Mira grew up in a poor neighborhood on the edge of Damascus, dubbed Dammar al-Balad (which tellingly translates into “the country was destroyed”). She never finished her schooling, having failed her elementary certification exams twice.
At fifteen, she fell in love with a man many years her senior who worked for their neighbor, a butcher. She began going out and meeting with him after he promised to marry her. Once, he tricked her into coming home with him and their relationship was discovered. Her family was furious, and they decided to marry her off quickly to diminish what they saw as a scandal and reputational smear. Mira found herself suddenly married to a widower who had three children.
Mira says her husband was a kind man, who spared no effort to keep her happy. His mother, however, criticized her constantly, and demanded that Mira pray and veil herself. One day, her mother-in-law found out about Mira’s past relationship with the butcher’s assistant and told her son about it. He had no choice but to divorce Mira immediately and she was sent back home to live with her parents.
Under pressure from her brother, Mira was soon married off again. After her father had died, her brother had become the authority she had to answer to, particularly since he was now taking care of their mother, who always deferred to his judgement. Mira’s second husband loved going out to nightclubs and cabarets, and worked to bring her into that scene. He finally convinced her to become a dancer in a Damascus nightclub.
“The first time I entered the cabaret,” says Mira, “it was with my husband, who had been insisting that I go there with him. That was the first night I ever got drunk. I remember being fascinated by what the dancers wore, dark blue outfits with gold embroidery. I told my husband I wanted to wear an outfit like that and dance for him at home. The next day he took me to the market and bought me a belly dancing outfit and I did put on a show for him.”
Mira kept going back to the cabaret upon her husband’s insistence, who also started asking her to dance for the group of his friends who would go out with them. If one of the men reached out to grope her as she danced, he would tell her to ignore it, saying the man was just drunk and not aware of what he was doing. One night, she went to one of these men’s houses with her husband, and her husband went out to buy some coffee leaving her alone with the man, who tried to assault her. She managed to get away and told her husband what had happened, but he didn’t seem too bothered by it. She realized then what sort of bad intentions her husband had and what he envisioned for her.
After that incident, Mira fled to her parent’s house, but found no support or help from her family. She returned to her husband’s house, though she was not at all happy about his behavior. He consistently forced her to accompany him to the cabaret or to the house of one of his friends. She tried running away to her aunt’s house, but was unable to stay for long because her aunt’s husband wouldn’t have it. With no choice left, Mira finally gave in to her husband’s demands. They decided she would work as a dancer at the cabaret but on condition that she not be forced to attend private gatherings held at people’s houses.
“At the beginning, I never danced on stage alone,” says Mira, “until I learned more and had enough experience to do so. I was afraid to face the audience, I was embarrassed, and then I found myself used to it all.”
The cabaret’s clientele, explains Mira, was made up of artists, powerful men and men with interests and investments in the country. The most powerful and important of them would have special private shows put on for them during the week, and they would demand a specific dancer and have particular instructions for what the show should consist of. Mira tried hard to make a name for herself among the powerful men, attempting to build ties with them in order to give herself a measure of protection should she ever be subject to legal harassment or problems or even arrest.
There were other women working with her at the cabaret, says Mira, “girls who had specific tasks, like circulating among the guests and having conversations with them. These were separate from the dancers, who had to put on an oriental dance show, where there was a principal dancer usually accompanied by two dancers in training. There were also some girls who would frequent the cabaret in order to meet men. If the girl managed to meet a well-paying client, or to bring new clients to the establishment, she was allowed to come back to the place. But if her presence brought no profit to the place, then she was banned from entering.”
Mira was arrested more than once and charged with prostitution. Each time, however, she was able to secure her release after a few hours thanks to the connections she had cultivated with men of influence.
After many long years of work, Mira wanted to have a child. Her husband, however, was vehemently opposed to this idea, which was why she was forced to have an abortion each time she fell pregnant. The last time she refused to go through with it and insisted on carrying the child to term, so she kept the pregnancy hidden from her husband until it was too late. She gave birth to a daughter.
“My daughter lived with me for the first year of her life,” says Mira. “After that, my husband sent her off to live with his parents in Deir Atiyah in Rif Dimashq province so she wouldn’t grow up around the seedy atmosphere in which we lived. I would visit her from time to time, and in the end I decided to bring her back to live with me, and that I would leave dancing altogether. I had managed to save quite a bit of money by that point that allowed us to start a whole new life. My husband refused and threatened to not let me see my daughter anymore, and so I threatened him back. I told him I would go to the law and use my connections with powerful men to get him arrested. He seemed to relent and asked me to go to Beirut to pick up what he said were some important personal effects. I agreed, and on my way back into Syria I was stopped at the border and accused of smuggling drugs. I was imprisoned for five years, and since then, I know nothing more about my daughter than the fact that she has gone to live abroad somewhere with my husband’s parents.”
Mira had worked as a dancer for ten years before she was imprisoned. “If I hadn’t been punished for a mistake I made when I was just a teenager,” she says, as she reflects on that period of her life, “maybe I wouldn’t have fallen on such hard times. I wish I had stayed with my first husband, who loved me truly, and that we had been able to live a normal life together.”