A refugee hostel opened its doors a few weeks ago less than 100 meters from the editorial offices of ZEIT ONLINE, a sister publication of Handelsblatt Global Edition.
We went there and asked whether someone would like to talk to us about men and women, and their relationship to each other. After the horrific events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, when hundreds of assaults on women were carried out by men described as being North African or Arab, almost everyone is talking about Arab men, but almost no one is talking to them.
Four men immediately agreed to talk to us. They are all from Syria and arrived in Germany recently. They are very different. Mohammad F. is 60, a carpenter, married and has 12 children. Mamoun H. is 32, an energy engineer and single. And Kurdish brothers Ammar and Mohammed B., 22 and 21, would be university students now if there were no war. They are accompanied by Hassan, a security official from the refugee hostel, who serves as their interpreter.
ZEIT ONLINE: We would like to talk to you about women. Did you hear what happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve?
Only Mamoun H. nods. The others shake their heads. We tell them what we know at this point.
ZEIT ONLINE: Mamoun, what did you think when you heard about it?
Mamoun H.: I was shocked, mostly because the perpetrators were apparently Arab Muslims. They should be treated in the manner required by German law.
Ammar B.: Harsh penalties, just like in our country. A man once hugged and kissed a female tourist, against her will, on the street in Damascus. He was sent to prison for six months.
ZEIT ONLINE: Were sexual assaults on women common in Syria?
Mamoun: No, not really. Syria was a very respectful society before the war.
Mohammad F.: I cannot imagine that they were Syrians. All the refugees know how grateful they must be to Germany. Besides, the Koran forbids violence against women.
ZEIT ONLINE: Most of the suspects are men from Muslim countries, and some of them are allegedly Syrian.
Mohammad F.: We too have aggressive people, of course. But they are truly not interested in religion. Instead, they simply have a bad character. In my city, people like this used to hassle women who weren’t wearing the Niqab. But three-quarters of residents are not like them.
Mamoun: Before we had the Islamic State (IS), the treatment of women in my town near Aleppo was okay. But now they’re not allowed to make any decisions on their own anymore. They have to stay at home. Even if they urgently need a doctor, they can only go if a man drives them.
ZEIT ONLINE: What was it like before IS?
Mamoun: There were people who interpreted our religion to mean that a woman is not permitted to be anything but a wife. But aside from those few, there was respect between men and women.
ZEIT ONLINE: And what about you, Ammar and Mohammad?
Ammar: We have the opposite problem in our Kurdish community: women are too tough on the men (he laughs). Half of the Kurdish fighters are women. They don’t have to wear a Niqab, either. Women have all freedoms.
ZEIT ONLINE: Since Cologne, the image of Muslim men has deteriorated in Germany. In a nutshell, the men decide and the women have no say. For many people, this means that Muslim men cannot handle empowered women.
Ammar: Islam should give men and women freedom and should not limit them. We treat women almost the same as they are treated in Europe.
ZEIT ONLINE: Why almost?
Ammar: A woman is only permitted to sleep with her husband, of course. In Europe, some young women are already having sex at 15. That violates our rules.
ZEIT ONLINE: In Germany, when your daughters turn 18, they have the right, just like your sons, to decide where they want to live and go to school, and who they want as a partner. Are you prepared for that?
Mamoun: There are certainly rules and limits. I would not treat them like children when it comes to choosing a partner, but I would give them my opinion. Most of all, they would have to marry if they wanted to have sex. And why not, if they’re in love?
ZEIT ONLINE: Because in Germany it is up to every person to decide when and who he or she wants to marry.
Mamoun: My daughter would have to understand that if she has sex outside of marriage, it affects the entire family.
ZEIT ONLINE: Mohammad, what’s your opinion? What if one of your daughters decided to live with a man without being married?
Mohammad F.: No, not a chance.
ZEIT ONLINE: That doesn’t sound like freedom to me. If your daughter went to the authorities, you would run into difficulties.
Mohammad F.: If I’m truly a good father, she will respect our religion. I’m not asking much. When I was married 40 years ago, I hadn’t even met my wife before the wedding.
ZEIT ONLINE: How could you know whether she was the right one for the rest of your life?
Mohammad F.: My sister and my mother got to know her first. They assured me that she was very nice and very attractive. Not too thin, not too fat.
Mahmud: But that hardly happens anymore nowadays.
Mohammad F.: Yes, it’s become rare compared to ten years ago. Young people are educated, and they have the Internet and television. Nowadays they want to decide for themselves. And there aren’t that many rules anymore that my daughters have to obey, but I do insist on one rule: no sex before marriage.
ZEIT ONLINE: What other rules are there?
Mohammad F.: Alcohol is also forbidden.
ZEIT ONLINE: Could your daughter work in any job she wanted?
Mohammad F.: Yes, as long as it’s a good job and doesn’t violate religion and the law. So nothing to do with alcohol and sex.
ZEIT ONLINE: So could she also join the police force? Or the army?
