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No dolls in Damascus
Globalization of another sort

By Laleh Khalili
May 8, 2002
The Iranian

The first thing you notice about the Iranian women waddling around Damascus markets in black-clad two- or three-somes is how happy they are, and how in their own element. There is none of the anxieties of a new traveler in a foreign country, none of the self-consciousness of invading a place to which one does not belong, no unease about the absence of a common language.

They wander around the old city streets of Damascus children in tow, in groups of women of indeterminate age, mysteriously conversant with city routes and streets, perhaps in possession of some occult map of the ancient city. There are sometimes men with them, the ones with the worn shoes, scruffy salt-and-pepper beards, and ill-fitting brown jackets. But more often they are in tight-knit female groups.

They cross the streets in assertive clusters, stopping traffic with their matriarchal gaze -- at once severe and maternal. They can be picked out of the crowd of a thousand by their black chadors, and by the swarm of salesmen surrounding them with their inexpensive towels, their plastic kitchenware, begging them to buy that gaudy plastic doily in gold and maroon, those cheap polyester socks.

The women, they glance at you, and smile at you distractedly, and you wonder whether they know you are Iranian, accompanied with your "ajnabi" fiancé as you are. You walk behind them and eavesdrop on their ordinary conversations about their day, the bargains they have found, their plans for tomorrow. It is an odd kind of voyeurism: you want to be initiated into the mundane details of someone's life; you want to know how they live, how they perceive the world.

These women, whose rosewater scent and lilting accents divulge their class provenance, are women you have seen in shrines in Iran, clinging to the golden or silvery metal enclosure of the saints' mausoleums, tears pouring down their faces, their bewildered toddlers propped on their hips, or holding on to their chadors. And that is why they are foreign to you.

As you are getting older you have come to realize that your viewpoint as the child of secular Western-educated middle-class academics is not necessarily the shared viewpoint of the majority of Iranians. You have realized also that your clichéd understanding of what "the people" want comes from books, from grand theories, from those ephemeral encounters on the streets of Iran or in mosques and shrines, where you are a tourist and they are worshippers and the divide that separates you cannot be filled with a common language or a common memory of familiar smells wafting down your streets.

Here, when you are both on someone else's territory, you are free from the constraints of politeness in Iran, and you are veiled in the anonymity of your presumed foreignness: it is almost certain that they imagine you to be Syrian or Lebanese, not Iranian. That is why they don't adulterate their conversation around you, and that is why you follow them around, and try to understand the contours of their lives, their desires, their wishes, their perspectives, from snatches of short conversations about the traffic, or the quality of the hotel they are staying in, or their perception of Damascus.

You see them in the newer part of Damascus, staying at cheapish hotels on polluted city squares, with rooms that must have kitchens. They stay in large groups, and sometimes they have their men with them, but as often as not, they are on their own or with their young children. The women come with all their food, their onions purchased in bulk, their potatoes in big 10-kilo bags, their rice and fresh vegetables packed carefully along with their handful of luggage. They have vast suitcases of pale blue and burgundy fake leather held together with duct tape. You wonder if they bring goods from Iran and sell them here in order to pay for their pilgrimage.

For that is ostensibly why they are here in Damascus: to visit the decapitated head of Imam Hussein buried in the grand Umayyad Mosque, and the graves of Zeinab and Roqiyah, and some even say the grave of Fatemeh herself. Never mind that Cairo claims both the head of Hussein and the body of Zeinab, and there is probably a shrine of some sort claiming the bodily remains of Fatemeh in Iraq somewhere: Syria has good political relations with Iran, and it is such that geopolitics determine retrospectively which shrines are sanctioned as authentic.

It is strange to see so many Shi'a women in the Umayyad Mosque. After all, Umayyad caliphs are the ones responsible for the battlefield death of Imam Hussein, and the head of Hussein the Iranian pilgrims come to visit (if it really is the true head of Hussein, and not simply a manufactured tourist attraction) was probably a trophy of Caliph Yezid's displayed with the intent to humiliate and admonish the followers of Hussein.

The women -- and some accompanying men -- come in groups and since it is the lunar month of Muharram, the month on whose 10th day Hussein was martyred, they stand around the zarih placed over the burial place of the head, and in sing-song rhythms, they chant their mournful song of mourning, while beating on their chests both to keep time and to feel an iota of the suffering of the fallen Imam.

Some of the older women cling to the zarih, their whole body weight seemingly suspended from their white-knuckled grips, weeping and praying and possessively dominating the space. Others are more timid; they stand behind the fervent men, they cry more quietly, less theatrically perhaps. A Shi'a Lebanese woman once told a friend of mine with a self-deprecating smile, "We Shi'a women know how to cry on cue." And there is a sort of truth to that.

