The VICE Guide to Syria

By VICE Staff

For many young Syrian women, the grass is greener in Lebanon. Beirut is seen as a sparkling bastion of liberalism and free expression—a place where familial pressures fall by the wayside and the clubs bump all night. For others, Lebanon serves as a much-needed escape from Syria’s claustrophobic dating scene or a discreet place for a weekend tryst.

Syria’s constitution guarantees religious freedom to all. Women are free to wear whatever they want; the choice to cover or not cover—and how much is left revealed—is personal and generally based on familial traditions. Christians and Muslims, dressed in a variety of ways, hang out together. The hijab is typically reserved for formal engagements where it is worn for cultural rather than religious reasons. Throughout the country, mothers wearing niqab (a face veil worn in conjunction with a hijab) can be seen walking alongside their uncovered daughters in Hello Kitty backpacks. Moderately covered women shop in the local souks with their uncovered friends. It’s all pretty casual.
Syrian Christian women, unfairly or not, have a reputation for showing off God’s blessings. Tight pants and revealing shirts drive men of all faiths wild. In Syria, both Christian and Muslim men thank Jesus for the invention of skinny jeans. Some conservative Muslim guys find it offensive that “Christian girls wear tight trousers” because it can lead to lustful and impure thoughts, but most are quietly grateful.

Syria is considered to be one of the most fashionable countries in the Middle East. The men like sharp suits, bedazzled Ed Hardy-looking T-shirts, and limited-edition Nikes. But the majority of the garments manufactured in the country are for women: colorful headscarves, blinged-out abayas (long tunics), and a hell of a lot of high-tech trashy underwear. Syrian women love lingerie for the same reasons women have loved lingerie since time immemorial—to feel good about themselves and keep their men from straying. Most females in the West would be mortified if their future mother-in-law gave them a gift in the form of a fluffy g-banger with LEDs and a crotch that magically flies open when you clap and scream “Open sesame!” but this is totally acceptable behavior in Syria. Bachelorette-party gifts could include feathered panties with tassels, python-skin-patterned and sequined bras, or a vibrating cell phone that covers the lady bits—there is nothing taboo about this cheesy lingerie, as it’s meant to only be seen by husbands.

In the year 632, the death of the Prophet Mohammad precipitated a split between his followers that provided the catalyst for the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. The Shias believed that Mohammad’s cousin Ali should take over, while the Sunnis were gunning for Abu Bakr, Mohammad’s close companion and father-in-law. Abu Bakr won the political dispute and ascended to the caliphate—the scene was set for 1,500 years of Sunni dominance and Shia resentment. Adding insult to injury, Ali’s son Husain was murdered and decapitated, and Mohammad’s great-granddaughter Sayyidah Ruqayya was locked away in a prison and murdered at the tender age of four.

Today, observant Shias bus from all over (mostly Iran) to pay their respects at the opulent mosque in Damascus erected where Sayyidah Ruqayya’s millennia-old infant body is entombed. Black-clad pilgrims buy children’s toys to leave on top of Sayyidah Ruqayya’s tomb, in remembrance of the grave injustice of her murder. After these acts of religious piety, the pilgrims make a stop at the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque (named for Husain’s sister) before the long bus ride back to Iran.

While a foreigner would be hard-pressed to know his name, Rami Makhlouf is seen as the poster boy of corruption and nepotism. The infamy of the most powerful businessman in Syria is so great that popular proverbs are regularly altered to slander him. He also happens to be the maternal cousin of Bashar al-Assad. Aided by the regime’s mafioso patronage system, Rami’s business ventures—Syriatel (one of the country’s two mobile-phone companies), real estate, and banking—have a virtual monopoly on 60 percent of Syria’s economy. His net worth is around $6 billion. Many in Syria consider him a thief and representative of the problems that have kept Syria’s wealth concentrated in the hands of the chosen few.

In a June 2011 interview with Reuters, Rami asserted that he would remove himself from Syrian business and donate much of his wealth to charity. A central part of this vow was to sell 40 percent of his shares in Syriatel. Opposition figures question his commitment to philanthropy, perhaps with good reason—reports in Al-Akhbar suggest that he has been buying significant shares in many banks throughout 2012.

