It’s Damascus: bustling alleyways and courtyards crammed with silence. Sabriya is secretly in love with Adil. Her brother Sami is secretly in love with Nermin. Both loves are chaste and built on idealism, and both are doomed. Adil and Sami join the 1925-27 revolt against the French occupation. Sami is killed by the enemy. Nermine is badgered into marrying a wealthy old man, then ends up eloping with her hairdresser. Sabriya’s fiance Adil is killed, probably by Sabriya’s bullying brother Raghib who doesn’t like the idea of her marrying a baker’s son. Sabriya is left alone to care for her dying mother, then her dying father. Finally she kills herself, leaving her journal for her niece to read, and a message: “Do not let your life be in vain.”
“Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet” (in Arabic, “Dimashq Ya Basmat al-Huzn”, or “Damascus, O Smile of Sadness”) was published in Syria and then transformed into a controversial and wildly popular muselsel, or television series. (If the Egyptians are famous in the Arab world for films, the Syrians do muselselat, particularly period dramas). This elegantly-written, carefully-dramatised period novel is nostalgic but also very current in its concerns.
Ulfat Idilbi explicitly links the struggles for national rights and women’s rights. When Sabriya participates (wearing niqab) in a women’s demonstration against the French, she says: “For the first time I felt I was a human being with an identity and an objective, in defence of which I was ready to die.”
But this is the point at which, when Sabriya returns home late from the demonstration and Raghib discovers her affair, everything goes wrong. Her chances for happiness are snuffed out as surely as the French suppress the revolt. Two defeats, from without and within, prompting Sabriya to ask: “Why is it that the people of my country demand freedom and at the same time cannot grant it to each other?”
Published under dictatorship in 1980, “Sabriya” is a retrospective lament for the failure or mere partial success of both national and social liberation.
The French left in 1946, after bombarding Damascus again, but the country inherited by Syrians was truncated and boxed-in. Aleppo’s natural markets were behind barbed wire in Turkey. Deir ez-Zor’s markets and family contacts lay across the border in Iraq. Lebanon had become a foreign state. In independent Syria both men and women were allowed to vote, but the first suspension of democracy came very soon, in 1949, in the wake of the catastrophe in scissored-off Palestine. The years since have brought the fall of the Golan, a near civil-war, and a stream of refugees from Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.
Syrian women have participated fully. They’ve had successful careeers as academics, judges and even ministers. At the same time, so-called ‘honour killing’ continues (to the disgust of most, including, notably, Mufti Ahmed Badreddeen Hassoun, who campaigns against it). Alongside the hijab revival – which has various meanings and cannot be dimissed as retrograde – there has been an upsurge in such symbols of the very old order as polygamy and the niqab. (In a hotly debated move, the Syrian government recently gave munuqaba school teachers the choice to unveil or to leave the classroom.) One effect of the current Islamic ‘revival’ has been a greater enforcement of conformity – in dress and behaviour – on both men and women.
This was an unseen hazard of hitching social change to national emancipation. Such hitching is an old nationalist habit. One of the aims of the soft-nationalist Ottoman Arab Fraternity (a group which tried and failed in 1908 to reconcile the contradictions of Ottomanism and Arabism) was to “foster the observance of Arab customs.” The association of political nationalism with ‘customs’ must have seemed innocent at the time but proved dangerous later, because when nationalism becomes defensive – as history has rendered the frustrated nationalism of the Arabs – its attitude to customs tends to become defensive too. And customs, if they mean anything outside a folklore department, are fluid, living streams running through a culture, not something whose observance requires fostering.
A stale and lingering romantic-nationalist focus on the abstract ‘authentic’ translates into a social focus on mythically ‘authentic’ family and gender roles, even if the first nationalists didn’t intend it so. The myth of authenticity has nothing to do with morality. It leads quickly into hypocrisy and corruption.
Niqab-wearers in Syria quite correctly point out that our great-grandmothers wore the niqab. But the past-equals-authentic argument doesn’t quite wash, first because our grandmothers also had to deal with famines, feuds and feudal servitude, and second because the twenty-first century niqab has been re-introduced from abroad. Some see the hand of Saudi Arabia (rather, that Najdi section of Saudi Arabia which has homogenised the rest in its image) stretching behind the mask. The Saudis have, after all, had a weighty effect on our understanding of the ‘authentic’ Muslim past by their domination of much of the pan-Arab media, their mosque building and imam-training, and through the thousands of Syrians who work in the kingdom.
Many hope that Turkey’s rising star in the Arab world will provide another, more attractive model.