Yesterday it was the Assyrian New Year, the year of 6766. Happy Assyrian New Year, everyone!
The Iraqi and the Assyrian flag
Girls in traditional Assyrian dresses
News from Damascus are always depressing nowadays. But it used to be a vibrant city, full of life. When I lived there last year the fear of the war was present in the city, but here are the words of a young woman from Damascus and how her life used to be before the war.
“I grew up in Damascus and when we went to visit the village my parents came from, I just wanted to go back home. My parents’ village is beautiful, green and with fresh air, but it’s not like the city. In Damascus I had everything; freedom and friends.
Summers were the best. My cousin was older and worked in Saudi Arabia and used to come home for vacation in the summers. She got divorced and when she came home she wanted to have a good time, to live a free life, a life she couldn’t live over there. When she was in Damascus I packed a bag with all my stuff and moved in with her. She rented a flat downtown and I stayed with her there all summer. My family was angry with me for moving out from them, they thought my cousin had bad influence on me, but there was nothing they could do. I had become so independent from them since I started working and making my own money.
Me and my cousin never cooked, we just ordered take out to the house or went to restaurants. We went to the swimming pools somewhere in the city and ordered sheesha. In the evenings we went clubbing, there were many nightclubs to go to, and there were always a lot of guys after us. We had a good time with them, we let them pay for everything, then when we got bored with them we just hopped in a taxi and left” (she shows how they teasingly waved goodbye from the car window while laughing) “We never talked politics back then. She supported the president, she thought it was because of Bashar al Assad that she could live a free life in Syria comparing to the life she had as a divorced woman in Saudi Arabia. I was against Assad, just like my father was, but me and my cousin never spoke about it. We just had a great time together. I loved my city.”
Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog
I have had some of the craziest nights out in my life when being in the Middle East. Cities like Beirut, Istanbul and Damascus offer an amazing night life, where people put away their troubles at the door and do their very best to have fun, not limited by the bar closing at 1 am or queuing for a humiliating number of hours before maybe being let in. Yes, I have been clubbing in New York too, I still consider my Middle East partying experiences the very best!
When I first started travelling in the Middle East I was surprised by how people I met could spend a fortune on their outfits and drinks when I knew so many of them were struggling just to get by; students depending on their parents and recent graduates with low salaries in ridiculously expensive cities. But even if the show-off hurts the pockets, I learned to have fun and not care about tomorrow’s worries – a good lesson for a Lutheran Swede.
One night in Istanbul me and my girlfriend took the bus from our gloomy hostel and hopped off in Taksim area, walking around aimlessly until we heard some reggae music and popped in to the Riddim bar, that still exists, but at that time only was a small bar crowded with the alternative people that Taksim loves , or vice versa. We had no plans for the night, not the right outfits and not enough money, but we quickly made friends with the bartender who treated us to drinks, then early morning made us company to a rooftop club where people made out, smoked pot and discussed how to get away from doing the military service, until they fell asleep on the many pillows on the top floor. On the street downstairs a fight broke out and someone pulled a gun (but no one got shot), the party continued anyways. At 6 or 7 am the tired staff that wanted had to shake everyone awake and force them into the elevator. A night like that would never had happen in the quiet little university town I was living in back home.
But a girls night out for me in the Middle East, can also mean playing tawla and smoking sheesha until late hours, while discussing the most important things in life; love and relationships. I guess these things never change?
Photo: copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog
“You want to go see my friends? They’re African, they speak good English” my neighbor in Amman asked me one Thursday afternoon years back. In the sleepy little area we lived there were not a big variety among the neighbors, so I became curious and tagged along.
Long before that, no one knew when, the father of Sameera and her sisters left his country Nigeria, supposedly to go to Mekka, travelling by land for several months until he came to Jordan. For some reason, if money went out or whatever it could have been, Sameera’s father decided to stay there for a while. Back then Amman was just a village and foreigners a rarity, so rare that the authorities quite soon offered him a passport. There were a few other Africans in Amman though, and someone pointed out the houses to him: “Here lives an African family!” And so he met Sameera’s mother whose father originated from the Ivory Coast, and for a while became a lifetime; he never saw Nigeria again.
Sameera was cool and smart, too broad in her mind for the suburb where she had lived all her life. Her father, illiterate himself, decided that his six daughters were going to be educated, and sent them to college. To his son and other people he said: “No one is going to tell my daughters anything”. Probably he was the one to blame for their independency that stayed present even after he and their mother had passed away. They all worked and made their own money, only one of them getting married, to a Kenyan man that she said respected her freedom. The others saying they didn’t want the burden of being controlled. Sameera and her sisters fully identified as Africans, sticking to African satellite channels and music, even though they had never been. Later on, with the UN moving in big-scale to Amman the city became more international, with foreign women dressing in tank tops and Starbucks popping up in street corners. But the international vibes of a city often has a way of not reaching the original citizens, the ones limited by the conservative ways of condemning those different African girls that lived by themselves, worked for themselves, dressed in modern clothes.
I always had a good time at Sameera’s place and I wanted her to come visit me in Beirut when I went to stay there the upcoming year. She was up for it after some persuading. Collecting her best outfits, she called me a number of times before she left; “Can I have white jeans in Beirut? That’s cool there?”, and took a shared taxi for the eight hours ride.
She cried the first evening on my balcony and I got perplexed: what was wrong? But it was just the free spirit of Lebanon and the mixture of people that she saw. She was no longer the odd one; she was just one among many. “I’m sad because of all the beautiful things I see, I see nothing of this is in Amman”, she said.
