Note: The author received direct confirmation while at the Karnak in early November 2016 that it hasn’t been a gay bar since 2011. Permission was granted to photograph the venue and to cover its history from Karnak staff.
They stopped coming in 2011… when the war started.
In early November, I was standing just inside the street-level entrance of a downtown bar in Syria’s capital city, Damascus. I was speaking to Nasser [pseudonym] – the owner/operator of what was once the country’s most popular and centrally located gay nightspots. Before the start of the war, Nasser said that his Karnak Bar (often referenced in English-language travel guides simply as “The Karnak”) had enjoyed a decade of quiet, as a meeting place for gay men from across the Middle East.
Discovering Karnak Bar
It was the first time in over six years that I saw what most travellers, during better days, would naturally dismiss as a mere ‘hole-in-the-wall’ local joint. Back when Damascus had Western tourists (mainly Brits, Australians, and Dutch people), they flocked to bars in the upscale Bab Touma, Qassaa, and Mezzeh neighborhoods.
But my first visit to The Karnak was motivated by a simple desire to find cheap beer near my hotel away from the main tourist spots. And I ended up discovering a place that was anything but quiet. In 2004, I was staying a couple of blocks from Damascus’s historic Martyrs’ Square. It was my first time in Syria as an American who was simply driven by curiosity to discover a country I had always been told was a “closed and intolerant society” ruled by a dictator.
Police state paradox
The dictator part was true enough. There was certainly no evidence of political openness to be found. But there existed, especially in Syria’s main urban centres under its Ba’ath government, a social openness and tolerance which seemed without parallel anywhere else in the Middle East. In most Syrian cities, both crosses and minarets dotted the skyline. And self-identifying along sectarian and ethnic lines among Syrians was generally scoffed at with as much vigor as any secular European could muster.
“I am Syrian” was all I could get out of most people whenever I (somewhat rudely) questioned them about their religious background. Families I stayed with during my initial travels often didn’t even know the religion of their neighbors. There was a kind of national pride and an ‘enforced pluralism’ of sorts, backed by the authoritarian Ba’ath state run by the Assad family.
Ironically, this unique political and social situation allowed bars like The Karnak to flourish as an ‘open secret’ amidst a generally more conservative Arab Muslim society. This was even in spite of an old 1949 law prohibiting same sex activity (Section 520 of the penal code), which by many accounts went unenforced. But generally, the government and its network of secret police (called Mukhabarat) left people alone in terms of their private lives and personal lifestyle choices, so long as they didn’t dabble in dissident political speech.
When I first walked through The Karnak’s mundane looking doors and up its narrow stairs in 2004, I had no clue that it was ground zero for the downtown Damascus gay scene. By a certain time of night, most women steer clear of Marjeh (Martyrs’ Square) which has always had a reputation as an area of prostitution and drugs. So it’s not unusual to see area cafes filled with a ‘men only’ crowd socialising late into the night.
I sat alone at a table for a couple of hours, reading a Lonely Planet guide book which had initially directed me to this relaxed and unassuming venue for cheap drinks. By then, there were four or five empty bottles of the locally produced Barada beer collected on my table – one of the two national beer companies of Syria (both factories were destroyed by rebels early in the war). A unique Karnak custom was for the waiter to keep your tab by simply stacking your empty bottles on the table, and tallying the bill at the end of the night with a quick glance at the pile.
Do you know where you are?
Of course, a young American tourist sitting alone in an increasingly packed out local watering hole attracted some attention from other patrons. I had a couple of guys – excellent English speakers – come and sit down in the empty chairs at my table. Omar introduced himself. He was from Saudi Arabia. And his friend was Palestinian. Omar said the place tended to attract an international clientele, and he inquired as to how I heard about it. I gave him my guide book which had a very brief write-up on The Karnak. Omar read the passage, grinning, and asked loudly:
Do you know where you are?!… Are you gay?
“No,” I replied, perplexed at his unexpected question. He burst into laughter and showed his friend the last line describing The Karnak in my Lonely Planet book:
You wouldn’t bring your mother here.
A thriving escape from life outside
Omar turned to the other tables around us, my guidebook in hand, showing off this one line. It soon became a source of pride and jokes among these gay Arabs, who likely wouldn’t dare tell their mothers much of anything concerning their private lives. And the story of the random straight American (and from Texas!), who naively wandered into this primarily ‘word of mouth’ place, even spread among the waiters. They began delivering free drinks while struggling not to double over in laughter.
I joined in the jovial mood. And I drank the night away in discussion with my new friends. Indeed, things did become clearer as I began more closely observing the groups of guys streaming through the door.
A transformation of sorts would occur the moment they entered their familiar hideaway. Emotionless and quiet groups would enter from the streets. Ornate fruit trays and drinks would attend their tables. And sudden outbursts of uninhibited and flamboyant dance quickly ensued in clusters of ‘private parties’.
