They had tied my wrists together behind my back very tightly; the coarse rope almost cut my hands. Somebody was pulling my arms; his hand grabbed my neck just below the knot in the smelly piece of fabric they had used to blindfold me. I could see nothing, only hear their voices whispering: “He must be killed; he is effeminate… a sinner.” My body started shaking and sweating very heavily despite the pain and the chilly weather. I felt the beads of sweat dripping from my forehead.
by K. S., a Syrian writer in Sweden • 2016
I had never known the meaning of fear before that moment, when I realized that I was standing on the uppermost ledge of a high building. My body was buffeted by gusts of strong wind. “Throw him, push him, such a sinner… a Luti; he is one of those people of Lut.” The hand around my neck released its grip; a push and I felt my body falling into the void.
I woke up in panic, my eyes wide open, and yet I could see nothing. Breathless, I instantly touched my face and grabbed at the sleep mask I had forgotten. I was floating in a sea of sweat on the narrow bed in the room I had been sleeping in since my arrival at the asylboende in Åseda.
A strong smell of nicotine seeped in from under the door. I could hear the voices of men talking in the kitchen. Feeling dizzy, I groped for my mobile phone under the bed. It was 10 am. Slowly, I walked towards the kitchen to prepare coffee. I opened the door and a thick cloud of smoke hit me. My roommate and the friends who had come to visit him were sitting at the table smoking and having a lively conversation in Arabic. I tried, with difficulty, to smile. They were talking about the breaking news, how Daesh had taken over several schools in the area they were brutally ruling.
“Coffee is ready,” my flatmate said.
“What kind of education are these criminals giving to the children?” one of the men said as he stubbed his cigarette in the ashtray.
“Assad’s regime is killing our children and Daesh is turning them into extremists and terrorists,” added another.
Still feeling shaken, I interrupted them: “Do you also know that Daesh is killing homosexual men? They throw them from high buildings.”
“Homosexuals? Ah, you mean those inverts!” said another while he lit a cigarette.
All nodded, and the one who had told of children being turned into fanatics added:
“Those inverts are mentioned in the Quran as sinners. We never heard of this sickness until we arrived in Sweden, of these sins that some refugees acquired in Europe.”
They did not show any empathy with the gay people murdered by Daesh. Suddenly, I realized that my nightmare was still real, present at the kitchen table in the asylboende. I looked at them, how they were smoking; their heads were wreathed in acrid smoke. My tongue was frozen, paralysed. Am I silent even in Sweden?
I returned to my room feeling defeated. There, in that minuscule cubicle, sitting on the bed, a profound spell of emptiness took over my whole body. And yet I decided to fight the sadness that had become my daily companion. I instinctively grabbed my notebook and for the first time in months I started to write: “From now on, it will no longer be a secret. Once, I read somewhere that there would be no real change until we own our bodies, and I must fight for that; I must tell people about this invisible world that has remained underground too long.”
In a narrow street in the Alamara neighbourhood of the old city lay the modest Hammam Ammouneh. Ammouneh was a female name common during the Ottoman period. Its entrance was a tiny door hidden under an arch near the Grand Mosque. The owner, who jokingly called me “kitty” as I was his youngest client, welcomed me. I handed him my wallet and he put it in a small locker, handing me the key on a bracelet.
I was alone in the barrani. The changing room was lit with two fluorescents lamps. I undressed and wrapped the towel around my waist. My heart was pounding very fast. I looked at the workers rolling up the towels and smiling and, for some strange reason, I felt better. I was so excited to go inside the haven; my young body trembled in anticipation of what might lie ahead. I grabbed a piece of laurel soap and a sponge, then pushed open the door into the wastani, a small room with a bare light bulb hanging in the centre. A rotten smell coming from the toilets whipped my nose. On the left side there was a group of bearded men, also wrapped in towels and sitting on a bench; they stared at me and I felt embarrassed to look back, so I walked to the aljowani. The steam was not strong, and the smell of laurel filled the room. I was too shy to make eye contact and kept looking at the flaking old walls. At the rear, I could see two rooms with no doors, just a towel hanging as a curtain. There were two men bending over next to the entrance, seemingly warning people to stay away. I found a corner near a tap of hot running water and I sat on the floor, from where I could peek through the gap below the hanging towel to see the robust legs of two men moving. The hairy legs knelt down, slowly touching the wet floor. My young body was immersed in this new sensation, boiling with the desire to look and embarrassed to be seen.
