Dancing in Damascus

Katharina Anetzberger

Based on the experiences and incidents she collected during her field studies in Syria, anthropologist Nancy Lindisfarne wrote Dancing in Damascus, a collection of short stories, in the late 1980s. [This review first appeared in German here in the Austrian socialist magazine Linkswende.]

Nancy Lindisfarne actually wanted to use the visit to a fellow student in the Syrian capital Damascus as an introduction to studies on the working class there. By chance, she got caught in the middle of the marriage policy of a wavering middle class, which fluctuated between tradition and “modernization” according to the Western model. In nine short stories, she describes the everyday life of a society under dictatorship, tells of the search for identity, gender roles, and the struggles for a self-determined life.

Political resistance in irony

At the wheel of a cab, the first-person narrator takes a man to Damascus. During the conversation it turns out that the man is returning home to the family after years in prison. Politically, he explains succinctly. That’s all the explanation needed in a country that is under surveillance at every turn by portraits of the dictator – the father of the current Assad.

It is the best story in Dancing in Damascus, the author says in a talk with Linkswende. She gave it to the friend who told her this incident to read, and he was astonished because he had been told something similar himself. “Yes!” exclaims Lindisfarne. Perfectly woven fiction that reminds the originator of his own story.

Another story, “Not One of Us,” has a mother tearfully tell of the daughter who went to study in the U.S., put on the veil and turned to Islam, namely to reclaim women’s rights. To a “Western” readership, surrounded by sexist headscarf debates and images of oppressed women among Islamist terrorists, the scene must seem somehow twisted. Lindisfarne laughs. Assad’s regime wants to be secular. Women’s headscarves are torn off, men’s beards are violently shaved off. Although women can walk through the city alone, because a henchman of Assad is on the spot at every sound, their eyes are also everywhere.

Cinemas, bars, cafés are closed. For women in particular, social life is limited to family celebrations. And here especially weddings. With a headscarf, however, a woman could travel around unhindered under the pretext of attending a religious meeting. Not even Assad dared to ban them. One is never immune to popular uprisings. So it was a kind of resistance. It allowed not only freedoms, but also to cheat the regime.

The stories are not only based on political explosiveness, but also on an ironic view. The little things that people do to counter the oppression in their everyday lives. A mother who was never allowed to be anything else teams up with her widowed neighbour. They make jokes about the man who is now only like a turtle in bed, and divert so much from the household money, intended for the meals of the heads of the household, that they can buy their own TV. Freedom is when you can choose the program yourself!

The Arabic translation of Dancing in Damascus

The pirate’s socks

The Pirate’s Socks, Lindisfarne calls her epilogue. It was the name of a store she drove past with her friend. For the two, he became the epitome of the absurdity they felt in the face of Syrian society. A situation full of comedy in the midst of a depressing reality. There are several reasons why the anthropologist leaves the field of scientific treatise for the aberrations of fiction. First, pirate socks are a hard sell academically.

And being allowed to accompany people on such a personal level demands that they are not only presented as research objects. The meticulous analysis should reach an audience outside academia. The book was also first published in Arabic in Syria. Only later in English. A small triumph against the Eurocentric norm.

The stories were published in consultation with their protagonists. One even flew out of the collection – it is not always pleasant to have one’s own world presented. “I didn’t know they hated me so much,” was another reaction from a woman close to the regime. She took it with humour and the story stayed. Lindisfarne also reflects on her own rejection of the owning and ruling class, the inner conflicts of moving within the hated elite, somehow belonging, finding friendships within it, and yet wanting to overthrow that class. It’s a book full of contradictions. Because our society is full of them too.


Fresh Apricots – a prison story from Dancing in Damascus

Lovely Tits – a Valentine’s day story from Dancing in Damascus

Night of Power – a Ramadan story from Dancing in Damascus

Rida Hus-Hus – Holding onto beauty under the Assad regime

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