|No dolls in Damascus
Globalization of another sort
By Laleh Khalili
May 8, 2002
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
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
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
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
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 iranian.com readers as their favorite
writer in 2001.