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Damascus Diary

Iman Al-Ghafari lives in Damascus and has taught classes in gender studies and feminist poetry at the Tishreen University in the harbour city of Lattakia, north of Damascus. Iman Al-Ghafari has written extensively on Sylvia Plath. In this story, she chronicles a not so ordinary day in her life
FORUM / 22.12.2005 The month of February is usually one of the coldest in Damascus, where I live, and one of the rainiest in Lattakia, where I work. Nobody is out at 5 AM in the morning in my neighborhood close to parliament, except for me and a few flamboyant female dancers, dressed in expensive fur. They hastily rush out of the nightclubs that crowd the area, accompanied by stout male customers or by taxi drivers who park their cars next to the clubs, refusing to pick up any regular customer.

I wait for almost fifteen minutes in a dark and icy night, till a taxi driver decides to pick me up and drive me to the bus station so I can catch a bus to the University where I teach. The fading music of the nearby clubs is mixed with the call for the dawn prayer, carried by the winds from a nearby mosque.

‘Where to?’ The driver asks, staring at me with a confused look.

‘To the bus station’, I say.

‘Hmmm. I thought you were a young man; you’re dressed in a masculine manner’.

‘Are you married?’

He asks such a personal question without any notice and his sharp eyes watch me seriously through the mirror above his head, expecting an immediate answer.

I avoid his gaze by looking at the road through the window, and I firmly say: ‘No! But, why do you ask such a question?’

‘It’s because you seem to be in your thirties, so I assumed that you must be married’.
I try to avoid being the object of his forced conversation by asking: ‘What about you?’

The man, who seems to be in his late thirties, seems surprised to find me lead the conversation in my own way.

‘I am not married because I don’t have enough money to start a family. Anyway, I am a man and I can easily get married whenever I decide to, but a woman can’t. You must get married before it’s too late’.

"But, what if I don’t want to marry any man?" I say in an assertive, exclamatory tone.

‘Every woman desires to be married’, the man re-asserts as he speeds his vehicle through the empty road.

I look around at the deserted surrounding streets and I say in a low and cautious tone, “But I’m not like every woman”.

There was a pause. Either my last words didn’t reach him, or didn’t appeal to him, so the conversation ends, as the car was about to reach the station.

I take the bus that leaves at 6:00 am. Many faces look familiar to me, including the bus driver’s delighted face. A few minutes after departure, the driver’s assistant, who sits next to him, turns the tape recorder on to a song by Fairuz, a famous female Lebanese singer whose soft songs are associated with morning coffee to many Syrians, but not to the sleepy heads on board.

A big clumsy man was deep asleep and his head kept on falling on the shoulder of a bewildered young woman sitting next to him, who seemed to be preoccupied with finding an appropriate way to remove his heavy head from her tired body. His deafening snores stopped when the woman made a sudden move that captured his attention for few seconds, only to be continued later on. ‘Luckily, no one is sitting next to me on this long journey’, I say to myself. .

The temperature outside is below zero, and as it starts snowing, the driver slows down his speed. Inside it is very warm and many people take off their jackets. The thin assistant spends the first ten minutes checking the names, the identity cards and the tickets of the passengers; he then begins a routine procedure that involves offering cups of water to the thirsty. After a short break, he decides to put on an Egyptian movie on the video, starring a famous female actress, who constantly portrays seductive roles in the world of cinema. The film, which I do not expect to be erotic, begins with a scene where a man and a woman are having sex in a colorful bedroom.
As the moaning and panting noise fills the warm space inside the bus, the snoring noise stops for a while

It is 9:35 when the bus enters the city of Lattakia. I rush to take a taxi to the university to catch my first lecture that begins at 10:00 am. An unshaven guard approaches the taxi dragging a big belly over his belt carrying a gun in his left arm with which he points to the driver to stop, forcing me to take the long walk from the iron-barred gate to the building, where my department is located.

