January 26, 2010

"Strip joints" in Damascus - who knew?

Well, actually, me.

During remarks last week, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton commented on an interview of a son of Usamah bin Ladin by an Arab media outlet. The interview allegedly took place in a "strip club" in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Bolton made an offhand comment, "Strip clubs in Damascus - who knew there were such things?"

Damascus at night

I served as the air attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in the 1990's. Part of my job was to try and meet Syrian officials - military and civilian - to determine the capabilities and status of the Syrian armed forces. This is what military attachés have done since there have been military attachés - observe and report. American military attachés have been doing this around the world for over a hundred years.

To meet Syrian officials in an atmosphere of informality where they might actually say something of interest beyond the statements vetted and approved by the Ba'th Party regime of Hafiz al-Asad, and now his son Bashar al-Asad, Damascus offers a vibrant nightclub scene. Many people are surprised that you find nightclubs and after-hours clubs in the capital city of an Arab country, assuming that the strict rules of Islam preclude the existence of such establishments.

There is a difference between Muslim countries and Islamic countries. Muslim countries are those in which Islam is the most common and oft times official religion. However, in these countries, the government does not follow the strict tenets of Islamic jurisprudence, as in Islamic countries.

Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, the Emirates are examples of Muslim countries with non-Islamic governments. Of course, there is great Islamic influence in all facets of these governments, but the strict interpretation of the religion is not the law. Therefore, alcohol is available and nightclubs are permitted. The UAE has tried to limit alcoholic consumption to non-Muslims, but to me it appeared to have no effect.

Iraq's capital of Baghdad had an active nightlife when I was assigned to the embassy there in the late 1980's. Much of the nightlife has disappeared as the Shi'a-dominated government has cracked down on alcohol. In Syria, the nightlife continues.

It is not just Syrians who frequent the Damascus clubs. Throughout the year, but especially in the summer when Damascus is much cooler than the desert cities in the Gulf states, you will find Saudis, Kuwaitis and even Iranians enjoying the night life.

Many Syrians complain that the patrons from the oil-rich countries do nothing but drive prices up and encourage young Syrian girls into prostitution. At one point, there was a serious outbreak of HIV in the city, most likely from Saudis who also frequented sex clubs in Bangkok, Thailand.

Night clubs are one thing, but the reference was to "strip clubs." Do they really have strip clubs in Damascus? Yes. Trust me.