Syrians are shacking up, say official media

More and more Syrians are choosing to live together without being married. It is not so much the phenomenon that is surprising as the fact that the official Syrian media are openly discussing it.
By ABDALLAH ALI in Damascus
syria concubinage
Detail of a painting by Rima Salamoun.

DAMASCUS, Jan. 22, 2008 (MENASSAT.COM) – Cohabitation is a concept that most Syrians are only familiar with in movies from the West, where it is normal for a man and a woman to live together under one roof without being married. Until recently, the average Syrian citizen had never even read the word cohabitation except in the subtitles of those same movies. But last summer, the Syrian newspapers took a huge step by suddenly taking the concept out of the imaginary world of the movies into the reality of print.

When the first report about cohabitation was published in al-Thawra newspaper in June, the Syrian public was shocked in more ways than one. First, by seeing the word in print; second, by seeing it used in an important official newspaper; and third, by discovering that this phenomenon existed not only in the movies but in their own society as well.

Cohabitation, it seems, is widespread in Syria, although it still doesn't show its face for fear of the reaction of a society that can be merciless to anyone seen as rejecting its traditions. One need look no further than the "honor killings" to see how merciless Syrian society can be; they are a phenomenon that has been spreading in some parts of Syria, thanks to the authorities condoning them and the lack of effective legislation to put a stop to them.

In this light, it is all the more amazing to see a newspaper like al-Thawra talk about cohabitation openly. Especially since the author of the article, Mohamad Dahnoun, didn't limit himself to talk about the phenomenon in general terms, but actively sought out and interviewed young people who are living together outside marriage.

Catherine thinks cohabitation is a reflection of the conflict between social customs and sexual needs. As she sees it, cohabitation is the victory of the sexual needs.

To Khaled and his partner Nagham, cohabitation is an introduction to marriage. "We don’t want to feel that marriage is a price we have to pay just because we want to live together," says Nagham

As for Marah and Samer, they consider cohabitation merley as a means to satisfy their sexual urges. "We all have our sexual needs. We all look to satisfy those needs, with different means," says Marah.

The exact opposite is true with Rola and Hussein, who are living together but without having sexual relations. "living together without sexual relations makes for a healthy and balanced relation", says Rola.

About a month after the article was published, al-Thawra made the unusual step of publishing a second article explaining why it had decided to publish the report in the first place.

"What is important here", it said, "is that this subject concerns a wide section of our society. We should remember that our society is very young. We should remember the economical problems it is facing, and which will result in socially unaccepted phenomena, whether we like them or not, the least of which could be customary marriage, as happened in Egypt. When these social issues arise among youths and we want to solve them, we can not keep quiet."

Another newspaper, Tishrin, took up the subject too, discussing cohabitation as one of the reasons for the decline in the number of marriages, as well as a result of the failing economy.

The writer of the report, Zouhour Kayali, focused on the negative consequences of cohabitation. She quoted a female student saying, "Living together is a way to satisfy the sexual needs and has negative psychological effects on the girl, who will lose her self-respect and the respect of others and of society at large. These relations could also spread many unknown diseases, not to mention AIDS."

Strangely, given the religious and social sensitivity of the issue, none of the religious leaders in Syria responded to the articles, or offered to give the public their view on cohabitation.

Is their silence a sign of acceptance, or a fear of facing a battle?

In any case, the fact that it was the official newspapers that raised the issue seems to point ot a change in the state-run media in dealing with sensitive social and religious topics. Or at least, we hope so.