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?
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.
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.