here, there, everywhere

Syria’s Federal Elections – Is this a Party?


It’s election time in Syria 2007 and thousands of posters and political banners have made their appearance across Damascus and the rest of the country.   The pictures of the contenders look the same as anywhere else in the world – seated, suave, sincere gazes piercing the camera lens.  The men might be a little more swarthy than say, their Scandinavian counterparts, but the women all have the same political hairdressers as their sisters in the West.  The immovable and superbly poofed helmet radiates confidence, authority.  Was it Margaret Thatcher or the Queen that set the tone for all future women seeking positions of power?

No Syrian civilian seemed to know what the election date was and they didn’t seem to care.  They weren’t going to vote anyway.  The feeling was that it didn’t matter what you vote for, you wouldn’t get what you wanted.  Maybe the posters were up there to hide cracks in walls or add to the dreary aesthetics of a desert city which exists under clouds of sand and pollution.

My roommate and I had been studying for our Arabic Level 3 exam in a few days and decided we needed a break from procrastinating.  We headed out of our apartment in the conservative Muslim neighbourhood and headed to the market just down the road.  It’s always a pleasant place to go walking and people-watching.  We wandered along the narrow street and stumbled upon some sort of party.  A band comprised of traditionally dressed young men were lining an alleyway on either side, drums and horns ready.

“Is this a wedding?” we asked.

“Yes,” they replied.

“Who’s getting married?” we continued.

“No one, it’s a party for a famous person,” was the response.

“Who is it?” we pressed on.

“It’s the big guy,” followed by vague looks and snickering.

We decided to hang out and see who it was that would appear in a little while.  The band members started circling around us, cute, western, and, therefore, promiscuous women.  They spoke Arabic and always ready to practice, we tried conversing at a deeper level with them.  No one seemed to know for sure why they were there but they were ready to play when ready.

An older guy eventually appeared and started talking to us.  His English was quite good as he had business somewhere in the Gulf (Saudi Arabia) and had to speak the language frequently.  He was the host of the party which turned out to be his contribution to helping one of the candidates get elected.  He met the candidate somewhere in the Gulf earlier in the year and as the two talked, they discovered they were from the same city.  Mr. Politician said how great it would be if our guy showed his support by throwing a party during the elections and encouraging people in the neighbourhood to show up and vote.

Our new friend invited us to come up the alley a little further and hang out where the chairs had been set out in front of a fabricated stage.  Miniature lights hung overhead and ushers in suits walked hurriedly up and down the aisle, sometimes carrying drink trays, sometimes carrying nothing.  The sound check was in process and interested passersby stopped to check out the fiesta, or hafla in Arabic.  In typical Arabic hospitable fashion, our host flagged down a drink guy and passed us two cups of Turkish coffee, or sweet sludge.  We peppered him with questions of the election, of life in the Gulf, of his activities while he was back in Damascus.  He came home every year for a month or two of vacation.  He said if we came by in the future we could find him parked out in the alleyway on a stool, talking with friends.  What did he do with the rest of his spare time if he wasn’t working?  And then all of a sudden, out of leftfield, came his confession of visiting A Club in the evenings.

……………

Back up a few weeks earlier when Sonya had just arrived in Damascus.  We went out for dinner at a local Indian restaurant to celebrate the starts of our new lives.  As we exited the restaurant, we saw a neon sign across the street that read “Nightclub.”  With the idea that we might have a place to go dancing some weekend night, we decided to check it out and knocked on the door to see if the establishment was open.  A young man, maybe Malaysian but definitely not Arabic, admitted us and said while they were still closed until later, we were welcome to walk around.  Chandeliers hung overhead, paintings and drawings of women in various stages of discreet undress hung on the wall.  We walked through the entrance into the dancehall.  I peeked into the dressing rooms of the dancers as we cruised by, noting the feather boas and other feathery outfits.  A small dance floor was in the front of the large, low-ceilinged room.  There was a fish tank built into one corner of the room, similar paintings to the entrance gracing the walls and interspersed with glittering wall sconces.  Low tables and plush chairs filled the room space and a bar filled up the remaining space in the back corner.

A big man sat on one of the sofas and invited us over for a drink, sugary tea or sugary sludge.  We parked ourselves on the opposing sofa and politely crossed our ankles as we settled in for a line of questioning.  Our host turned out to be the owner of the fine establishment.  He had on a dark suit and his wedding finger was encircled by a large gold and diamond ring, I was thinking Vegas meets Arabia.

Who dances here?  The dancing girls, of course.  How many girls do you have dancing?  Thirty-two.  “Thirty-two??” asked Sonya.  “You mean thirty-two to cover all the nights of the week.”

“No, thirty-two each night,” was his deep-throated response.

“Where are they from?” asked Sonya.

“Russia.”  The lights go on.

“How old are they?”

“Eighteen or 19, but not more than 22.”

Our tea arrived and we immediately drank them, thankful for the excuse not to talk.  Our host sat there, spinning the ring on his finger and staring at us from under his bushy eyebrows.  Used to pleasing his customers and providing the finest service, he noted our empty teacups and asked if we would prefer something stronger, beer or whiskey perhaps?  We declined and used the standard excuse, “We’d love to but we have to be somewhere,” and immediately bee-lined it for the opulent front door.

……………

Back to the election party and our host and his confession.

“I’ll tell you something, my wife doesn’t even know,” he says as the sound check continues and we hear the sound of the band firing up.  “I go to a club in the evenings, it’s nice and the people are good.”

“Why doesn’t your wife know,” we ask in unison.

“Well, she wouldn’t like it, you know?”

Again, the lights go on slowly, like the dining room chandelier on a dimmer switch that is always set to low for ambiance until the guests ask for more light to see what they’re eating.

The band breaks into full song so we hurry back out to the street to see if the cars carrying the honourable guest have arrived.  One car with not-so-important people shows up, and since the whole party seems to be somewhat unstructured and off schedule, we decide to head home to study again.  Our new friend invites us back for more sludge and discussion in the future.  “Ensha’allah,” we respond, navigating our way through the press of band, not-so-important people, and interested bystanders.

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