Drinking, Dancing and Distrust: A Woman’s Life in Damascus
A friend recently observed that there are a lot of young women in the cafes and bars of Damascus; many more than before war had broken out in Syria. These girls, my friend said, were wearing more makeup than before, which she suggested was possibly a sign of the high competition over those few men who remained in Damascus. To learn more about this phenomenon I spoke in depth with Lamia Ayoubi, a young Syrian woman living in Damascus who frequently travels to Beirut. [i]
Alisha Molter (AM): How do you pass your days in Damascus?
Lamia Ayoubi (LA): I have a good job, I work from 9 to 5, and after that I meet friends in cafes or at home. With some friends we started a film club. We used to do it at home, or sometimes in a café, but then the café owner got arrested, so we prefer not to do it there anymore.
What changed for me is that I am involved in a lot of charity work now. And I drink a lot more alcohol than before, because there is nothing else to do. We have now a lot of Russian brands, really strong stuff that gives you headache afterwards. I didn’t change anything in my outfits, everything like before. But for going out, we all changed our behaviour and do not go out late anymore. Even the weddings and parties start earlier now. Weddings start at 2 pm and finish at 8 pm. Parties finish at 10 or 11 pm at latest.
What is an obvious change in Damascus is that you see a lot of women working in the cafes. You see now even veiled women serving men, something completely unusual in Syria.
AM: Did your circle of friends change due to the war?
LA: Yes, all relations changed completely. I have new friends now. I used to be always the youngest one among my friends. Now, my close friends have left and I have some friends who are five years younger than me. But to be honest, they are the reason I was staying so long in Damascus. I even made friends with people I only knew from before. Now that everyone else left, I became friends with them (laughs). I went to a girls’ school and now I started seeing girls from my 7th and 8th grade.
AM: Do you live in your own apartment or with your parents? Are they more protective since the war started?
LA: I live in an apartment in central Damascus with my dad. There are a lot of checkpoints close to our house that I need to pass daily more than once. My dad is definitely more protective than before. But I can understand his reaction and I allow him to be more protective. Before the war, I was always arguing with him for letting me stay out late and these things, and I considered moving out and finding my own apartment. Since two years now, I am home by 10 pm every evening at latest because it is not safe outside, and I feel how good it is that someone cares if I come home in the evenings or not... It doesn’t feel safe to stay alone. I am always afraid to be detained, every second.
AM: With all the terrible news from Syria, it is difficult to imagine parties. Could you describe a party you recently went to?
LA: Yes, there are parties… with my friends we have gatherings at home. When you go to a gathering, everyone is silent in the beginning. Everyone is afraid to say something wrong; we don’t trust people in political views and avoid talking about it. We are fed up talking about politics and the war. So everyone is silent. Then, they start drinking alcohol and people are talking.
In Damascus, the day for going out is Thursday, not Friday, and last week I went to a friend’s place. We were six girls and two guys on a terrace. We were sitting there and drinking and talking. Most of the time we have no electricity, so we have the ‘romance killer’ (laughs). That’s how we describe the LED-lamp with that really white light that works without electricity. We don’t dance a lot because most of the time there is no electricity. Sometimes we can put music over those small speakers you can charge beforehand.
AM: Did you dance recently?
LA: There are some clubs for dancing. I don’t like to go there because they play regime music and people chant for the President and Hezbollah. I go there maybe every three months for dancing. Sometimes, when I am really drunk I even chant for the President and Nasrallah and I dance over the tables and I don’t care! Sometimes, I just continue dancing to the regime songs to protect myself. If I stopped, it would be too visible that I danced the whole evening and just stopped dancing on that song.
AM: Are you in love?
LA: Mhh, yes, I think so.
AM: How free are people in their marriage choice?
LA: We are definitely not free in our choice. Marriage depends on how you live and where you come from. I got a lot of marriage offers before, even though I had a boyfriend. And when we broke up, there were immediately all the neighbours asking… (trails off)
AM: How did you meet? How do women find a husband these days in Damascus?
LA: With my new boyfriend, we started dating in Beirut and he lives there. Nobody knows about us. My friends do know but my parents believe he is just a friend. I know that for most of the girls it is really important in Damascus now to find a husband. People use Facebook and Whatsapp to meet and date. I never tried but I understand that people use online dating nowadays. There are no other opportunities. For me it is different – I have a boyfriend and I can travel outside Syria.
I have a friend who met her husband via Facebook. They decided to marry and only afterwards they physically met for ten days and then got married. Of course they were talking a lot before. For the girls in Syria it really matters now to get married to a guy who lives outside the country. They don’t even look at those who are still here – because the guys who are still in Damascus are mostly pro-regime.
But also there is a big age difference. All the men in the age of military service have left. I have some friends who married really young girls, like 17. And I know some guys above 42, who are not obliged to go to military service any more, and they get married to younger women. My friend who is 30 just married a guy of 42. All the others have already left.
[i] Due to the sensitive content of the interview, this is a pseudonym chosen by the interviewee.