The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #25: Chris Graham in Conversation in a Syrian Taxi


Mohaned works at a small hotel in Palmyra, a desert town in northeast Syria. On the side, he helps a friend pitch taxi rides to tourists. (Mohaned speaks Arabic and English; his friend speaks only Arabic.) The following is an edited account of our conversation during the three hour taxi journey between Palymra and Damascus.


Chris Graham: Do you have a girlfriend?

Mohaned: No, but that doesn’t matter.

Graham: What does that mean?

Mohaned: My mother will choose a wife for me.

Graham: You mean you will get an arranged marriage?

Mohaned: Yes. If I see a girl that I like, I will tell my mother and she will make an appointment with the girl’s father. Then she [Mohaned’s mother] will say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If she [Mohaned’s mother] says ‘yes’, we will give some money to the family [of the girl] and they will have one week to decide whether to accept the proposal. If they say ‘yes’, we are engaged.

Graham: Is it a good thing for a woman in Syria to get a divorce?

Mohaned: No, very bad. For a man it is okay, but not for a woman.

Graham: Why not?

Mohaned: If she has been married, another man has opened her. I want to open the woman. We prefer that.

Graham: Would you marry a woman who was divorced?

Mohaned: No! Very bad. I want to open the woman. [Smiles, pats me on the shoulder.] In Europe you can open the women, it is easy.

Graham: What if the woman is ‘opened’ not from having sex?

Mohaned: You mean… [gestures with his palms together and then pulls them apart]

Graham: Yes, so the hymen is broken but not from another man.

Mohaned: No, I don’t want that. If I see that on my wife [claps his hands] I immediately get a divorce. No hymen means she sleeps with many men. You don’t understand, for us, it is important to open the woman.

Graham: What do you think about democracy? [Syria is officially a republic but functionally authoritarian. The president is subject to a confirmatory referendum every seven years. The current president, Bashar Al-Asad, was confirmed in 2007 with 97.6% of the vote.]

Mohaned: [Confused] I don’t know that.

Graham: It means voting for the government.

Mohaned: Listen, my friend—we are friends—let me give you some advice. Don’t talk about the president. Don’t talk about politics. It is not good for you or for me.

Graham: Why not?

Mohaned: No, do not talk about politics. People will tell the police and then I get arrested.

Graham: What do you think of Israel?

Mohaned: Very bad. Don’t talk about politics.

Graham: Why is Israel bad?

Mohaned: Terrorists.

Graham: Have you ever met anyone from Israel?

Mohaned: No. If I meet someone from Israel I kill them. If you were from Israel I would kill you.

Graham: With this smile?

Mohaned: [Laughs] Listen, my friend, do not talk politics.

Graham: How do you know there is a god?

Mohaned: Because it says in the Qur’an.

Graham: How do you know that’s right?

Mohaned: [Looking incredulous] That is the Qur’an. It comes from Allah, to Jibril [Gabriel], to Muhammad. Why do you ask me these questions? My friend, you must respect our religion. I do not ask you these questions because you are Christian.

Graham: I understand…

Mohaned: Do you know Denmark? Bad people there, they do not respect our religion. God will do bad things to them, you will see.

Graham: When?

Mohaned: I don’t know, it will be now, or later, but some time. I am telling you.

Graham: What do you think of Salman Rushdie?

Mohaned: Do not talk to me about Salman Rushdie.

Chris Graham is a feature writer for the Cherwell, the student newspaper at the University of Oxford. His stories have involved, amongst other things, nude modeling and stealing bicycles. Prior to all this, he practiced corporate law in New York. More from this author →