I looked over my shoulder and there he was again. I first noticed this suspicious looking man not long after I’d left my hostel. He was dressed all in black, save for a cream coloured jacket giving him a look of a 70’s cop. The image was completed with a retro haircut and a pair of Aviators.
I was exploring the town of Hama, where I was staying for five nights in the middle of my tour of Syria. My first impressions of the place were good. The people who I’d met so far in the shops, cafes and the hostel were affable and welcoming. It was even possible to buy a chip butty! Well, almost, it was a chip pitta but just as tasty and comforting as the butties back at home. The town itself was lively and bustling and the thing that I was enjoying most about being in Hama was the people watching. However, the tables seemed to have turned on me. There is a large degree of trust in this country that makes me feel safe. Most days. However today is different as I feel intimidated for the first time here.
I stepped into a white tiled shop selling beautifully hand-crafted sweetmeats and pastries. The shop was small and taken up mostly by a long glass counter that encased most of the sweet treats in rows of silver trays. My stalker was nowhere to be seen outside so I got down to the business of purchasing some sugar coated delights for snacking on later.
As I stepped out of the syrup and honey scented shop I froze. There across the busy road was the stalker watching me. He started walking towards me but was stopped by the barrier of traffic. I hurried up the street and turned the corner onto another shop-lined road. School children who had finished their lessons for the day were flocking in and out of the shops like bees around a hive. Their hands were filled with sticky sweets and lollipops. Halfway up the street I looked back and saw him struggling to get past the excitable children with their sweet tacky hands. The road veered to the left slightly which allowed me to be briefly out of sight and I dived into the first shop I saw where I got quite a shock…
At first I thought I’d walked into some kind of boutique for drag queens. The shop was covered from floor to ceiling in the most lurid underwear I’d ever seen. Surrounding me were feathers and fluff, sparkling sequins, stretchy spandex, and lashings of leather and lace. There were tassels, chains, butterflies and beads. Fluorescent undies jostled for space with animal prints, polka dots and snake skin. It was horrific but strangely fascinating. I stared open mouthed at the array of unmentionables.
The shop was full of women all dressed in black abayas. They were laughing and giggling between themselves and each one had an armful of garish garments. One of the groups of women eyed me up and down and they proceeded to whisper amongst themselves, never taking their eyes off of me. I suddenly felt extremely under-dressed in my navy kaftan and blue flared jeans. I looked down at the ground and saw that they were all wearing high heels. My own feet were clad in scruffy white trainers.
The male shopkeeper seemed a little overwhelmed by the amount of customers and had a stressed look about him. He puffed on a cigarette whilst adding up each transaction on his calculator, dropping ash all over the counter. I found it somewhat amusing that a man should be working in such a place but he seemed at ease with the racy lingerie surrounding him. Unlike myself.
I’d never thought of myself as a prude before but I found myself looking at some of the stock with a disapproving eye. One particular set that irritated me was a string bra that had two furry red monster faces to cover each breast and a matching g-string. What kind of woman would buy this? And equally what sort of man gets turned on seeing his partner’s modesty covered by three growling faces?
While the women were busy paying, I looked out of the window through a gap in the gussets. I saw the stalker across the street. He was looking backwards and forwards and it was clear that he’d lost me. He stomped up the street with a defeated look on his face and finally I breathed a sigh of relief and left the shop unsurprisingly empty handed.
I retraced my steps back to the hostel and thought about the stalker. Some travellers that I’d met in Damascus had told me that the secret police follow tourists around the country to ‘check up on them’. At the time I thought this was far-fetched but I began to wonder if that man was in fact a member of the secret police spying on me. But what could possibly be so interesting about my movements?
Later that day I went to check out the old part of town which consisted of one alleyway starting at the old curiosity shop ‘Oriental Batman’ and weaving its way down alongside the river. As I walked through the winding tunnel-like streets with a couple of girls from the hostel, I learnt from them that the rest of the old town had been destroyed in a horrific massacre back in 1982 inflicted by Syria’s own government where thousands of civilians perished. It was a response to an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the conservative town. The paths were oppressive, dark and tinged with irreversible sadness and we walked them in silence.
Learning this information made me look at Hama differently. I started to see the shadows worn on every face. It also made me think about the lingerie shop I’d found myself in earlier. The carnival atmosphere of the underwear now seemed to me to be a form of escapism for couples behind closed doors. It was their way of having fun and letting go.