I had begged him very politely to let the taxi in, but he kept on repeating the same phrase in a rigid voice: “Taxis are not allowed into the campus”. The man’s eyes narrowed as he looked away, arrogantly asserting: ‘Rules are rules! I just follow orders.’

The sky turned gray and a fog fell over the university. A frozen drizzle rained down as I slowly walked, carrying two heavy plastic bags containing thousands of exam papers. I had spent a long depressing time in a sort of a solitary confinement to be able to finish marking the papers. I couldn’t understand the guard’s rudeness, and I saw him permit some students’ cars to drive through the gate.

There is too much rage, too much fatigue, and too much depression, and I realize for the first time how helpless I am. My tears at the bitter injustice mix with the rain. I quickly wash away one last teardrop with the wet sleeve of my chunky jacket, when I see a group of students coming towards me. They stop me on my way to ask the commonly asked question: ‘How many students have passed the exam?’ I answer them briefly, trying to hide my feelings of anger and rage, as I head to the room where the students’ exam papers are delivered. The results are publicly announced when some assigned employees remove the black tags covering the students’ names.

I then rush to the crowded auditorium to teach my class, which is filled with more female students than male ones. Faces wait anxiously as I desperately try to fix the loud speaker that causes a confusing noise in the class. As I write the title of the lecture on the white board with a blue marker—“Gender Criticism: Gay and Lesbian Studies”, I hear students humming and murmuring and I become self-conscious, when some female voices giggle mockingly with their peers. I ignore their curious inquisitive looks and I start speaking on Sappho and feminist philosophy, when a female student interrupts the silence of the class with an angry rejection: ‘But, there are no female philosophers.’

‘That’s what you may think. You have to delve deeply into the history of philosophy to be able to tell or to judge’, I say in a confident tone.

There was a sense of disbelief in the student’s tone of voice and face, which turned red with anger at the idea itself. I try to resist the spirit of anger by raising the spirit of humor in the huge classroom, which was overwhelmed with conflicting passions and emotions.

A hush suddenly falls on the crowd as the man in charge of administration breaks into the room to complain about the texts I had selected in my syllabi. I look around to see if there’s a hidden camera reporting this event. I follow the man to his spacious well-heated office where I find another female administrator. For few minutes, I feel threatened and humiliated for having to explain the reason behind my choice of a poem.

My heart starts racing for survival and my mind is racing for acceptance, when I write with hesitant fingers on a blank paper, “To whom it may concern”, “I teach Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”, because it’s a feminist poem and it has a lot to do with gender studies and …”, but I stop writing as I find it strange to report teaching a poem by Plath, when I’m a professor, specialized in Plath’s poetry. Is this a theatrical interrogation or what? They look like two amateur actors trying to intimidate me, in order to prevent me from teaching feminist poetry.

“It’s for your own sake”. The woman shrugs with a smile on her authoritarian face. The man, whose frowning thick and dark eyebrows almost touch the lashes of his deep tight eyes convey a feeling of distrust, addresses me in a defiant tone: ‘Let’s not waste more time. You better write it now!’ He hands me a pen as he explains: “We just follow instructions”. I nod in disapproval.

Looking up into the pale faces, I see myself as a creature driven by invisible powers and orders to explain myself. But, when I gaze out into the rainbow in the sky, I swallow my big and hot teardrop in my throat. After the man snatched my very brief report from my hand, I was left with an implicit and unsaid message that I must stop teaching Plath’s poetry, or else….

In my small and cold office I sit blank and silent for half an hour; I try to relax on an uncomfortable chair contemplating the bizarre scenes I encountered this morning. I brush my short black hair back with my fingers as I walk slowly through the agony of the afternoon in the dusty corridor to get back to the same auditorium, where I’m surrounded by alert and eager faces, and on the sun-lit white board, I boldly write with a red marker the last lines of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair.
And I eat men like air.


Iman Al-Ghafari

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