That weekend was the best, we had so much fun. It was Beirut in the summer in the mid-2000s: clubs were open until the morning, people could still afford going out, Tiesto and Amr Diab was the DJs choice for the night. Our exotic appearance, the blonde girl and the black, was priceless. We didn’t pay entrance anywhere, the Buddha Bar DJ invited us to party with his crew, not understanding why such an urban girl like Sameera didn’t drink or wanting to date, and Sameera acted like she was born in the cosmopolitan city, showing off her amazing dancing skills that she rarely got to practice, pretending she was American when someone asked (“Hey I ain’t gonna see them again!”). When we grew tired of the company we told them we were going home, then hopped into a cab and went to the next club.
We’re not in touch anymore why I don’t share her real name or photo. But I hope she would agree on me sharing her story, because being a minority is never easy and she was a person that showed someone can grow different from her society and still remain her integrity, becoming the special person that she was. Or as Sameera said once, to a taxi driver in Amman that criticized her for being a Muslim and not covering herself:
“Ammo, I am a Muslim and when I read the Qur’an and decide that I will cover, at that time I will cover. Until then I will mind my own business, and you mind yours.”
Photo credit: http://www.primetravels.com
Last weekend me and some friends threw a party at my place to celebrate an achievement, it was real fun thanks to my friends bringing foods and hookah (water pipe), even a small baby that everyone could grab and cuddle with, so that I could focus on trying to wear my new heels and look good (hey, I’m being honest). I happen to have ended up with friends and acquintances that ranges from very liberal to very conservative and I invite them all. Someone who believes in the clash of civilizations probably wouldn’t think my parties was a great idea.
But not all of my friends drink alcohol and they show up anyways, the hookah keeping them busy. Not everyone eat pork so we skip that, just so that noone will eat it by mistake. I also have friends from different religions and people sometimes hold biases, but I can’t let that come between an invitation. Very few are free from prejudices (including myself) and I just let people meet and figure out who that other person is for themselves. Ofcourse I don’t put up with everything: if you are too judgemental on a woman wearing the hijab and therefore is surpressed; being a Jew and therefore hate Arabs; being an ignorant Swede who doesn’t like foreigners – I get exhausted. But I’ve also seen persons change and reconsider their stereotypes – it’s sometimes painful to realize what you have been thinking, but it can also be a wonderful feeling to let go of your prejudices (sometimes prejudices contains a lot of anger).
I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s sometimes a mine field and many times I become sad by the force in how much some dislike each other and try to convince others to follow. But so far I haven’t caved in when it comes to the parties at my place. I believe in people.
Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog
I like to kill myths and here’s one for you: there is no such thing as dry countries in the Middle East. Upon my arrival to Kuwait a few years back, I had no idea where I was going, and I googled the name and found information on how breaking the ban on alcohol led to harsh punishments such as the death penalty. Other expats that I met during the first days of my stay confirmed this picture: the place was a boring, dull place to be, with no places to meet people, only a variety of international restaurants and the desert.
Was it my luck that I made friends with connections, or that I made several Kuwaiti friends? Maybe it mattered that I was blonde since I was welcomed into a circle that many expats never got to know of? Well whatever the reason was, I can tell you that the rumours aren’t true.
“Hey, what you doing tonight?” a friend of a friend asked me that first Thursday evening I went to a party in Kuwait, it was a hot and gloomy afternoon a few weeks after I had arrived. “You wanna go clubbing?”
I assumed “clubbing” in Kuwait ment a few friends hanging out over homemade date rum, a booze I hope you’ll never have to try. But as I met him outside one of the sand colored buildings, he made a phone call then led me through a door in the basement that led to another door, etc, and inside of it all throned a night club, complete with DJ booth, bar counter and maroon sofas. As an extra addition to the luxury the wash basin in the bathroom was transparent glass and a brand perfume was left on the zink for anyone who wanted to refresh.
This was an all Kuwaiti setting, no expats were to be seen, something strange in a country where around 70% of the inhabitants are expats. Some young men managed the party surrounded by dolled-up women in designer shoes, mini skirts and highlighted, teased hair (I came to discover that no matter how much time I put on my looks before these parties, I could never compare myself with these gorgeous Barbie dolls. I simply didn’t have the money). The men opened bottle after bottle of whiskey, gin and vodka and nonchalantly threw the empty boxes over the shoulder: “Fancy another drink, sweetheart?” Everything was for free, everything was ok; in the sofas, couples made out, in a corner someone smoked weed.
“Wanna dance? I will lead you, don’t worry!” my cavalier asked me and brought me with him to the dance floor. Even though the place was modern, the partygoers hadn’t lost touch with their roots – the music was Kuwaiti and Arabic all night. I remember us dancing and making the DJ play our favourite Nancy Ajram songs, and the club owner was friendly and a concerned host, treating everyone to delivery food in the early morning, giving me and my friend a ride home at the end of the party so that we wouldn’t be caught in one of the nightly check points, where Kuwaiti authorities stopped cars and searched for alcohol and drugs.
After this first evening I quickly made my way into the party scene in Kuwait, and I had some of my craziest nights that year in the Gulf, in these getaway places where young men and women met and lived as if they were somewhere outside. Not all Kuwaitis goes to the clubs, I met Kuwaitis in other settings that hadn’t been to these places at all. There are also many that would disagree on alcohol existing in their country, who wouldn’t hesitate on calling the police on their neighbours if they knew what was going on next to their house. Because of this I have very few photos from the parties I went to (and since I’m not putting anyone at risk I’m not adding any of the photos I do have on the blog). But the scene exists, and from what I heard, the clubs in Saudi Arabia are even crazier.