Sexy secrets of the Syrian souk
By Martin Asser, reporting from Damascus
Reprinted from BBC News Online
Just off the crowded central market in Old Damascus, a sales assistant called Mahmoud is giving me my first introduction into an unusual Syrian speciality – musical knickers.
The garments come in many different shapes and colours, and play little tunes – or other extraneous noises like telephone ringtones – all made by small electronic devices hidden in the lining.
Singing underwear isn’t the only item on sale at the “Fatin Shop for Ladies Indoor Clothing”, where Mahmoud is proudly showing off his product lines.
He’s got knickers with flashing fairy lights, others that glow in the dark, a bra-and-knickers set shaped like manicured women’s hands enveloping the wearer’s crotch and breasts.
In a slightly higher price range, he’s got remote-controlled bras and knickers, designed to spring open and fall to the floor with a clap of the hands or a press of a button.
Welcome to the no-frills world of Syrian lingerie – no frills, but plenty of tassels, and feathers, and zips, and bras which open like curtains, and…
There’s a whole street off the historic Hamadiyeh Souk selling this genre of clothing – all outfits manufactured in Syria, some that Madonna herself might blush to wear, all showing bawdy creativity and a wicked sense of humour.
Forthright displays of the some world’s kinkiest “leisure wear” have long been a feature of Syrian souks – though many tourists don’t notice the crotchless knickers and PVC French maid outfits among the more traditional inlaid backgammon sets and textiles.
It stems from the Syrian tradition for brides-to-be to be given a trousseau of exotic underwear – sometimes dozens of items – usually by girlfriends, aunties and cousins, to add spice to their wedding nights, honeymoons and beyond.
With a glint in his eye, Mahmoud, who’s barely out of school himself, says “some ladies keep coming back until their 30s”.
Now two London-based Arab women, Rana Salam and Malu Halasa, are shining a spotlight on this little-known local speciality, with a new book called The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie.
“They used to tell me at art school: ‘Look within your culture’. So I looked and I was in for a big surprise,” graphic designer Ms Salam told me at the launch in London last month.
“The point of the book is to go beyond politics, to break stereotypes and celebrate Middle Eastern sexuality and pleasure. Call it kitsch, call it whatever you like, but I think this attire is superb, spontaneous, pure art.”
On display at the launch party are a few of the most elaborate (but silent) designs, framed on the wall as works of art, including the “hands” bikini.
“I mean, Jean Paul Gaultier eat your heart out,” she says pointing to another exhibit, a bright red wire spiral bra, with white roses over the nipple area and covered in a host of plastic butterflies.