Suddenly, a moustached man appeared out of nowhere and asked in an affected manner, “is this your first time here?” I nodded as I glanced over his body. His skin was unusually white and smooth, and he looked to be in his forties. I noticed the strange way he had wrapped his towel, as if wearing a mini-skirt. “My name is Sahar,” he whispered as he pointed to the tattoo on his left shoulder. I was surprised to see that the name was missing a letter so that it read Sahr, which is a female name. He asked if I liked to be addressed in the feminine, to which I said that I preferred not to. He laughed loudly at my response. “All of you say that on your first visit,” he declared, staring at me with his big eyes, “and later you change. Anyway, it is better to be a top man in this fucking society… and it is not easy to be Sahar,” he concluded as he touched his chest with a mannered gesture.
He leant in even closer and I could feel his breathing. “Abu Imad wants to have sex with you in one of these small rooms,” he winked. “Say yes and you will never regret it.” I felt like my blood had frozen imagining how my feet would change position behind the curtains. Sahar splashed water on my head: “Hey, do you want Abu Imad or what? He is in a rush.” I was curious to see what Abu Imad looked like, so I said yes.
Abu Imad was in his late thirties; a hunky body with a bearded face and some grey hair. He looked like one of those men from the countryside around Damascus. I was right: he told me he was from Douma as he offered me a cigarette. He seemed like a nice man and he made me feel comfortable. He told me he worked as a taxi driver, was married and was the father of a five-year-old boy. It felt odd to know all of this before a sexual encounter, but I tried to stay cool. Then, he asked my permission to leave and pray in the barrani; he apologised, saying that he had to do the Maghrib prayer before he missed it. He left me alone and confused. Why all these personal details? Did he leave me abruptly because he felt regret? Maybe he did not like me? Perhaps he was a policeman and wanted to be sure that I was gay before coming back with others to arrest me? Suddenly, the hammam filled me with a sense of entrapment.
Abu Imad came back wearing his sexy smile. He gently asked me to follow him back to the aljowani. We entered the room, and taking off his towel, he hung it on the door and gently invited me to strip off mine.
I came back to Ammouneh many times after that. I realised that Abu Imad was not the only married man there; most of the men who came from the countryside around Damascus were. Even Sahar had a wife and children. He explained to me that most of the clients were likewise: before marriage they would come to Hammam Ammouneh to have sex, as they could not meet women, and some of them would continue visiting even after marrying. Others would never return. Personally, I liked the idea of meeting gay men to talk to more than to have sex with. I preferred straight men for sex.
Every time I visited Hammam Ammouneh I felt at home. I no longer cared about the uncleanliness; I was focusing on people, flesh and blood. Afterwards I felt free, walking on my own, wandering through the narrow alleys and feeling like singing and jumping as I discovered that there were so many people like me. I never felt alone again. My elder brother, who shared a flat with me, used to say how clean I looked every time I came back from Ammouneh.
In 2003 I was in my third year at Damascus University studying English Literature. Every Friday I would visit the public baths. Exposing my nakedness to strangers in the hammams gave me more confidence, and I became more comfortable with my body.
One evening I was walking the narrow Alemareye Street, passing under the oval arches and jasmine vines that covered the busy street, its crowded coffee shops and bakeries, its outlets selling kitchenware, clothes, prints… I was passing by the hammam when a group of men came out talking cheerfully. It was clear that they were gay.
Hammam Alemareye was slightly more expensive than Ammouneh. The place had been recently renovated. It was well-lit and shiny marble tiles covered the floor and the lower parts of the walls. The owners were always friendly with the clientele, which also included tourists. The staff tried to discern the sexual orientations of first-time visitors and whether they were genuine clients or secret police hunting gay people. The baths opened in the morning for women only; in the evening, men would find items left behind, such as combs, hair clips, scarves and even lingerie, which they would wear and laugh. The atmosphere was relaxed and the men looked more educated and less conservative than in Hammam Ammouneh. Sometimes, if in a playful mood, the staff would switch off the lights and the place would become a series of dark rooms in which bodies would engage in furtive sexual encounters.
