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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The day after I returned from Aleppo, I met Samir on the second floor of a brasserie in downtown Damascus, where he believed it would be safe for us to talk. The exuberance with which he greeted me disappeared the moment we sat down. “I am not comfortable with this,” he said. Active-duty soldiers were not allowed to speak to foreign journalists. He decided that he would proceed with the interview only on the condition that I turn off the recorder on my phone and not use his real name.

Samir first realized that he was gay when he was six years old. It happened in a swimming pool. “I saw the boys and the girls,” he said with a grin, “and I realized I preferred the boys.” It was only later, in 2001, on the cusp of his teenage years, that he learned about homosexuality; until then he’d assumed he was one of a kind. He spent years in denial, and even proposed to a woman he’d been dating. They were engaged for twelve months. When at last he told her the truth, it took him a moment to convince her that he wasn’t pulling her leg. They stayed friends after they broke up.

In 2009, Samir came out to his mother. She wept when he told her, but has since come to accept the reality. (His father and brother remain in the dark.) Around the same time, he began a serious relationship with another man, but it fizzled out after he was called up to active duty in 2011, at the beginning of the revolt. In peacetime, military service typically lasted eighteen months, but so far Samir had been in the army for four and a half years. Every three months he got fifteen days of leave, and it was on one of those days, three months earlier in Damascus, that he had met the young art student whom he was dating now. Samir said that he knew roughly three hundred gay people in Damascus, most of them men. None had ever been arrested, as far as he knew, and the bars that they frequented didn’t mind their presence, provided that they didn’t “do dirty dancing,” as Samir put it.

All the same, the lack of formal rights for Syrian homosexuals makes them vulnerable. A few months earlier, Samir had been sitting in the bar where we’d first met when a friend of his went off to a date that he’d arranged on Grindr, the gay dating app. Samir had warned his friend not to go, and it turned out that he was right to be wary. The date was a trap: two men set upon his friend, stealing his phone and his wallet. When he returned to the bar several hours later, he was covered in bruises. Samir said that few of the patrons expressed any sympathy; it was his friend’s own fault, they felt. For a long time afterward, people at the bar kept asking to use the man’s phone before announcing, to general hilarity, that it was no longer in his possession. Like Hassan, Samir blamed such callousness on traditional Syrian culture, not on Assad. “Even straight people can’t express themselves fully here,” he said. It sounded more like resignation than a complaint.

Samir knew that things could be much worse. A friend of his had recently left Raqqa in a hurry after the Islamic State’s religious police executed an acquaintance for being gay. According to Samir’s friend, the acquaintance’s father had also been killed, on the grounds that he “didn’t know how to raise” his son.

The other Islamist factions fighting in Syria — Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham — could be equally barbaric. Samir told me about another friend, an employee of a rebel-friendly media outfit in Aleppo, who left town after members of Jabhat al-Nusra arrested and beat one of his colleagues, a gay man. “Now he hates everyone,” Samir said. “The regime, the opposition.” Although Samir, like Hassan, had once considered joining the revolt against Assad, he’d come to believe that it had done great damage to the country. “They were asking for freedom, but now they are taking our freedom away,” he said. “Not just gay freedom, but everyone’s freedom.”

The only other table in the alcove where we were sitting was occupied by a small family whose members spoke quietly among themselves, but my furtive note taking was putting Samir on edge. As we were talking, a waiter walked up to the father and whispered something in his ear. “If anything bad happens, let me know,” Samir guessed the waiter had said. He worried that we were being watched, and that a raid by the mukhabarat might be in the offing. Within twenty seconds, we’d descended the stairs and were back on the street. I asked him how he could live like this, constantly looking over his shoulder. “It is necessary,” he said. “You might be from the Islamic State.”

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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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