Arab men wear thong underwear - Dialogue with the Islamic World

During a visit to Syria, two London women of Arab origin were fascinated by the daring lingerie that could be found in the souks and shops of Damascus and Aleppo. Susannah Tarbush believes that your book, which you have now published, is probably one of the most unusual that has appeared in the Arab world recently.

When Malu Halasa and Rana Salam visited the souks and shops in Damascus and Aleppo a few years ago, they were surprised by the obvious contrast between the daring and playfulness of the underwear on display and the conservative Syrian society in which so many women are are veiled.

Halasa and Salam soon decided to jointly publish a book on this unusual topic, which was recently published by Chronicle Books in San Francisco under the title "The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design". The project was funded by the Dutch Prince Claus Fund Library.

Sensual playfulness

The elaborate color illustrations show numerous shots of lingerie, which are decorated with various elements, including birds, butterflies and feathers, but also false scorpions, flowers and fur. Sequins, beads and embroidery adorn bras and panties. Some underwear items can play music, while others vibrate or have lighting effects. There are edible lingerie as well as those wrapped in chocolate or eggs. There are crocheted one-pieces as well as ensembles inspired by belly dance. The playfulness of the lingerie often has strange features, for example when false fur stockings can also be used as mobile phone holders.

However, the book not only contains photos of the underwear itself, but also photos of light-skinned models, mostly of Eastern European origin, who present the lingerie. These images come from catalogs that are on display in lingerie stores, despite the strict ban on any display of female nudity in public.

One of Halasa's interviewees is the Syrian author and political activist Ammar Abdulhamid, who lives as a dissident in the USA. He describes Syria as a country in the struggle between traditional and postmodern culture. "If you look at Syrian culture longitudinally, you will discover that there is a spectrum of very different cultural values ​​that span a period of 1000 years, but all of which now, in a single historical moment, coexist."

Conveying the popular culture of the Middle East

Halasa and Salam have long been busy communicating the popular culture of the Middle East to the West. Halasa, who has both Jordanian and Filipino roots, has already published numerous texts in Great Britain and the USA. She is also the founding editor of the culture magazine Tank and former managing director of the Prince Claus Fund Library. The books she has contributed to include: "Creating Spaces of Freedom: Culture in Defiance", "Transit Beirut" and "Transit Tehran" (the latter also appeared in German as "Transit Tehran: Pop, Art, Politics, Religion ").

Rana Salam, whose roots are in Lebanon, graduated from Central St Martin's College of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art in London. Her design studio is inspired by the folk culture and street art of the Middle East; Salam worked for institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, as well as for companies and dealers such as Liberty, Harvey Nichols and Paul Smith.

Halasa's essay 'The Lingerie Culture of Syria' takes the reader on a trip to Damascus and Aleppo and to the manufacturers and retailers located there. Lingerie has become an integral part of the trousseau of Syrian brides. "If the groom does not buy underwear for his future wife, the bride or her mother do it themselves; it is not uncommon for up to 30 outfits to come together for the wedding night."

The essay is accompanied by photographs by the Lebanese photographer Reine Mahfouz, on which underwear manufacturers and shop windows are depicted, as well as shops in which veiled women buy underwear from male sellers.

Syrian society and sexuality

Halasa asks Abdulhamid about the image of worldliness and obscenity that the country enjoys in the region. He replies: "Syrian society takes on sexuality directly and sees it as something taken for granted. This may surprise some, as it is supposedly a very conservative society." But even in mixed-sex meetings there is an open discussion on sexual issues. "Sometimes it doesn't even matter whether the people are religious or not. Sex jokes, for example, are something completely normal in everyday life in Syria."

Of course, his comments on the daring Syrian lingerie fashion are double-edged. On the one hand, "women become sex toys in this way. They shouldn't stimulate other men sexually, but only their own husband at home. His sexuality should thereby be increased, she will attractively attract him and should do everything that he expects of her. " But at the same time, "it also gives women a great deal of control. They can use their sexuality to manipulate their men."

One thought expressed by some of the interviewees cited in the book is that a woman should entertain her husband at home, including by dancing for him. Some claim that the Quran contains such a requirement. Abdulhamid says that this is not the case, but that "there are thousands of prophetic traditions supporting this idea of ​​women." Certainly there are some Syrians who believe that a woman who "entertains" her husband at home prevents him from going to other women or prostitutes instead, and thus also reduces the risk of him taking a second wife.

Embarrassment is provoked

The book also contains excerpts from a 2001 diary by Aleppo-born Canadian filmmaker Nora Kevorkian, who traveled to Damascus to direct the film "Veils Uncovered," which was about women living in the vicinity of Suq al-Hamadiyeh Life. The award-winning film caused a lot of anger among individuals and political groups in Syria, as it was accused of spreading stereotypes about Muslim women.

"The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie" could itself be the target of such criticism. The interviews with women are illustrated with photos by the Lebanese photographer Gilbert Hage, but many women declined to be questioned or became angry when they saw some of the items of laundry.

A woman in her sixties who declined to be interviewed said: "The people of Damascus are proud of their city and its culture. Nobody will speak to you." Another said: "Lingerie is an embarrassing topic for Syrian women and that will be the reason why people talk about" secret life "."

Naive, sweet and innocent

A woman who was interviewed emphasized that the goods presented in the book were only a very small selection of what lingerie can be obtained in Syria and is only bought by a small number of people. "In Syria there is a subculture like the one you find everywhere, whether in the Lido or the Moulin Rouge, and like ours, people there are interested in this type of lingerie." Another questioned woman pointed out that the underwear shown was made in an "almost naive, sweet and innocent way". "In no way is she sick or perverted."

Women often associate "exotic" lingerie with a certain class or religiosity. One of them says: "These lingerie just make me laugh. I don't think they're sexy at all!" The woman expresses the opinion that this lingerie fashions "reflect very old-fashioned ideas about the sexuality of the less educated classes in Syria."

Yet another thinks that "lingerie for Christians is embarrassing, old-fashioned things; for Muslims, on the other hand, this is all normal - they not only accept it, but also enjoy it. The more religious a region is, the more daring it is the lingerie. I believe that Muslim women have less freedom in public and they want to compensate for this in their privacy. "

"The Secret of Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design" is one of the most unusual, sometimes even bizarre books published about the Arab world. It will be the first book to examine an Arab culture by addressing female underwear. It almost seems certain to me that it will lead to very heated controversy.

Susannah Tarbush

© 2008

Translation from English by Daniel Kiecol

The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design, Malu Halasa and Rana Salam (Eds.), Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2008, 176 pages

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