my disintegrating gum and I nearly throw-up on dentist Rima, she pulls back just in time and I manage to spit the blood into the nearby sink.

“What is it?” she asks, bemused at my behaviour. “I can’t stand the taste of blood” I tell her pathetically, “Or the smell of my tooth being ground-away”, “I haven’t even removed the excess gum yet” she says impatiently, I really didn’t need to know that I think to myself before deciding to shut up and let her get on with it.

A family arrive. A veiled woman and her 3 lovely children sit around me watching, obviously fascinated by all the blood and the foreigner in the dentist chair looking awkward and scared. This isn’t a sight for kids I think, I remember back to the time I fainted with fear at the dentists as a child, I saw the needle and hit the deck. Maybe these are hardened Arabic kids, they watch as dentist Rima drills away tearing back the gum from around my tooth, I stop her again to spit out more large mouthfuls of deep red blood to the absolute delight of my attentive audience.

Another family arrive with yet more kids and the audience builds, Rima pushes my head back and continues to drill around the tooth, despite the anaesthetic I feel sharp jolts of pain in my gum but still she drills on and on and on, I continue to spit out mouthfuls of blood and wonder if this will ever end. I try taking my mind off it by thinking about the week just gone, it has been a hard slow week trying to make my film but at least my dental bill is only £100 as opposed to the £850 I was quoted in London.

Finally, I swill my mouth out for the last time, “I must see you on Wednesday” dentist Rima demands, “Eid will begin on Thursday so we should fit the bridge on Wednesday”. Coughing and spluttering I make my way down the hot dusty street to find a cab, I climb in nursing my wounds like an injured soldier, the young driver looks at me and smiles. As he drives I notice a deep scar to his neck and arm and point to them, he shows me other deep one into his belly, speaking no English he indicates that it happened in prison and he smiles at me again, suddenly my mouth feels less swollen. We drive in silence and I stare straight ahead into the glare of the busy Syrian highway.

The dentists chair and the veil

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.

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”.


In her early 30’s she stands as a one woman crusade against the dominant Arab male culture and all its stupidity, “I want to make the man I love happy, I want to make his food and even clean his clothes, but when my brother beat me so bad, because I refused to make him food, that I ended up in hospital it was too much, my father never even supported me then”. Her father has always beaten his daughters, but never his son, her last beating was just 5 months ago (she hasn’t spoken to him since), “This is the Arab world” she says, “I hate Arabic men!”

Sitting opposite me is a beautiful women wearing make-up, and a brightly coloured low-cut top designed to cause a stir here, when we walk the streets I see looks of horror from veiled women and hear lewd comments from men.

To them she says she is seen as a ‘bitch’. A bitch here is a woman who has slept with a man before marriage – or in some cases just kissed one. She recounts the moment she kissed her first and only Arabic boyfriend, “The moment I let him kiss me he left me, calling me a bitch, because I’d let him kiss me I was a bitch, this is the mentality here”.

Today it is her life commitment to promote the rights of women, though she feels almost alone in her struggle, “Women should not be killed if they are not virgins when they marry but it happens here, and is accepted. Until laws are passed to protect women this region will always be in the dark ages”

A week ago I met a man whose ex-girlfriend had written asking him for financial help. She had fallen in love and was to marry but needed an operation to make it appear she was a virgin again, as this man had taken her virginity he felt obliged to help her with money for the operation.

On a day-to-day level Syria looks deceptively “modern”, bars, night clubs… in the street scantily clad women mingle with half-veiled and fully-veiled women. It is the mix of Christian, and Alawite Muslim (a Shi’ite offshoot that wears no veil and is allowed to drink alcohol – President Assad is Alawite) that makes Syria appear more open and modern than other Arabic societies.

But scratch the surface here and lurking beneath this modern facade is a very traditional Arabic society riddled with social mores and customs that always seem to favour men against women. There have been some small changes, a law passed recently makes ‘honour killing’ a crime, though it only offers a 2 year prison sentence – as with many Arabic countries the issue of women’s rights is one that will continue to plague it for a long while yet.

We walk through the streets unable to avoid the stares and whistles aimed towards her, finally I wave goodbye, and she walks defiantly into the night.