Years later, I met there a handsome gay Iraqi man. He told me that he had migrated to Sweden in 2005 and lived in Malmö, but he later came to Damascus to join his mother and sister, who had fled to Syria as refugees. I was excited to learn about gay life in Sweden. We sat on a marble diwan in the aljowani. He confessed that gay life in Sweden was not as exciting as in Damascus. I was surprised to hear this, as I had always thought of Sweden as a country where gays enjoyed their sexuality openly. “Hammam Alemareye is an amazing place for gays to meet,” he declared. “Look around: more than a hundred men came today, on a weekday. All of them are easy-going and chatting to each other. It is impossible to find a place like this in Sweden.” He smiled at my incredulity and continued, “Gay saunas are almost non-existent in Sweden.” He admitted his luck in living in Malmö, however, where he could travel to Copenhagen to visit Amigo Sauna.
I looked at his body, well-toned and muscled. He rambled on about how he felt that homosexual Swedes would not mix with gay Arabs, except for a few. “Maybe they are afraid of us as strangers, but I can tell from my experience that most of them look at me like a sex machine. Sometimes they picked me up in a nightclub to fuck, and the next morning I would have to leave without even time for a coffee; sometimes they wouldn’t even greet me when I met them in the street later.” On the other side, he added that “some Arab gays don’t like to meet and sleep with Swedes; they don’t like the uncut men, as they find them smelly and unclean.”
I asked him if Sweden is safe for gay Arabs. “Many gay Arabs are afraid to come out because they live with their families in suburbs. They still feel shy and insecure within a community with conservative ideas.” After a pause, he asked me to stop talking in a political way or as if it were a radio interview. He carried on talking about his favourite sauna in Copenhagen: the dark rooms, the S&M and fetish rooms, the video rooms showing porn movies.
In the summertime, the hammams were almost empty and scarcely visited by gay men. They preferred to spend time in the parks, squares and swimming pools. During the warm nights, there was more gay activity in open spaces like Al-Hamra Street, in the Shaalan quarter. This district came to life during a period of regeneration. Its origins were closely attached to the colonial era of the French Mandate as well as to the local and regional resistance to the League of Nations’ idea that Syria was not yet ready for full independence. The population of this quarter reflected these realities, with well-off Muslim and Christian residents living side by side with embassies, consulates and other international institutions. Several shops selling Western and imported products opened on the street during this era; nestling in among the carpenters, metal furniture shops and falafel makers, one could also find the latest fashionable and trendy clothes from the West, offered up by successful traders to a clientele of both locals and foreigners.
This lively crowd filling the street gave way to other visitors after night fell. Cars began a rhythmic movement, driving back and forth along the double lanes of Al-Hamra as others walked under the street lamps, waiting for a signal that identified the desire to meet. It was dangerous to stop, so everyone kept on the move, watching and trying to make out the physical appearance of the others through the darkness. There was no place for sex, so once the contact was made they would drive home or to a hammam.
My aunt lived in Shaalan, and one night after I visited her in 2002, I decided to walk back home through Al-Hamra, thinking that perhaps I could meet somebody on my way. As I walked, a taxi pulled up by my side and two men stepped out of the car. One of them approached me, raising his hand as if he wanted to greet me. As I raised my hand to return his greeting, he abruptly handcuffed me, pushing me inside the car. They took my ID card and started to insult me, saying that I was a pervert who liked dicks and that perhaps my mother and sisters liked them even more. I had not had time to react until now, and burst out crying; nobody had ever spoken to me like this before. The policeman hit my neck as the driver asked: “What were you doing here?” I was terrified that they would blackmail me.
“I was visiting my aunt,” I managed to say.
“Is your aunt a prostitute like you?” the other man asked. I could not move as they were also restraining my shoulders.
I told him that my aunt was a TV presenter and gave them her name. They stopped the car and I explained that I was visiting my aunt and that they had arrested me without any reason.
“You can call her,” I challenged them.
They fell mute. The driver ordered them to give me back my ID card, release the handcuffs and let me go, and they did. I ran home and looked at the marks on my wrists, which were bleeding. I wondered: what would have happened if my aunt were not a public figure?
I spent a week at home, afraid of going out, even to university. Every time the phone rang my heart started to beat faster. I thought of Ammouneh and what somebody there had once said: “Hammams are safe because it is normal to find naked men, and there is nothing suspicious there.”
In December 2005, I read in the news that the government had closed Hammam Ammouneh because the building was too old. However, when I met Sahar in the street he told me that the secret police had raided the premises and arrested the owners and the clients who were inside. “I was lucky not to be there that day,” he added. It was the first time I had met Sahar in the street after all those years; he looked homeless now that Ammouneh was closed. “But there is an interesting place similar to Ammouneh’s atmosphere, Cinema Byblos,” he concluded, and disappeared down the busy street.
