A language exchange in the Christian Quarter of Damascus.
Dima and Hiba – not their real names – are struggling to suppress their giggles as they sip glasses of Coca-Cola through straws at a table set into the corner of an Old City cafe.
The conversation has turned, rather unexpectedly, to the one thing it probably shouldn’t in the company of two female strangers – sex.
“This is what we girls chat about when we get together,” reveals 22-year-old Dima, her shiny dark hair cascading over her shoulders.
Normally these occasions are a chance to brush-up on one’s spoken Arabic; acquire a few choice transitive verbs perhaps, or get a chance to flex some under-used grammar.
And there is no doubting that tonight’s session provides a probing insight into the street vernacular of the Levant – albeit one which lies towards the more lascivious end of the linguistic spectrum.
After abruptly turning the talk away from type-I present tense verbs, Hiba, a 29-year-old college administrator, reveals that the first night of a married couple’s life is often referred to as the laylat al-dakhla, or night of entering – an idiom which should require no explanation in society where a bride is usually expected to be a virgin until the evening of her wedding.
Although traditionally both the man and women are supposed to have given themselves to nobody else prior to the day of nuptials, predictably there is one rule for the boys and another for the girls.
It would often be unthinkable – publicly at least – for anyone to know that a girl was not a virgin prior to her wedding. Yet for a guy to play the field a bit before he ties the knot is not particularly uncommon. Even among many men who might be considered to have “Western” attitudes, there is sometimes a prevailing view that a “good woman” is one who has not had sex.
In Dima’s own words, it can often seem hypocritical. She says that it is possible for girls to get operations so they can become “virgins” again, and there are even fake hymens on the market – some imported from that ultimate redoubt of secular irreligiosity, China – which can ‘prove’ a girl’s virtue to any sceptical husband.
“We just have to accept it,” says Dima, an English student. “It is just the way things are here.”
Plus ca change. Syria is moving forward, but some things just remain the same.