There are 12 marriages per 1,000 citizens in Damascus. That is what official statistics say, and yet there is also a staggering 40% divorce rate in the Syrian capital. Meaning, out of the 1,000 people who get married, 400 of them get divorced. The divorce rate is much lower in Latakia (9%), Aleppo (8%), Hama (7%) and Raqqa (3%). This shows that the Damascenes are the first ‘to fall in love’ and the first to get an early divorce.
Why is that?
My argument always has been that Damascus is a city that does not celebrate real love, or lovers, despite the grand commercial celebrations we have copied—with zero understanding—from the West on Valentine’s Day. It champions a variety of other ideals, like chivalry, nationalism, Arabism, and entrepreneurship—but not love. At a grassrootx level, and with few notable exceptions, people do not get married because ‘they are in love.’ They do it to settle down—because it is expected by family and society—or as some people say, only to get children. That argument, I believe, does the institution of marriage—and love—a great injustice.
We have very few success stories for lovers in Damascus. Society does not encourage it. Religion does not encourage it. It is considered wrong and immoral in most cases for a young woman to be involved in pre-martial emotional relationships—certainly not sexual ones. In movies, songs, and TV series, lovers are often depicted committing a very challenging and impossible act that confronts society, religion, family, and moral values.
What are our love stories in Damascus? Apart from ancient ones (which are abundant) like Antar & Abla, Qays & Layla, and Mouawiya (the Umayyad Caliph) and Maysoun, we have very few famous modern cases to study. One that immediately comes to mind is that of Emir Hasan al-Atrash, the leader of the Druze Mountain who defied social norms in the 1930s and married the singer Asmahan. He did it although it was frowned upon for someone of his sociopolitical stature to marry an artist appearing on film in romantic musicals. He did it simply because he loved Asmahan, regardless of what her career was.
Another obvious example is Nizar Qabbani who spent his entire career defending women, love, and lovers, encouraging Damascenes to free their minds and break established norms, where in his own words “a woman is whipped a thousand times for falling in love.”
A third example is former Prime Minister Khaled al-Azm who wanted to become president in 1955. Members of the Azm family and friends advised him that his wife—whom he loved dearly—would be an obstacle to his victory since would be unfit to become First Lady, given her public drinking and gambling habits. A friend, Fouad Mahasin, advised him to divorce her or simply, lose the elections. The next day they brought an Islamic judge to divorce the Prime Minister. Azm offered him coffee, then tea—then more coffee, before bidding him farewell. He refused to abandon his beloved even if it meant giving up his life-long dream of becoming president. As a result he was defeated in the elections.
Whereas in the West, there is an abundance of inspiring love stories. We’ve got King Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne of England in 1936 to marry the woman he loved. He had to chose between committing himself to an American who was twice-divorced or the throne of his ancestors. Without hesitation, he chose Wallis Simpson. We have got Prince Rene of Monaco, who also defied family tradition and in 1956 married an American—this time, the legendary Hollywood actress Grace Kelly. We have got Juan and Eva Peron, Elvis and Priscilla Presley, Gibran Khalil Gibran and May Ziadeh, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono—the avant-garde artist whose love for Lennon broke up The Beatles.
We have Adolph Hitler and his mistress (some say last-minute wife) Eva Brown, who committed suicide with him at a bunker in Berlin towards the end of World War II. We have the passionate love letters of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, two men who despite their reputation as world leaders, never shied—not for a moment—from making their emotions public towards their beloved. Where they scrutinized for it? On the contrary, it endeared them to the masses in both Great Britain and the United States. When asked about the secrets of good leadership, Churchill confidently said: “Find your sweetheart. Fall in love.”
Syrian society is not like that, and nor is Arab society in general. Nearly 90-years ago, the British colonel T.E. Lawrence addressed an Arab Bedouin leader during World War I saying that if the Arabs do not mend their ways, they will forever remain, “a little people, a silly people.” That is the product of a society without love. Human progress becomes minimal and so does social, moral, and intellectual development. Damascus needs more love to survive. It needs more lovers.
Forward Magazine, July 2007