A peek into a nation's underwear drawers can be very telling. Rustling around the chests in the court of Catherine de Medici, a historian could have deduced that the smaller the waist of a woman's iron corset, the greater the status of its owner.
As for the Victorians, if urban myth is to be believed, even the pianos had their own petticoats. But what of Syria? One would not expect much imagination in the undies department. This was, after all, a country where, 40 years ago, the bra could not be bought.
However, as any tourist who has walked through the Souk-el-Hamidiyeh in Damascus will report, Syrian lingerie is a marvel of the modern world. The country may be conservative but the underwear stalls are not. They are heaving with mannequins' bosoms barely covered by fishnet negligees, bikini sets adorned with fake flowers and singing birds, and G-strings with plastic mobile phones flimsily attached. Piled high are boxes of edible underwear in flavours including strawberry and mango, and concoctions of wire and plastic that might make a Soho sex shop owner blush.
Intrigued by the disparity between a nation of demurely dressed women and this garish underwear, designer Rana Salam and writer Malu Halasa set out to chronicle these magnificent items of erotic kitsch and discover their provenance.
The interviews, photoessays and contributions from artists and writers in The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie take the story from the workshop through the stall-holders to the marital bedroom. On the surface the bizarre lingerie, and the detached and shameless way in which it is sold, may seem like symbols of sexual liberation. That is not quite the case. The trade in this lingerie relies on working class Muslim culture, in which women are dependent, to varying degrees, on their husbands to set the rules. The threat of abandonment hangs heavily over many of the women who were interviewed in the Secret Life. Mothers buy dozens of items for their daughters' trousseaux, and wives buy it to keep their husbands interested, lest they take to visiting prostitutes or, worse still, taking a second wife.
The article that gets closest to the women is a journal by the Canadian filmmaker Noura Kevorkian, who had been to Syria to make a documentary about Islamic women. She befriended a group of women headed up by Umm Fathi, a conservative, 45 year-old Islamic woman. Her two grown-up daughters mooched around the house, both divorced. One of them believed that it was her own fault for not keeping her husband entertained. The other had developed a markedly Western cynicism about the roles of men in all of their lives. Frank discussions about marriage and sex follow from voices that are rarely heard.
However, this not a heavy book about female oppression. It casts a light into some private areas, but also picks up on the exuberance of Syrian sexual culture. There are bawdy jokes, endless pictures of the lingerie and anecdotes. There's little pornographic about it, and Syrian men come across as sexually naive, and more interested in play.
One interviewee explains how her cleaner told her that she owned the G-string with the mobile phone attached. When she wanted to summon her husband to the bedroom, she would sit on the bed in nothing but the knickers and call him: "Dring, dring, dring, are you going to answer the phone?"
By Malu Halasa & Rana Salam