A phone call with my asylum case officer
Everything I had written so far turned my tiny bed into a flying carpet and took me back to Damascus; I could get a sniff of the streets in the old city and overhear the conversation of men in the hammams; I could feel the hot water flowing between my feet. I felt nostalgic for each of the places I recalled so vividly.
I asked: is it true that my roommate and his friends don’t know anything about the real lives of so many men? Or do they just deny it to protect themselves? Why didn’t they show any sympathy, at least?
It was scary. I thought of them as simply uneducated people and victims of ignorant societies. I wondered: how can I convince them that being gay is something special and not a sin? I grabbed my mobile phone and walked toward the window that overlooked the small cemetery in Åseda. I rang the asylum officer who was dealing with my case and asked her if she had any new information, three months on from my interview. “Unfortunately, there is no news,” she apologised. I asked if she knew that Daesh had sentenced a gay man to death by stoning after he was thrown off a building, accused of ‘sodomy’. She didn’t know about it, and I felt disappointed. “Gay men were also killed secretly by the Assad regime during the war because they refused to join the army,” I said. As I was talking, I could sense incipient sadness building up inside me.
“You know, it’s not easy to live and share a space with straight men openly deriding gay people,” I added. She promised to do her best, and hung up. I closed the window as I did not want to see the cemetery, I did not want to think of death; I had come to Sweden to survive the terror I had lived in past years, a terror that I had just started to come to terms with. I went back to my notebook and I found the last words I had written: Cinema Byblos.
“Walk through Almarja Square towards Alnaser Street,” Sahar told me. “You will see the Siddiq Restaurant on your left hand side. Continue straight and you will find a display window with a big photo advertising a movie; that is Cinema Byblos.” As I crossed the square, I felt like everyone around me knew where I was heading.
I arrived at the cinema and stood in front of the poster of a famous Syrian film, ‘I’ll Die Twice and Love You’, released in 1976 and starring the actress Ighraa. The photograph showed her looking at the camera with a lust filled gaze. Throughout her career, Ighraa remained a symbol of openness, breaking the boundaries of what was permitted in an Arab film. I stood looking at her eyes, a mixture of vulnerability and desire. The powerful image has stuck in my memory since that day.
I paid the 25 Syrian Lira to the old man at the box office and entered the cinema. I walked slowly, driven more by curiosity than sexual desire. The entrance hall was painted in flamboyant pink and covered by gaudy posters and raw photographs of female bodies on display. They were from old Syrian films from the ’70s, with very peculiar titles like ‘Summertime Girls’, ‘Girls for Winter’, ‘Dancer on the Wounds’ and ‘Bride from Damascus’. I thought of a Syrian proverb: Hell needs firewood. I felt like Ighraa was inviting me into a forbidden world.
I saw two old men smoking; they smiled at me. I descended into the cinema. As I passed them, I wondered when they also fell into this haram lifestyle, this hidden realm in which Ighraa was the goddess. “I will make my body a bridge and let Syrian cinema pass on,” she had declared in 1972.
“I love Ighraa,” I said to myself.
Cinema Byblos had a ground floor and a mezzanine with extra seating. The hall was dark, only lit by the flickering light coming from the screen onto which an old black-and-white film was projected. The place was certainly dirtier than Hammam Ammouneh. A strong smell of nicotine nested in each seat and the carpet. I left the auditorium holding my hand over my mouth and feeling sick. Outside, I saw a sign for the toilets on my left and I went in. I heard the noise of footsteps coming up from the toilets and smelled a strong odour. Two men were standing at the broken urinals touching each other. A third man appeared from the cubicle next to them and after kneeling down started to suck one man’s dick diligently while the other watched. I left at once, fearing that the secret police might break into the place at any moment.
After the disgusting odour that inhabited the toilets, I now found the smell of nicotine almost bearable, so I returned to the cinema hall. My eyes searched the shapes projected onto the walls as I became used to the darkness. The Arabic dialogue of the film was the only sound filling what was otherwise an empty space. I understood why the smell was so horrid when I spotted the gleam of liquid on the floor. I decided to walk up to the mezzanine. As I got up there, a hand grabbed my arm firmly. I could distinguish the big eyes; he greeted me in the way I knew so well. “Hello, it’s Sahar,” he said, and told me about the cinema, how the visitors come to cruise in the darkness. Suddenly he disappeared, as fast as he had shown up. I was left thinking about why he was always in gay places, why he wanted to know everyone. He was not at Hammam Ammouneh during the police raid, so I could not stop wondering if he was a double agent after all.
