On March 15, 2011, when he heard about the uprising, Mohammad was in his shop, Liberty. He automatically closed the windows, turned off the light, and hid in the dressing room for an hour. In the days that followed, he wondered: Where was Syria going? Was the regime going to fall? And would the revolution be stifled? No one had the answers to these questions. So, like many, he’s waiting to see what the future holds. But today he is full of desire, hesitation, and anguish as he waits for a young man. He is in the new part of town, not far from the courthouse, where protesters are taken and driven around for several hours before being put in prison. That building scares him, but Mohammad likes the two palm trees at the entrance; they are very tall, even taller than the courthouse. Suddenly, three prisoners come out of the building. They are dressed in convicts’ clothing, white and black stripes, feet and hands in heavy chains. The intelligence agents beat them with sticks. Mohammad turns his head away. Violence is everywhere around him. He’s exhausted and doesn’t want to wait anymore; it’s already ten minutes past his rendezvous time, anyway. Police may be monitoring the Habibati website where he contacted this young man. He thinks about that word, habibati, “my beloved woman,” the most famous gay dating site, and wonders who gave it this name.
Youssef appears, walking toward Mohammad, and gestures for him to follow. Mohammad is worried; he is shaking. His fear gradually dissipates as he approaches Youssef. He tells himself, “This is a man! A man. Not a woman. Who would suspect that we’re here for sex? People would think we’re friends, nothing more.” The streets are crowded with pedestrians. Mohammad is torn between fear and excitement. He doesn’t know this man. What if he’s an informant? Who knows?
On the terrace of Café Nawfara, behind the Umayyad Mosque, there is another world, that of the old town. Calm reigns everywhere, as in prayer. In some of the alleys, the leaves of the trees form shaded arches and flowers seem to emerge from the old walls. Only someone blind to beauty would not notice them.
Mohammad’s house is in the heart of the working-class Jaramana district in the southeastern outskirts of the old city. “The people here come from all parts of Syria. Everyone knows everything about everyone: your profession, the name of each member of your family, where you come from, etc. They are very good spies. ” At the main entrance of the building, Mohammad feels more secure. As far as the neighbors are concerned, Youssef and he are simply friends. “This is my one-bedroom palace. I’ve been living here for a year,” he says, sitting next to his guest. The two young men talk about everything except what got them here. Youssef looks at him with confidence and serenity, and that troubles him. He feels uncertain and fearful. He hasn’t had sex with a man for a long time. His last encounter had been very brief. He had contacted a guy on the internet, and they had arranged to meet at the Byblos cinema. At the ticket counter, they bought two seats in a small box, on a bench without armrests. Mohammad was not interested in the film, but a nude scene still disturbed him: he imagined that the heroine was stroking him while he himself kissed the hero’s back. He moved closer to his neighbor and touched his thigh, then he gently brushed his penis with his fingers. Then the stranger took his in his hand. They were at the back of the room. It all happened very quickly. They never saw each other again. Mohammad has seen no one since then.
With Youssef, it’s different. He is overcome with desire without knowing how to proceed, but Youssef takes his time. Their breath mingles. Mohammad is panting. He babbles: “Here, you can find a room that is not too expensive. You’d have to pay three times as much in the city center.” Youssef listens, his chin resting on the palm of his hand:
“And space for us to meet in peace?”
“I don’t need much room.”
“Neither do I, but it has to be very bright.”
“Yes. You can find very bright apartments here.”
“What do you like?”
A long silence sets in. Mohammad’s heart is pounding; it shows in the bulging veins in his neck. But nothing alters his sweet face and his eyes, full of childhood and sadness, that close as he murmurs, “Kiss me.” Youssef starts with his lips, the lower one, then the upper one. He undresses him, takes off his own clothes. He pulls him onto the bed, buries his head in his chest. He would like to disappear, the better to be reborn. He wants to cover with kisses every small part of this body offered to him. “I want you,” he says, lying on his back. Mohammad takes out a tiny bottle of oil. He enters Youssef slowly. Two waves of desire unite on the mattress. Mohammad’s scent awakens an old memory in Youssef, of the time when he still lived with his two sisters and his mother. In the morning he would go out into the garden and draw a brick house, a river, and a wheat field on a slate. He liked to think that later, when he grew up, this drawing would come true. Then his mother would come out to hang up the laundry; the smell of cleanliness mingled with that of eucalyptus. Youssef could only see her bare legs behind the laundry. She would shake each item of clothing vigorously before hanging it up, and drops of water would fall on his drawing. “It’s raining on my house!” he would shout. His mother would laugh and bring him back inside to have breakfast. At that time, his universe had no limits.
“Youssssef . . .” Mohammad pronounces his name in a weird way—the letters s sound like a bird’s twittering. Relaxed, he sits down next to him. His cell phone rings, and a song of praise to Bashar al-Assad rings out. Youssef’s face tightens. Mohammad hands him a glass of fruit juice, gets up, and opens the window but not the curtain. “What is most important for the Shiites?”
Youssef hesitates, then asks, “What do you mean?”
“Secrecy! The Shiites hide their beliefs when they are in a hostile environment. I am like them. Most customers who come to my shop support the regime.”
