Nour Shamaa grew up in a conservative, working-class neighborhood in Aleppo. He began attending classes on Islamic Sharia law at one of the local mosques when he was only five years old. During one of the lessons, he impulsively asked the Sheikh about the specific Quranic verse that spoke about the status of women as slaves. The Sheikh reprimanded him for the question, and Nour stopped attending the lessons as a result of that incident. He remained on good terms with religion, however, until the age of eleven.
“The older I got,” says Nour, “the more I discovered that life was far bigger than those religious ideas, and I felt that the universe was not necessarily created for the purpose suggested by religious teachings. That there was perhaps another truth we needed to be searching for.”
Nour was likewise not fond of the social structure in which he grew up, so much so, that he left school altogether during secondary education. He refused to cut his long hair down to the short length worn by all the other students, and was subsequently expelled. He did, however, successfully pass his exams and receive an independent secondary school certificate without attending classes.
Nour mentions his passion for the theater, one he’s had since childhood, and recalls that his first performance on stage was at the age of fourteen.
When he turned seventeen, Nour decided to move out and live independently from his family. He was an exception to the conservative society in which he grew up, young people never moved out of the family home until they were married.
Nour initially moved to the Midan neighborhood in Aleppo. He explains its more liberal atmosphere as due to it being a mainly Christian area. “I needed to find my own space,” explains Nour, “where I wouldn’t be subjected to any kind of pressure. I was looking for freedom, for financial and emotional independence, far from my family.”
Nour’s family at first refused the idea that he move out, but as time went on, they came to accept it.
“I remember the first time I went to visit my parents with my live-in girlfriend,” he recalls. “It was a great shock for them, and they regarded her with suspicion and anxiety. I didn’t know if we should stay or go, but it eventually it all went very well. My girlfriend ended up living at my parents’ house for two months, and they got so used to her presence and so fond of her they would ask after her health constantly after we moved out.”
Nour says that he wasn’t really sharing a home with his girlfriend at his new place, but would allow all his friends to stay over when they came to visit. He was also able to have his girlfriend stay over for long periods of time, the same as with any of his other friends.
This, however, was not an acceptable situation, even for the Christian neighborhood in which Nour lived, and he constantly found himself having to justify himself to his neighbors, explaining that his visitors were just friends and that there was nothing happening behind closed doors to be alarmed about .
“Some people understood and accepted my particular way of life,” says Nour, “while others refused the idea altogether. This forced me to have to lie sometimes about who my friends were. I would say that my girlfriend was a relative or something of the sort. It’s why I was forced to move several times, from one neighborhood to another in Aleppo.”
After Nour moved out of his family home, he was forced to become financially independent, leading him to seeking a succession of different jobs. For a while, he worked as a hakawati in one of the local cafes (a professional storyteller), and also performed in some theatrical pieces from time to time.
Nour knows a handful of unmarried couples who attempted to live together in Aleppo, but they were usually quite secretive about it in order to avoid conflict with the rest of society.
“Some couples I know ended up living together without intending to do so from the outset,” says Nour. “The man would be living alone and his girlfriend would eventually move in. Some people resorted to living together as well because it was difficult for them to get married given their different religions or sects, which made them unable to join their lives together in any official or traditional way. I know a young Muslim man who lived with his Christian girlfriend for thirteen years because their families and the surrounding society was opposed to their marriage. They eventually immigrated to Canada together and got married there.”
Nour struggled during that period, both financially and personally, fearing that he might be forced to return home and move back in with his family. But he refused to even entertain the idea of actually doing so, regardless of the difficulties he had to navigate.
“I left home because I had a different outlook on life,” explains Nour. “I had my own idea of how I wanted to live. I needed to validate and confirm that this was right, and a return home would have meant that I had failed and had been wrong all along.
“To live a different sort of life doesn’t necessarily mean cohabitating with a girlfriend,” explains Nour. “The idea is much bigger than that, and perhaps has more to do with rejecting the authority that society or the state might have over freedom of thought, their preconceived notions of right and wrong. I’m talking about a lifestyle that allows me to express myself with total freedom, far from any predetermined mold.”