Mohammad F.: I wouldn’t have a problem with that. There are many women in the armed forces in Syria. That would be a very good profession for my daughters.
ZEIT ONLINE: What about becoming a politician?
Mohammad F.: Yes, that too. Why not?
Angela Merkel. The name of the German chancellor is mentioned repeatedly. All four men worship her. Ammar calls her “Mama Merkel.” None of them knows the names of any other German politicians.
ZEIT ONLINE: We’ve talked about women. What, in your opinion, makes a good man?
Ammar: The same rules apply to men as to women. No alcohol, no sex before marriage. And they should do everything for their family.
Mohammad F.: Respect, honesty, respect for the law and tradition. That he serves as a mirror for his partner. And whether he is rich or poor, he must accept his situation and improve it through hard work.
Mamoun: Most of all, a man must have goals. No one likes men without goals. They live on other people’s money and don’t accept the rules.
ZEIT ONLINE: You view men primarily as breadwinners.
Mohammad F.: Yes, but it’s becoming more and more difficult to perform this role in Syria. First, at 20, you have to serve in the army. If you’ve survived that, you have to find housing and a profession, so that you can feed a family. That isn’t so easy these days. Five of my children are men. I had to help all of them with money.
ZEIT ONLINE: What do young, unemployed men do in Syria? In Europe, the young and unemployed are especially prone to crime.
Mohammad F.: People who are unemployed help out in the family. Many also go to the mosque.
ZEIT ONLINE: No gangs, no alcohol?
Mohammad F.: No. My hometown has 10,000 inhabitants, who are all members of five large families. Everyone knows everyone else. If a young person drinks or behaves badly there, his father quickly finds out about it.
ZEIT ONLINE: Is it possible that young refugees, who have escaped the control of their family, are tempted to break the rules here?
Ammar: I don’t think so. You don’t simply forget how you were raised. We, at any rate, haven’t started smoking, drinking or behaving badly now that we’re no longer with our parents.
ZEIT ONLINE: Mohammad, you haven’t said anything yet. Where will you find your wife?
Mohammad B.: I had a girlfriend in Damascus.
ZEIT ONLINE: And how did you meet her?
Mohammad B.: She was the best friend of the girlfriend of a friend of mine.
ZEIT ONLINE: What did you do together?
Mohammad B.: We went to the movies together, and sometimes we also went to restaurants or a café. Just no sex.
ZEIT ONLINE: But kissing, was that okay?
They all laugh. Mohammad smiles.
Mohammad B.: Of course. Kissing is okay.
The emergency shelter for refugees was set up in an empty hotel next to the editorial offices in December. The men say that they are very pleased with their accommodation and treatment in Germany. They have only one request: Do we have anything for them to do? Their days are extremely boring, they say.
ZEIT ONLINE: Your first German summer is still ahead. Do you have an idea of what kinds of things women will be wearing?
Mamoun: Yes, I’ve seen it before. I looked away immediately. (He places his hands over his face, like blinders. The other men laugh.)
ZEIT ONLINE: How will you deal with the fact that many women show a lot of their skin?
Ammar: It’s very easy: Women can do whatever they want. This is freedom, and it’s written in the German laws.
ZEIT ONLINE: Do you feel the same way, Mohammad?
Mohammad F.: Yes. I am grateful to be here. But in some areas the Europeans are truly different from us.
ZEIT ONLINE: What do you mean?
Mohammad F.: Let me tell you a little story: There were a few Russians living in my hometown, Daraa. One day one of the women sat down at the lake to bathe. She was dressed like one of us. Perhaps she liked local customs. The difference was that while bathing she lifted her dress up, so that her legs were visible. A man who saw this apparently thought it was an invitation to have sex with her. He began to harass her. Luckily some other men quickly overpowered him.
ZEIT ONLINE: What happened then?
Mohammad F.: The Russian woman’s husband showed up. He was furious, of course, and he shouted at the man. But I was surprised by what he was shouting. “If you want to have sex, you have to ask her. And if she says yes, good for you. But you can’t force her.” That’s when I thought: For Europeans, sex is always acceptable as long as there is consensus. Even if it’s adulterous.
ZEIT ONLINE: That scene is a precise description of the fear that many in Germany now associate with Arab men: They see a woman’s bare legs and want to rape her.
Mohammad F.: Sexually harassing women is completely unacceptable. Only men who were not raised properly do that sort of thing.
ZEIT ONLINE: But what if there are many of them?
Mohammad F.: The Germans shouldn’t worry about it. There is Internet and television in Syria, and people knew exactly what to expect in Germany before they left the country.
Ammar: People are thinking of completely different things than sex and clothing. I’m not interested, at any rate. I have no interest whatsoever in women. I want to become normal again. I don’t want to think about gunfire and bombers anymore. It’ll probably take years.
Mamoun: I feel the same way. I lost my house, my profession and my car. I can’t forget what happened in Syria – and how warmly we were welcomed here. Now I’m thankful for the opportunity to be here.
This article first appeared on ZEIT ONLINE, the website of the Die Zeit weekly. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org.