Visiting Syria in 2004, Brad Hoff, an ex-Marine from Texas, went looking for cheap beer and chanced upon a bar where – to his surprise – most of the customers were gay.
The existence of such a bar in Damascus, Hoff writes after visiting it again recently, is "symbolic of the nuance and contradictions" of Syria under the Assads. To quote the headline of his article for The Canary website, "This gay bar in Damascus shows us the Syria that western media outlets ignore".
Interesting as it might be to know that nightlife still goes on in Damascus under the shadow of war, it isn't altogether surprising. Sex and alcohol offer temporary escape from the surrounding horror and partying like there's no tomorrow has a certain logic when there may actually be no tomorrow.
That isn't the point of Hoff's article, though. Of the numerous bars in Damascus that survive inside the city's security bubble he chose to focus on a gay one. Its gayness, he asks us to believe, reflects the "social openness and tolerance" of Syria under Baathist rule – something that in pre-war times "seemed without parallel anywhere else in the Middle East".
According to Hoff, this is one of the "nuances" of Assad's Syria which he self-righteously accuses "western media" of ignoring – though he rather undermines that claim by citing two US-published articles (a long one in Harper's Magazine and another at Al-Monitor) discussing gay Syrians and the war. From a quick check on Google, that's more than has appeared in non-western media.
It's true, though, that no western media reports during the war have mentioned Karnak, the gay bar that Hoff writes about – for very good reasons that will become clear in a moment.
But is the "nuance" of a gay bar any reason to view the Assad regime differently, as Hoff's article implies? Should we revise our view of Hitler because he cared about the welfare of animals? Or of Saddam Husein who, to quote Donald Trump, was "so good" at killing terrorists?
Let's not forget that when Bashar al-Assad inherited the presidency from his father, the Syrian regime already had a long and murderous history and when the crunch came in 2011 it was willing to see several hundred thousand people dead, millions uprooted from their homes and large tracts of the country laid waste – all for the sake of clinging on to power. A gay bar here and there doesn't change that. Nor does the fact that the Assads tried to look more civilised by providing Damascus with a nice new opera house bearing the family's name.
Hoff's article is a feeble attempt to rehabilitate the Syrian regime through pinkwashing – a ploy much used by Israel's propagandists. In the Israeli context, pinkwashing highlights the rights afforded to LGBT Israelis as a way of distracting attention from the lack of rights for Palestinians. Obnoxious as it might be, though, Israeli pinkwashing is at least rooted in fact: gay sex is legal in Israel, there's a law against discrimination based on sexuality and same-sex marriage is allowed.
None of that applies to Syria, where gay sex is illegal and can result in a three-year jail sentence. Nor should gay bars be interpreted as the hallmark of a tolerant regime. If you look hard enough, gay meeting places can be found all over the Middle East, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, and most of the time the authorities turn a blind eye. So long as they don't attract public attention they can be safely ignored because they pose no threat to the regime's survival.
Odd as it may seem, gay Iraqis were also a good deal safer under Saddam Hussein than they are in the present chaos, but that wasn't because Saddam had any particular concern for their rights.
Even though laws against "unnatural" sex are not usually enforced very vigorously in Arab countries, their existence has an important effect on social attitudes, legitimising prejudice and discrimination and often forcing gay people into secrecy. Syria under the Assads is no exception to this.
A few years ago in Damascus, I was looking for gay Syrians to interview and asked someone with theatrical connections if he knew any. Yes, he replied – he knew plenty but they couldn't be approached for interview because he wasn't supposed to know they were gay.
I later found Ghaith (not his real name), a young Syrian who, realising he was gay, had gone to see a psychiatrist about it without telling his parents. But the psychiatrist's reaction was not what he expected: "We almost had a fight," Ghaith recalled.
"He said: 'You're the garbage of the country, you shouldn't be alive and if you want to live, don't live here. Just find a visa and leave Syria and don't ever come back'."
Not content with that, the psychiatrist phoned his family to tell them about it. "When I arrived home there were all these people in the house. My mum was crying, my sister was crying – I thought somebody had died or something."
Of course, that's just the experience of one individual and Hoff can still point to members of the Damascus gay community happily drinking in the Karnak bar. Or can he?
The Canary has since posted a correction at the top of Hoff's article which says the Karnak is no longer a gay bar, and hasn't been a gay bar since 2011. OOPS!