The lights came on suddenly and blinded me for a few seconds. Then I saw the place for the first time. Rows of rotten seats, in which people were sleeping so deeply that the light did not wake them. Other men who were standing seemed to be poor villagers, wearing the traditional jallabiyah. The forbidden paradise turned into a decrepit slum for impoverished gay men. A man came in with two plastic cups of tea. I felt disgusted: how could anybody buy and drink tea in such an inhospitable place? In this momentary break between films, a loud, danceable beat started pounding like firecrackers from the speakers. I could hear Sahar’s voice downstairs so I approached the balcony and saw him belly dancing, surrounded by the now awakened audience. At that moment, I looked at him in a different way. His laugh now seemed suspicious, and I could not escape that feeling, particularly when he grasped my hand again and invited me to join him. I decided to leave the place.
That was not the end; I went back to Byblos many times. After all the years of going to hammams, this cinema gave me the opportunity to talk to a different kind of gay men. Humble people in their sixties would spend the evenings chatting and just being there. I was curious to know about their lives in the ’50s and ’60s. Over time I felt increasingly safe in this invisible world, as if we were members of a secret fraternity. Later I realised that despite the trouble I got into I could manage to survive and I was learning and becoming stronger.
New technology was spreading widely in Syria. Although it was still expensive: smartphones, laptops and 3G connections were now available. In 2007, there had been several attempts by the Assad regime to block social networks such as Facebook; however, sex websites and gay networks such as Manjam remained open, reaching more than one thousand members in Damascus along with several hundred more from other provinces.
Manjam was my virtual window to talk to other gay people from other Arabic countries, including Egypt and the Gulf states. I also skipped into Europe and started chatting with gay Europeans. I was interested to learn about their lives and culture, gay marriage and gay places; simultaneously, I realised that European gay men who contacted me through social media were only interested in sex. I could see that they had this orientalist fantasy about dark skin and bearded men as hypersexual bodies. Once, I had a chat with an Austrian gay man who told me that he was looking for an Arab husband who could treat him like a wife; this was his fantasy. As for me, I told him how much I was yearning to just be myself.
This Austrian man told me about a Lebanese guy who was arranging trips for gay Western tourists to Syria and the Middle East. He connected me with him through Manjam, and I started chatting with him. He told me more about his job and admitted that Damascus had become a sexual destination for many gay tourists from Europe and the USA. He added that gay tourists were increasingly more interested in Damascus than Beirut, as the Syrians seemed more authentically Arab than the Westernised Lebanese men.
Months later, he called me to say that he was coming to Damascus with a group from Finland. The five blonde men were staying at the Oriental Hotel near Bab Touma. We arranged to meet at the square and I showed them around the old city. We stopped at a touristy coffee shop called Alnoufara, close to the Ummayad Mosque. They had already visited one of the hammams and were impressed with the numbers of gay men inside the public baths. It never crossed their minds that this was the only safe place where gay men in Syria could meet and be themselves. They didn’t realize that there were no gay bars, except for secretly friendly places like Saray, Murmur and Matador, all of them in Bab Touma and Bab Sharqi. One night I took them to Murmur; it was a movie night there, and they were showing ‘Dreamgirls’, starring Beyoncé, and we danced until 3 am. As we strolled past the ancient walls, I told them that I felt happy to live in Damascus despite the challenges and dangers I faced as a gay man.
The story will never end; many stories in other places are still secrets. But it seems that if you are a homosexual from Syria, you will always live with challenges and struggle for your rights, even in Sweden. I was hiding my sexual identity from my family and close friends even after the war. Before, I was afraid to be jailed, to lose my job or even my social life and respect. I recalled how every second made me brave and strengthened me, and I felt inspired by the children of Daraa who started the Syrian revolution in March 2011 and wrote about freedom on the walls of their school.
I took my pen and went underground, down to the laundry room in the basement of the asylboende. I started writing on the walls:
Gays have rights here!
Gays are human beings!
Homosexuality is not a sickness!
Don’t attack gays, support them!
Love your son if he is gay!
If you are a victim of ignorance, read!
Gays struggle with the ignorance of society, not with God!