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Story Publication logo January 15, 2016

Syria: We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive


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James Harkin reports from Syria, in an exploration of human and cultural loss.

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A young boy walks with a bicycle past Syrian army soldiers in the city of Harasta, 9 km north of Damascus. Photo courtesy of Freedom House flickr. Syria, 2012.

When I asked Hassan, a twenty-four-year-old reporter for a local TV channel in Damascus, if he could introduce me to members of Syria's gay community, he took me to an anonymous-looking bar in the heart of the capital's Old City. I'd met him two years earlier, in September 2013, while marooned in Damascus on a journalist visa from the Syrian regime. We'd hung out over the course of a week, mostly in that very bar, and I'd gotten to know some of his friends and family. So it took me by surprise when, shortly after we entered the dim, cavernous establishment and found a seat, he looked me in the eye and said, matter-of-factly, "You do know I'm homosexual, don't you?"

Such carefully choreographed disclosures happen all the time in Damascus, where homosexuality is illegal. I'd had no idea that Hassan — not his real name — was gay, and I was not alone: there were many people in his life who didn't know. His best friend, who was unabashedly homophobic, had once told him that he could never be friends with a gay man. Nevertheless, the two of them had recently begun to sleep in the same bed. "Just sleep," Hassan clarified, with a nervous giggle. At once shy and flirtatious, he had a tendency to laugh at almost anything. "We are roommates now."

As in every other country where gay life is suppressed, homosexuality in Syria has developed its own private language. The Arabic word "jaw," meaning "weather," is used to identify someone as gay. " 'He is jaw' means 'He is from our community,' " Hassan told me. Appearances were often a giveaway. Gay men tended to dress better, said Hassan — who'd long ago guessed that I was straight. While there were no gay bars, as such, in Damascus, places like the Old City bar were, in Hassan's words, "gay-friendly." A young crowd, composed mostly of gay men, gathered here at least twice a week. "Fifty, sixty, seventy — lots of people," I was told by a round-eyed, hat-wearing bartender, whom I'd also met on my previous trip to Syria. "Everything happens in here."

To read the full story in Harper's Magazine (paywall protected), click here.



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