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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No reliable data about homosexuality in Syria exists, but compared with other countries in the Middle East it is said to be something of a safe haven for gay men and women. Although Article 520 of the country’s 1949 penal code stipulates a prison sentence of up to three years for “unnatural sexual intercourse,” the law is not strictly enforced. In an article for The Spectator, the British writer John R. Bradley recalls visiting a Damascus coffee shop several years before the start of the civil war. He was propositioned by another man almost immediately: “It turned out that the coffee shop — packed with men of all ages and types, from English-speaking teenagers to elderly Bedouins — was a pick-up joint.” As long as they were discreet, Bradley concluded, gay men in Damascus enjoyed significant freedom.

If anything, this freedom has only increased during the past four years. Preoccupied with political opposition, the secret police had long turned a blind eye to merely sexual dissidence; now, in the middle of a conflict that has seen more than a quarter of a million deaths, they have more pressing concerns. “They don’t care,” Hassan said. “That is because the mukhabarat is busy, yes, but also because the whole society is busy now. People mind their own business.”

Illustrations by Danijel Žeželj

Illustrations by Danijel Žeželj

To be sure, Syria is not without its share of antigay sentiment. A few days after my meeting with Hassan, I raised the subject with a group of policemen and pro-Assad paramilitaries who were patrolling the industrial outskirts of the government-controlled city of Aleppo. Would homosexuality, I wondered aloud, make a good subject for a foreign journalist? The English speakers among them looked at me as though I’d insulted their mothers. “Sodomy is dirty,” one of them said. “Do not write about this,” my translator and minder added. “It is not Syrian.”

During the early stages of the uprising, which was inspired by the Arab Spring, some in the gay community had been sympathetic to the protesters’ cause. When I first met Hassan, in 2013, he bemoaned the corruption of the country’s ruling elite and told me how, in the beginning, he’d been torn between the sclerotic but familiar regime and the youthful, idealistic rebellion. That he’d finally sided with the regime didn’t mean that he was happy with the status quo. “We can hold hands, we can kiss each other on the cheek,” he told me in the bar. “But we can’t do the gay thing.” Public expressions of homosexuality remained taboo.

Still, he recognized that he was in no position to redress this injustice. In addition to being gay, Hassan was an agnostic from a Shia Muslim background — and thus, in the eyes of many of the Sunni Islamists, not only a reprehensible sinner but also a heretic. Like Syria’s homosexuals, the country’s religious minorities have mostly lined up behind Assad; the only difference is that the homosexuals are invisible. “The Syrian regime is not bad for gays,” Hassan had reminded me that night in the bar. “It is not good, but it is not bad. “We don’t have rights, but at least we are alive.”

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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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