Page last updated at 21:55 GMT, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Sexy secrets of the Syrian souk

Example of Syrian exotic lingerie from the collection of Rana Salam (Photo by Martin Asser)
Gaultier eat your heart out - an example of Syrian design for the boudoir

By Martin Asser
BBC News, Damascus

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.

They used to tell me at art school: 'Look within your culture'. So I looked and I was in for a big surprise
Rana Salam, author of Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie
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.

Culture shock

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.

Mahmoud demonstrates a remote-controlled knickers (Photo by Martin Asser)
Mahmoud demonstrates various styles, including remote-controlled knickers
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.


Inside Ali Nasser's lingerie workshop

Satisfaction guaranteed

What may be a new discovery to outsiders is that Islamic sexual mores are not only about veiling women, segregating the sexes and austerity.

On the contrary, sex is there to be enjoyed to the maximum by Muslims - as long as they are married Muslims - and there are numerous religious exhortations on the importance of foreplay, mutual titillation and satisfaction for both partners.

Souq Nasri - area selling women's underwear in Hamadiyeh Souk (Photo by Martin Asser)
Adventurous underwear is popular among conservative Muslim couples
Indeed, if a husband fails to satisfy his wife sexually - or vice versa - it is considered grounds for divorce under Islamic law.

In Damascus, I paid a call on one of Syria's most established lingerie makers, Ali Nasser, in his cramped workshop in the Sheikh Saad neighbourhood.

I'm amazed how fast a brand new red satin bra and g-string takes shape from his old sewing machine - his expert eye and skilful hands honed by more than 30 years in the business.

A red feather boa - chicken feathers, imported from China - is then snipped up and bits of it glued on to the satin, a canvas for the next stage, toy birds and fake flowers, and of course hidden electronic music devices.

In other cultural contexts, this might seem something like a den of smut and vice - but Mr Nasser, a devout Muslim, insists it's more a public service and religious duty.

"Our work is all about igniting the desires of a husband for his wife, so he doesn't go looking elsewhere. It's a good thing and there's nothing wrong it."

"There's no shame in religion," he adds, as another tiny, shiny g-string shoots out of Mr Nasser's sewing machine.

See previous articles in Martin Asser's series from Damascus

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