The Ministry of Health regulates the price of cosmetic surgery in the country. A nose job in Syria is only $700 to $800, a third of what you would pay in Europe. And for a little extra cash, you can get giant fake boobs. But you definitely get what you pay for; plastic surgery in Syria is notoriously shoddy. In Beirut, if your nose looks like it got caught in a meat grinder, they say, “She probably got that done in Syria.” Many cosmetic surgeons are unlicensed and run their “practices” out of unsanitary offices.

Another less common surgery is also available in Syria: For $17,000, Middle Eastern women can have their brown eyes turned green or blue. Doctors cut directly into the eye, remove the iris, and replace it with a prosthetic. If surgery goes badly, the patient goes blind. The Syrian Ministry of Health is attempting to rein in the country’s sketchy cosmetic market, but as Syria remains in a state of perpetual war, the demand for cheap plastic surgery is understandably leveling off.

The ancient city of Aleppo’s status as a culinary powerhouse can be attributed to its prime location along the Silk Road, and its cuisine could be classified as antiquity fusion. For centuries, the region’s chefs have had access to the widest variety of spices, grains, fruits, and vegetables that the Ottoman world had to offer.

Before the civil war decimated large parts of Aleppo, there was no better place to experience the city’s lauded cuisine than the Armenian neighborhood of Jdeideh. Beit as-Sissi, or Sissi House, was widely considered one of the best restaurants in the country and served some of the finest kebab karaz (spiced ground lamb soaked in cherry sauce) on earth before it was burned to the ground at the beginning of October. The open-air courtyard was surrounded by private wood-paneled dining rooms.

Leading Aleppo historian Abraham Marcus recently told us, “Sissi House offered the perfect ambience. It represented the best of the city’s traditional architecture: sober and elegant, with solid limestone walls whose golden patina and delicate carvings surrounded you with their warmth. So much money and care in recent years has gone into the restoration of this and many other historic buildings in Aleppo. Now a city widely held as a model of historic preservation has become the scene of shocking destruction.”

For hot homosexual action in Syria, look no further than a gay hammam (bathhouse). Just like any spa, hammams have private rooms, and are cheaper and more discreet alternative to a hotel. Since 2010, however, the owners of hammams have been more suspicious of newcomers due to frequent police raids. Many gays have gone back to cruising in Damascus’s parks.

Gay men used to gather and socialize freely despite a Syrian law that technically outlawed homosexuality. The police flexed their homophobic muscles by cracking down on hammams—an easy target, since it’s considered despicable to be gay in the Middle East. In April 2010, 25 gay men were arrested, raped, and tortured for three months according to Mahmoud Hassino, publisher of the gay magazine Malaweh.

Syria’s cities, towns, deserts, and villages are littered with the remains of the ancients. Kingdoms have been built atop kingdoms since the earliest days of antiquity. The Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, and French have all, at different times, had a stronghold in the region and left behind monuments to their respective legacies.

The perfect example is the famed Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. It was constructed as an Aramaean temple nearly 3,000 years ago. When Rome conquered Damascus in 64 AD, they repurposed the site as a shrine to Jupiter, the king of the gods. The temple was converted into a church near the end of the fourth century and then converted into a mosque in 706.

Monumental archaeological discoveries are common on the Syrian steppe. In the 1970s, near the Turkish border, the 12,000-year-old settlement of Tell Qaramel was discovered. Archaeologists uncovered five massive round stone towers that were built 2,000 years before the tower at Jericho, previously thought to be the oldest tower on earth.

UNESCO’s World Heritage list protects six of Syria’s historical monuments: the ancient cities of Aleppo, Bosra, Damascus, regions of northern Syria, the crusader castle of Crac des Chevaliers with its citadel at Qal’at Salah El-Din, and the ancient desert town of Palmyra.

Five of the UNESCO sites have suffered heavy damage due to the conflict. UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova, recently issued a statement saying, “The Umayyad Mosque, heart of the religious life of the city, one of the most beautiful mosques in the Muslim world, is being severely endangered—the extent of which we do not know yet. In northern Syria, the region of the Ancient Villages inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2011 [has been] heavily struck and it seems that the invaluable Saint-Simeon byzantine complex might have been touched.”

For an overview of the issues that have fueled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin," our condensed timeline of Syrian history.