Letter from Damascus — From the February 2016 issue

We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive

A gay soldier in Assad’s army

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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.”

Illustrations by Danijel Žeželj

Illustrations by Danijel Žeželj

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.”

“Except fucking,” Hassan said with a sigh. It was Ramadan, and the only other customers in the bar were two men who sat huddled together on a sofa a few yards away, quietly browsing the Internet. Despite the louche atmosphere — delicate wall lighting; soft, almost inaudible electronica; a few arty pictures of semi-clad women — I was struck by how casually Hassan and the bartender were discussing a subject that was, after all, officially proscribed. It seemed unusual in a city where it can often feel as though everyone is spying on everyone else. When I asked the bartender whether she worried about the secret police, or mukhabarat, she looked incredulous. They’d be as welcome here as anyone else, she said. “What kind of mukhabarat would want to find gays?” Neither she nor Hassan, it turned out, had ever known anyone who was convicted of homosexuality.

In fact, the bar’s young clientele, gay and straight alike, were for the most part supporters — albeit unenthusiastic ones — of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It was Assad’s mukhabarat whose torture of children in the southern city of Daraa had sparked an uprising in 2011, and whose harsh suppression of the mostly peaceful protests that followed, including the imprisonment of thousands of Syrians, did much to precipitate the country’s subsequent descent into civil war. For Syrians such as Hassan, however, the armed revolt had become the plaything of foreign powers, and his country the playground of foreign jihadis who wanted to remove every trace of people like him. Like many others, his support for the government did not stem from any heartfelt allegiance to Assad and his corrupt, ruthless regime, but rather from a residual patriotism that reinforced a pragmatic belief in the institutions of the Syrian state — especially the army — as the only means of holding the country together.

What’s more, in recent months the alternative to Assad had come to seem far worse. The Islamic State, which now controls much of the northern part of Syria, regards homosexuality as an abomination punishable by death. At the end of 2014, the group had begun to release a series of videos and photographs that showed allegedly gay men, blindfolded and bound, being pushed from the roofs of tall buildings. Those who didn’t perish in the fall were stoned to death by crowds in the streets below. In some of the photos, the Islamic State’s masked gunmen appeared to embrace their victims, as though in forgiveness, before killing them.

Hassan had seen the images. “Fuck Daesh,” he told me, using a term for the Islamic State that is favored by the group’s enemies, an Arabic acronym that can mean “bigots who impose their views on others.” The sex lives of its fighters, he felt sure, were far more scandalous than anyone else’s: “Donkeys. And goats. In Raqqa” — the de facto capital of its self-declared caliphate — “Daesh do that. Did you see the video?” He was referring to footage that had been making the rounds of the Syrian Internet. I told him that the video looked fake, but he was having none of it; soon he and the bartender were laughing hysterically. “Like horse fucking,” Hassan said. “Somewhere in America they do that.” Playing along, I suggested that the Syrian Army might put together its own gay battalion. The bartender seemed to like the idea. “Jabhat Gayat” (“Gay Front”), she quipped, a pun on the name of Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.

If I really wanted to learn about the Islamic State, Hassan told me, I ought to speak to his friend Samir, a young gay soldier in the Syrian Army who’d been fighting jihadis intermittently for the past four years. Samir, a bearded man with a large build, soon arrived with a friend. I said I’d already heard about him. “Seriously?” he asked in mock horror. “Everybody knows about me.” When I offered to buy him a drink, he declined: he was fasting for Ramadan. This was not, he explained, for reasons of Muslim piety but out of devotion to his new boyfriend, a religiously observant twenty-year-old art student whom Samir had been trying to see every day while on leave. The fast included a prohibition against sex, but Samir didn’t seem to mind. Their relationship was “not about sex,” he said. “It’s about feelings.”

The bar was closing, so we decided to walk back to my hotel in Bab Touma, Damascus’s Christian neighborhood. Samir had just come out to the friend he’d arrived with; judging by the latter’s smile, the news had been well received. As we strolled through the Old City’s maze of sensuous alleyways, the conversation turned to politics and the war. “I used to serve in Raqqa as well,” Samir said. “I saw Daesh face- to-face. Without masks.” Like Hassan, Samir was a supporter of the Syrian government, and he seemed unimpressed by the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State. “Americans say they are fighting Daesh, but they drop their bombs in the desert,” he said. “They don’t do anything.” He was also frustrated by rumors that the Assad regime had quietly colluded in the rise of the Islamic State. Six months earlier, he’d met a woman from the United Nations who informed him that the Syrian Army wasn’t really fighting the jihadis. “What do you think we are doing in Deir al-Zor, then?” he asked her, referring to a northeastern province that was largely under Islamic State control. “The whole world is breaking up Syria,” he told me. He was on the brink of tears. “My country is being broken up, and there is nothing we can do.”

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’s latest book is Hunting Season: James Foley, ISIS, and the Kidnapping Campaign That Started a War (Hachette). He traveled to Syria with the support of a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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