False narratives imposed from afar
I had to remind myself that I was in ancient Damascus. The heart of the Middle East. A region long seen in the Western imagination through a rigorous prism of false ‘orientalist‘ stereotypes. One dominant stereotype involves the assumption that all people from the region are reducible to their religion and ‘tribe’. But this fails to take into account Syria’s secular urban culture. The idea of belonging to a ‘tribe’, for example, would be as foreign to many Syrians as it would be to most Americans or Brits.
When Syria devolved into a brutal civil war, news coverage tended to focus on a sectarian narrative. This assumed that Syria had always been a powder keg of competing religions waiting to explode. Journalists and analysts, who often wrote about Syria from afar, framed the war as fundamentally between an ‘Alawite regime’ and ‘Sunni rebels’.
There’s some small degree of truth to this. But it ignores the fact that the modern history of Syria is one of nationalism, and a resultant relatively secular order that contained legitimate confessional pluralism. A society that tended to allow a high degree of personal freedom regarding private ‘lifestyle’ and social choices. Especially in comparison to other countries in the region.
The large swathes of the Syrian population that grew up under the quasi-secular public order of the Ba’ath regime didn’t just suddenly revert to some primal and latent sectarianism at the start of the war. In fact, it still exists in some pockets of what we might call the original ‘peaceful protest’ opposition – which was sadly swallowed up early on by truly sectarian militants. But it exists especially in government-held areas.
Certainly the friends I made during my early visits to The Karnak had articulated ‘the benefits’ of living under the deeply flawed Ba’ath state. As opposed to, let’s say, the ultraconservative Saudi Arabia.
In short, my experience of Syria tells me that many people genuinely believe in the secularist (and/or nationalist) ideology holding sway in broad parts of the country. And it’s not something that serves as a mere propaganda ploy of the government. If it was, it would be hard to explain the existence of a social atmosphere that allowed places like The Karnak to thrive quite openly for so many years.
An inconvenient and complex truth
Pointing this reality out is not the same as excusing or romanticising a regime which has never hesitated to revert to the most extreme levels of brutality to maintain its power. But it is essential for understanding why the regime has not fallen. It continues to have a large base of support among people like Karnak Bar owner Nasser.
Such Syrians don’t necessarily exhibit personal loyalty toward the government in some positive sense. In fact, I encountered few people in Damascus who exhibited a cartoonish cult loyalty to Bashar al-Assad, which is how the Western media often presents civilians living in pro-regime areas. Syrians like Nasser are the first to point out the systemic corruption and zero tolerance approach to free speech represented in their own government.
It is not for the West to decide
One of the last interviews I did during my November 2016 visit to Damascus was with Ramiz, a man I’ve known since 2004. Ramiz is a conservative Sunni Muslim man with a large family. He works 12-hour days in a clothing repair shop near Martyrs’ Square and attends mosque frequently. You would never find him in a place like The Karnak. Yet he expressed a similar point of view to Nasser:
Our government has corruption and abuse. But in many ways you are free here. It is not for the West to tell us how to live. They have no understanding of this place. We just want our lives back to the way things were before the war.
It was hard for me to talk to Ramiz without being emotional. He looked very different from the proud, hardworking family man I once knew. He complained of crippling sanctions which had made his life impossible. And he wore the visible signs of suffering on his face (he and his son had also survived the trauma of being kidnapped at a rebel checkpoint a couple years previously).
The story the mainstream media hasn’t told
The stories of both Ramiz and Nasser – whose lives are worlds apart – have simply not been told.
The mainstream Western media has very much fed us a narrative on Syria that is way too ‘black and white’. It has too often been a Hollywoodesque morality tale of ‘good guys and bad guys’. And these oversimplistic categories haven’t helped the plight of ordinary Syrians on any side of this tragic war.
After the US/UK invasion of Iraq, it was years before Western media outlets finally admitted that Iraqi society had been much more complex that they’d led us to believe.
A lesson learned at The Karnak
In my travels in Syria before 2011, I would sometimes return to The Karnak with doubting friends in tow. My aim? To convince them that, yes, there is a gay bar in the heart of Syria (and a number of others, too). For me, the bar was symbolic of the nuance and contradictions which existed in one of the last secular Arab nationalist dictatorships in the Middle East.
I didn’t fully understand the place. But I had seen enough to know that I couldn’t judge it so easily. Or presume to change it.
And neither should those now rallying to impose simplistic military solutions on an entire nation – whose complexities they’ve failed to understand.
Note: This article is [Part V] in our series of articles from the ground in Syria.
UPDATE: The note at the top of this article was added on 18 November to make it clear that The Karnak hasn’t been a gay bar since 2011.
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Featured image via Brad Hoff for The Canary
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