Panties from the "Axis of Evil"

While visiting Syria, two London-based women of Arab origin became fascinated by the risqué lingerie openly on display in the souqs and shops of Damascus and Aleppo. The book they now produced is one of the most unusual publications you are likely to see on the Arab world, says Susannah Tarbush

By Susannah Tarbush

​​When Malu Halasa and Rana Salam visited the souqs and shops of Damascus and Aleppo during a visit a couple of years ago, they were surprised by the apparent contradiction between the unusually audacious and playful lingerie on display there and the relatively conservative society, in which so many women are veiled. Halasa and Salam soon decided to co-author a book, "The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design", which was published recently by Chronicle Books of San Francisco with support from the Prince Claus Fund Library of the Netherlands.

Sensual Syrian playfulness

The colourful pages of the book are full of photographs of lingerie decorated with everything from birds, butterflies and feathers to fake scorpions, flowers and fur. Sequins, pearls, embroidery and tassels liberally adorn bra and panty sets. Some lingerie sets emit music, others vibrate or incorporate lights. Lingerie may be edible; in other cases it is hidden inside chocolates or eggs. There are crocheted one-piece body suits, and costumes influenced by belly-dancing gear. The lingerie often has a playfulness about it, with comic touches such as fake fur thongs which double as mobile phone holders.

A risqué trinity: by Western standards, Syrian society is conservative - but it is rather liberal compared to the rest of the Arab region

​​In addition to photographs of the lingerie on display, the book has photographs of lingerie modelled by pale-skinned women, mostly East European. These pictures are from catalogues which are readily available in lingerie outlets, despite the taboo on the showing of explicit images of women in public. One of those Halasa interviewed for the book is Syrian writer and political activist Ammar Abdulhamid (who lives as a dissident in the USA). He describes Syria as a traditional culture facing a postmodern culture. "If you take a cross section of Syrian culture, you are going to see a spectrum of different cultural values that cross a thousand years, but they all exist right now in one single moment."

Bringing Mid-Eastern popular culture to the West

Halasa and Salam have a long record of bringing Middle Eastern popular culture to the West. Halasa, who is of mixed Jordanian and Filipino parentage, has contributed to numerous publications and books in Britain and the US. She is a founding editor of the cultural magazine Tank, and a former managing editor of the Prince Claus Fund Library. Among the books she has co-authored are "Creating Spaces of Freedom: Culture in Defiance", "Transit Beirut" and "Transit Tehran".

Old-fashioned ideas on sexuality in the educated classes? Opinion is divided in Syria

​​Rana Salam, whose roots are in Lebanon, is a graduate of Central St Martin's College of Art and Design in London and of the Royal College of Art. Her design studio is inspired by Middle Eastern popular art and street culture, and her clients include institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum and major retailers such as Liberty, Harvey Nichols and Paul Smith. Halasa's essay 'Competing Thongs: The Lingerie Culture of Syria', takes the reader on a tour of the lingerie manufacturers and shops of Damascus and Aleppo. Lingerie has become an essential part of the wedding trousseau: "If a groom doesn't buy the lingerie for his wife-to-be, the bride herself or her mother does, sometimes collecting up to thirty outfits for her wedding night." The essay is accompanied by Lebanese photographer Reine Mahfouz's photographs of lingerie factories, window displays and shops where veiled women buy lingerie from male assistants.

"Syrian society tackles sexuality head-on"

Halasa asks Abdulhamid about Syria's reputation within the region for earthiness and raunchiness. He replies: "Syrian society tackles sexuality head-on and looks at it in a very direct manner, which some people might find strange because it is supposedly a conservative society." There is overt discussion of sexuality even in mixed gatherings of men and women. "Sometimes it doesn't matter whether the people are religious or not. Sexual jokes are common currency in Syrian society."

Numerous hadiths stress the importance of female sexuality - at least according to Ammar Abdulhamid, a political activist in American exile

​​There is a double edge to his comments on the racy type of Syrian lingerie. On the one hand, "you're turning women into sex toys. They're not supposed to be sexually stimulating to other people, but at home, to the husband, they're supposed to provoke his sexuality and dress in the manner that will attract him and do whatever he says." But at the same time, "it gives women a lot of control. Women can use sexuality to manipulate men." An idea stated by some of those quoted in the book is that a woman should entertain her husband at home, including dancing for him. Some claim that the Koran contains such an injunction. Abdulhamid says this is not the case, but that "thousands of prophetic traditions support these ideas about women." Certainly some Syrians consider that if a woman "entertains" her husband, this will keep him away from other women and prostitutes, and will reduce the risk that he will take a second wife.

Provoking embarrassment

The book furthermore includes a journal written by the Aleppo-born Canadian filmmaker Nora Kevorkian when she went to Damascus in 2001 to make the film "Veils Uncovered" about women living near Souq al-Hamadiyeh. The prizewinning film angered some individuals and Syrian political groups who alleged that it stereotyped Muslim women.

"I can't get to the phone right now, honey, could you pick it up?" Some Syrians take a very innovative approach to underwear telephony

​​"The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie" may itself attract such criticisms. Interviews with women are interspersed with photographs of lingerie by Lebanese photographer Gilbert Hage, but many women turned down the request to be interviewed, or became angry when they saw examples of the lingerie. A woman in her sixties who declined to be interviewed declared: "Damascenes are proud of their city and culture. No one will talk to you." Another said: "Lingerie is such an embarrassing issue for Syrian women to talk about, and that's probably why it's called 'the secret life'."

Naïve, sweet and innocent One interviewee pointed out that the type of lingerie highlighted in the book is only a small part of Syria's overall lingerie output, and is linked only to a small category of people. "There are subcultures in Syria, and subcultures everywhere else in the world that would be interested in this kind of lingerie, starting from Le Lido or Moulin Rouge." But another interviewee thought the lingerie is "almost done in a naive sweet innocent way. It's not sick or perverted."

The more religious a country, the more daring its lingerie? Women in headscarves in a Damascus lingerie store, looking around for the right piece of clothing

​​The interviewees often associated the "exotic" lingerie with a certain class or religion. One said: "The underwear makes me laugh so much. It is not sexy at all!" She considers it mirrors "the very old fashioned ideas about sexuality in the less educated classes of Syria." Another said that for Christians, the underwear is "nothing but embarrassing, old-fashioned fun; for Muslims it is something very normal – they not only accept it but also enjoy it. The more religious an area is, the more risqué the underwear becomes. I think that Muslim women have less freedom on the outside so to compensate they have more freedom on the inside." "The Secret of Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design" is one of the most unusual, even bizarre, books you are likely to see on the Arab world. It is surely the first book to probe an Arab culture via the medium of its female undergarments, and looks certain to arouse debate and controversy.

Susannah Tarbush

© 2008

The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design, Malu Halasa and Rana Salam (ed.), Chronicle Books San Francisco, 2008, 176 pages Ahmed Khaled's "The Fifth Pound" A Bus Named Desire Egyptian filmmaker Ahmed Khaled has produced a courageous film about sexuality in the Egypt. But the film can't be shown. Sonja Zekri reports Marriage Counseling A "School of Marital Bliss" in Cairo Many Arabic men and women are unhappy with their sex lives. Recently a school opened in Cairo to tackle this problem through counseling, seminars and Koran verses. Nelly Youssef introduces the school Syrian Sitcoms Religion, Politics and Sexuality Are Sensitive Issues The series Hakaya wa Khafaya will be shown on Syrian television during Ramadan. German actress Meike Schlüter played a role in the production that also features Andrej Skaf, one of Syria's best-loved television actors. Manuela Römer reports