The Iranian women who weep so incessantly at the zarih of Hussein walk out of that enclosed space and are instantly transformed into a chattering group of tourists who happen to be appropriately dressed for a mosque. They wander around the rest of the vast and beautiful space, take a look at the Dome of the Eagle which has the names of Allah, Muhammad and the four Caliphs, and inexplicably -- this being a Sunni mosque -- the names of Hasan and Hussein written around it.

And they touch the vast stone cauldron which apparently John the Baptist used to baptize pagans into Christianity, and they also read a prayer at the zarih under which the head of John the Baptist is buried (I know, the should call this place the Mosque of Decapitated Heads), and they even go off to visit the grave of Salah-al-Din Ayyubi who is buried in his beautiful little space to the side. And everywhere they go, they are utterly at ease, and that is perhaps helped along by the fact that the mosque has all its signs in Arabic, English and Farsi, and by the fact that the mosque also provides Persian-language guides.

In fact, part of the reason these women are so comfortable in this city is that all the traders seem to speak Farsi, or at least speak it well enough to haggle over the price of their goods in Farsi. As we walk around the bazaars of Damascus, we realize that the traders and shop-owners and their persistent PR people -- who hang around in front of the shop and invite you in "for a look, just for a look" -- speak Farsi more often than they do English. And their deftness with driving a hard bargain is matched only by the steely resolve of the women, who only bargain in Farsi, with their lilting accents and inflexible budgets, and the language barrier is in fact their perfect weapon for driving the prices down.

This mixture of trade and pilgrimage is of course the reason the women are drawn to Syria; that and the fact that Syria is still one of the least expensive destinations in the Middle East. And if you are an Iranian tourist, the goods are so much cheaper than for the "ajnabi" tourists with their dollars, and their sense of awe, and their woeful inability to read the stonily impassive face of the salesmen. And while you, as the ajnabi may pay more, the sheer numbers of the Iranian women, with their bundles of tumans burning in their purses and the bothersome edges of their chadors tucked under their arms, make them a more desirable and more consistent consumer base.

In the bazaars, they ask directions in Farsi, and they receive instructions in a mixture of Farsi and Arabic. They walk along the maze of the souq, purposefully and joyously, commenting on the scent of the strawberries, and the cost of the green unripe almonds, their hands full of their shopping, but hidden under their chadors, so that the extent to which they are spending remains hidden.

Outside the modest mosque which supposedly houses the remains of Fatemeh, and behind the rows and rows of mini-buses ready to take the women to the mosque in the suburbs where Zeinab is buried, stand minivans and salesmen with bolts of fabric, bargaining in tumans and Farsi with the women over their pretty cotton ware, and you can overhear the women saying to then, "Eh! For this price, I can buy it in Iran." And they try to drive the price down from "chaar tuman vaasse ye taaghe" (four tumans for a bolt) to two tumans. And seemingly, the salesmen are comfortable knowing that four tumans are really 4,000 tumans or that even in Iran, you wouldn't be able to buy a bolt of pale yellow appliquéd cotton for 2,000 tumans.

And it is around these modest and small mosques, with their absence of European tourists camera-in-hand and awkwardly adjusting their loaner veils, that the Iranian women chat in a mixture of Arabic and Farsi and Turkish with other women from other places and dressed in a thousand different ways, and you watch the Iranian matriarchs loosen their chadors a bit when they talk to some of the Kurdish women with their colorful scarves and gold teeth and cheeky smiles, and you see them authoritatively argue about what is worth paying for and what is not, and they are the undisputed queens of this place.

There must have been a grapevine of sorts that has informed these women of what is permissible here and what is not. Or else, they have an intuitive ease about traveling in foreign countries which comes from that sense of independence and strength we deny them when we look at them as chadori women and nothing else.

For you, so accustomed to the longing of every place to become another version of the US, to speak a Hollywood English and wear "Adibas" and "Neike" (these cheap versions of venerable labels that insolently avoid copyright infringement) and to eat what passes for a hamburger at a Burger King, it is extraordinary to see that these women bring their food here, and their language, and their tumans. That they walk around the city confidently and joyously. And you know that this is often their first trip and probably their last (though you have discovered that a one-way train from Damascus to Tehran costs only $36 and takes 60 hours).

And you are pleased that Syria has willingly taken them in, accommodated their lodging and shopping needs, transformed its extravagant or intimate places of worship from Sunni destinations to places where the Shi'a feel welcome, and has assimilated itself to the language of their trade, and to their currency. There is a sort of sly justice in it, this globalization of another sort.


Laleh Khalili is a PhD student in political science at Columbia University in New York. She was voted by readers as their favorite writer in 2001.

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