He strokes Youssef’s chest hair and continues: “My father was arrested in the 1980s. He was reported to the intelligence services and accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood when he had nothing to do with them. We never knew who reported him. He spent ten years in jail and came home a broken man. My mother died shortly after that. He is a very tired man now; I will do anything to spare him any more pain. I even got engaged to make him happy. Her name is Sarah. She’s charming. She has intense eyes and a very narrow waist, which I like, and her hands move when she talks, and I think that’s cute. I feel less and less attracted to her. But when I see my father’s smile I silence my desire. He thinks I’m going to get married and give him grandchildren.”
Youssef laughs, shrugging. “Sounds like he’s the one who’s getting married and not you. Does he know you sleep with men?”
“Are you kidding? He would renounce me if he knew. All he knows is that I rented this apartment for my upcoming marriage.”
“And in the meantime, we make love on this bed intended to shelter your marital antics!”
“Yes. To be honest, you are not the first. Several people have been here. Women and men . . . What I’d really like would be to have a man and a woman in my bed together.”
Youssef starts getting dressed. This lost young man makes him anxious, yet moves him at the same time. “I don’t touch women.”
At the bus station, Youssef takes Mohammad’s hand in his, but Mohammad shakes free:
“Are you crazy?! Do you want to go to jail? I don’t!”
“The police are too busy cracking down on demonstrations. They don’t have time for us.”
Most of the buses are small, old, and in poor condition. In addition to them being much cheaper than the large ones, there is no need to make a reservation. Men shout, “Homs! Aleppo! Deraa! Come on, we’re leaving right now!” chasing travelers and asking them where they are going. Anytime someone brings a new passenger to a bus, the driver gives them a small amount of money. Mohammad hates this bustle; he wants to run away. The station is big, but not big enough for the crowds that are there. While Youssef buys his ticket, Mohammad scans his body, thin and elegant. He feels like he has known him for a long time, or at least that he has met him somewhere before.
The two men walk toward the waiting line; Mohammad has a lot to say, but he finds it difficult to speak. “I’m afraid of what the future holds. What we are doing is not right, we will go to hell. I’m not that religious, but I still believe in God.” He says this as if someone else is speaking for him.
Without looking at him or turning around, Youssef replies, “We’re not hurting anyone!”
“I know. But the Prophet said if you see two men together, you should kill them.”
“Maybe he was jealous of us. Anyway, religion is rubbish. Homosexuality has been around forever, you know. Several caliphs were gay.”
“Yes, Yazid Ibn Mouawiya and Al-Walid Ibn Abd al-Malik. Some intellectuals too and even poets: Abu Nuwas, Ibn al-Rumi, and Abu Firas al-Hamadani. But that’s not my problem. I don’t know if I’m gay or not.”
“Nothing is set in stone, everything is moving. No one knows what will become of you. We change every minute, every second. And if one day you stop having sex with men, if you make the choice to stay away from all the taboos, that will be something respectable.”
Youssef sets his luggage down in front of him and continues, “Be like the cloud; no one can decide for it where and when it will rain. Remember when, as teenagers, the grown-ups warned us about masturbating? They told us that if we did, we would get serious diseases—tuberculosis or skin cancer, and also that we would be impotent. Growing up, we found out that was nonsense! Our parents were brought up with the forbidden; they are ridiculous. They haven’t really lived their lives. But they have to let us live ours.”
These words have restored Mohammad’s confidence and dispelled his worries, as a storm drives the foam out of the sea. He doesn’t like goodbyes and doesn’t want to linger. Without a word, an agreement is formed between them: no matter what happens, we will continue this story, maintain this bond.
That night Mohammad remembers his first conversation with Youssef on Habibati.
Mohammad entered his nickname, Sweetie, and his age, twenty-five. About ten Internet users were online: Addict, Sexy, Chief, Maso, etc. Only Youssef used an actual first name. Mohammad sent him a private message and waited a long time. As he was about to get up to make a coffee, a beep stopped him.
“What are you looking for?”
“To meet somebody. You?”
“To get to know each other. And maybe more. Where are you?”
“I’ll be there in a few days.”
“Let me see a photo first.”
Youssef was fair-skinned, with a small beard and expressive brown eyes. Mohammad, in turn, posted a snapshot taken by Sarah when they first met at Damascus University, introduced by mutual friends. She had taken a series of selfies with their friends and finally asked Mohammad to sit on a bench looking toward the sun. She captured this moment without noticing that behind him, on a wall, calligraphy proclaimed: “You are our president forever, Bashar. We love you.”
He lies down in the dark and tries to sleep without thinking about what happened eartlier. Tomorrow he will see Sarah. He puts his pillow over his face. When his father was in jail, he did this when he wanted to cry so his mother wouldn’t hear him. He continues to do so today, no longer to muffle his sobs but to protect himself from a world he finds unjust.
From The Last Syrian, forthcoming 2024 from Seagull Books. Originally published in French as Le Dernier Syrien by Éditions Flammarion. By arrangement with the publishers. Copyright © 2020 by Éditions Flammarion. Translation copyright © 2023 by Ghada Mourad. All rights reserved.