30 May 2008


Coming into Damascus from the airport I was at first dismayed as we passed a large number of extremely ugly block apartment buildings, all in a uniform dismal gray. This is, technically, a socialist country, and that sight certainly seemed to confirm it. Worst of all, more are being built.

But my hotel is in the city center, the old city, and it's beautiful. That is, if you like old style buildings, in various states of repair, from nearly falling down to elegantly renovated, which I do. I had a nice walk with my friend, Maher, earlier, and after dinner took a long walk around myself. This district has what I like in a city--lots of people out walking in the evening, browsing in shops, buying ice cream cones, having a late dinner, or just sitting in a sidewalk cafe drinking tea. As dark as it is, it feels safe, safer than I ever felt in San Francisco after dark. I hope that's not just an illusion, and of course it could be this particular district.

Syria is culturally and politically fascinating. It's technically a secular and socialist state, governed by the Baath party, an Arabic nationalist and socialist party, originally with a hefty dose of Marxism, which accounts for it secularism. But its nationalized industries are faltering badly, and it's trying to shift to a more market economy. Unfortunately the government doesn't dare shut down its money-losing businesses because it fears throwing so many people out of jobs. But its secularism makes it a more liberal culture than you would expect. While many, it seems most, women wear headscarves, very few wear the full hijab, and many do not wear even the scarf. Many of the younger women in particular are dressed very stylishly, verging on provocatively. Stores, like the Bennetons I passed, have window displays with mannequins in short sundresses or bikinis. This ain't Saudi Arabia by a long shot.

And when I sat down to write this, I found this page in the recent history on the computer, about gays in Damascus. Not exactly an open topic, it appears, but not too deeply hidden either.

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