In Damascus, sex is rarely discussed in public. Yet veiled women regularly appraise the contents of window displays featuring feathered bras, knickers and one-piece crocheted bodysuits with “grab holes” at nipple level. Hanging above souk stalls, other lingerie styles resort to gimmickry: they are festooned with blinking lights, or play soundbites from Egyptian pop songs or standards such as “Old MacDonald had a farm”. Damascus, the manufacturing capital of Syria’s lingerie industry, exports its products to almost everywhere across the Arab world, from Libyan hairdressing salons to small-town malls in Saudi Arabia.
At a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop in Souk al-Hamidiyeh, Hamas Bakdounis, the proprietor of Lingerie Bakdounis (“parsley” in Arabic), holds up a front-buckling gold lamé bra with matching knickers and mini-miniskirt. “This is for the woman who dances the lambada for her husband,” he declares. “If the first wife doesn’t dance the lambada, he will divorce her and get a second one. If the second wife doesn’t dance the lambada, he will divorce her and get a third one. By the fourth wife he will have found someone who dances the lambada.”
The industry is fuelled by the lingerie photographer Omar al-Moutem, whose pictures of eastern European women wearing racy styles are distributed widely in the souk and perused by men and women alike. As a Muslim, al-Moutem avoids titillation, so the women in his photos smile like schoolgirls, not vixens.
Lingerie is considered a luxury item in Syria. Brides-to-be collect up to 30 different outfits for their wedding night. The tradition started after the 1973 Yom Kippur war when Syria, as a front-line state against Israel, received heavy investment from Gulf states, and bras were manufactured in the country for the first time. But what is the sexual attraction of a Kajagoogoo-singing Tweety Bird on the crotch of a thong?
Firas Nabulsi, owner of the lingerie company Angel Lady, explains that his customers rarely see a naked woman, and so anything is exciting. His firm also produces a line of belly dancewear – sheer and sequinned pantaloons, bodices and veils – because wives, according to the Koran, must dance for their husbands.
“It’s not the liberal forces in Syria that produce these things,” says Ammar Abdulhamid, a political commentator now at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. “It is conservative culture that produces sexually explicit lingerie.” The proof, he feels, is in the difference between American and Syrian lingerie. Shopping with his wife at Victoria’s Secret, he thought to himself: “This is lame. Back home, it is simply much, much more.”
The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie (eds Malu Halasa and Rana Salam) is published this autumn by Scalo/Prince Claus Fund