Manners and Customs of Modern Day Damascenes

Not sure where this article was eventually published, but it was written around 2002 as part of a travel guide of sorts.

To speak of the manners and customs of modern-day Damascenes is not an easy task, the people of Damascus are simply too varied to allow for making the necessary generalizations in this regard.

For in addition to the multiplicity of religions, sects and ethnic groups, and the multifarious levels of westernization prevalent everywhere, the Damascene stands as a staunch “rugged individualist” basking in, rather than hiding underneath, that amazing layer of traditions which he/she has to follow to keep the vestiges of a seven thousands years old culture going.

“Go about satisfying your needs secretively,” is a saying attributed to Prophet Muhammad that seems to have had its ultimate expression in the Damascene way(s) of life which, in its way, epitomizes the overall Syrian way(s) of life. The result is a multi-layered approach to life, and a multi-layered mode of self-expression that could easily befuddles the hapless western mind that should stray in this direction.

On the other hand, there is so much history and goodness in this city (and this country) that the overall experience will end up enriching the life of our hapless western visitor, which is why more adventurous westerners should make Damascus, and Syria, a definite part of their intended tour in the Middle East, in the face of all difficulties.

The Typical Damascene:

A typical Damascene, if such a person does exist, might say one thing while meaning and intending something quite different and feeling even differently than both what he says and intends, only to end up doing something completely other, completely unexpected, even by him/herself.

This does not mean, however, that the Damascenes are ill-intentioned, or ill-meaning. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The average Damascene is well-meaning, good-natured and generous to a fault, and that is one generalization that one can make about the people of Damascus (and Syria) with all confidence and certainty.

Now to the knitty-gritty.

At home: Segregation of men and women is common in conservative Muslim families.

As to how we choose to define the term “conservative” with regards to the Damascene way of life, well, let’s just say that this is something one has to work out for oneself once he/she is here.

Generally speaking though, a conservative Muslim family is one that insists on having its womenfolk wear some sort of a veil (there are many) and keep other traditional Islamic values including the segregation of men and women.

Moreover, a conservative family is one where the father is conservative. The children may not be, nonetheless, they, especially the womenfolk, usually have to maintain certain conservative practices, at least while at home, in order to satisfy their father’s demands.

Still, there are quite a few conservative families that allow for their womenfolk to intermingle with men, strange men, in and out of the family abode without too many restrictions, so long as they keep the veil. This seems to be driven mostly by economic necessity, that is the need for the women in the family to work and supplement the breadwinner’s meager income. But sometimes this could be a sign of trust between father and daughters (a rare occurrence in conservative families, and might run into opposition from the brothers).

If this sounds a bit (or a lot) confusing, remember this: it’s not impolite for a foreign visitor to inquire of his/her Syrian friends, before he/she should pay them a visit, as to what sort of arrangements their particular family practices with regards to the segregation of men and women, so he/she should know what to expect.

The segregation of men and women is not practiced by Christian and “liberal” Muslim families, which usually exhibit various degrees of westernization ranging from the maintenance of some form of an internal balance between western and eastern values, to an all out embrace of western values. There are instances in this regard when even the language used at home is not Arabic, but French or English (not mention Armenian or Kurd, but that’s a different issue really).

In these rather extreme cases, however, we are usually dealing with families some of whose members have spent extended periods of time in one or more western societies (or East European countries, in which case Russian or Bulgarian come to the fore), and they may indeed include non-Arab members (usually the wives).

A reminder: When invited to a party or a gathering by some Damascene friends, it’s always nice to bring something with you, at least the first time around, something like sweets, pasties, mixed nuts, or a bottle of some alcoholic beverage when you know it’s suitable (you can inquire about that ahead of time).

At Work:

Despite all the exceptions, and they are many, Damascenes (and Syrians) tend to exhibit a very laid-back attitude in the workplace. They are not lazy, they don’t hate work, but they go about it very casually. They, generally speaking, detest formalities and consider them signs of bossiness and arrogance.

Now this could, and usually does, lead to problems, especially when foreigners or returning emigrants find themselves in the same workplace with Damascenes (a usual situation in embassies and local branches of foreign companies).

In order to be able to deal with that, one has to understand the underlying causes behind this attitude, or, at least, some of them.

Let’s start by saying that the necessary case of cynicism that comes with a seven thousands years long history, though not exactly an unrelated factor, is not a sufficient explanation here. A couple of more direct and substantive explanations might help us have a greater grasp of this interesting “phenomenon.”

First, the Syrian government, like many of its counterparts in the developing world, employ in its various branches and sectors, more employees than she really needs. In fact, three to four times more. So, Public Sector employees often don’t have that much to do. The “well-connected” employees, don’t even bother to show up for work (except on paydays of course). A laid-back attitude in the workplace is a natural outcome of this situation.

Now, for those who are not familiar with the realities of this country, let’s rush to state quite clearly that advocating massive layoffs is not necessarily the right way, at this stage, for handling the situation for all its negative consequences. After all, there is no social security or unemployment benefits in the country, and unemployment is already a serious problem bordering on a national crisis. Over-employment in the Public Sector, therefore, serves as an unintended and indirect social security system.

The fact that the official salaries are usually insufficient to help the Syrian employees make ends meet makes it obligatory for many of them to hold second jobs, which results in long work days. This is a particularly poignant situation for a people who have always cherished family life. A laid-back attitude at the workplace becomes a must, therefore, a survival mechanism of sorts.

The condition of the state employees reflect that of the nation as a whole really. Syrian people have to struggle very hard to make ends meet these days, and this has become part and parcel of the contemporary Syrian way of life.

And nowhere is this more felt than in the good old Capital City that is  Damascus, with its overcrowding, its growing pollution problem and water shortages, as well as the endemic corruption of its institutions (but low violent crime rate, as we shall see).

Baksheesh, though the term itself has fallen out of use these days, is, naturally, still all the rage in this beleaguered city, it has long become an institution of sorts really, and a shrine to Kalbiyyah, the ancient Phoenician goddess of senility. Today, it survives as one of the Corrective Movement’s (the coup d’état that brought the al-Assad Faction of the Baath Party to power in Syria way back in 1970, the year that witnessed the rebirth of the Stone Age) most enduring achievements and a testament to continuing one-party rule, one-Stalinist-party rule.

In the street:

Walking (not to mention driving) through the Damascene streets, is a wonderful adventure by all measures. After all, there are seven thousands years of history walking (or driving) along with you (not to mention tailing you, waylaying you, or downright overrunning you, and running you over, and not too apologetically I am afraid).

Cars (history aside) often park on the sidewalks, thus crowding out the dreamy pedestrians and affording them the edifying opportunity to see things from a car’s point of view without having to abide by any of the laws and regulations governing the movement of vehicles.

Traffic lights mean nothing to pedestrians (not to mention the cars themselves, or traffic police), and they are quite likely to  attempt a street-crossing at any point that suits their fancy paying no attention to the hordes of speeding, or attempting, if not yearning, to speed, cars.

The cars themselves are a rather hapless mixture of the very old, dating from way back in the fifties (these can often be found in the Damascene Countryside, and are usually not allowed entry into the City Center during the day, not unless one is willing to make quite a few contributions to the enhancement of the traffic police standards of living) to the most recent and luxurious top-of-the-line cars reserved (by the law of affordability, since there is a 300% luxury tax on imported cars, and all cars in Syria are imported) to government officials, rich merchants, and their extended families.

(As for diplomats, they usually get their cars from the Free Zone, and are, naturally, exempt from the payment of taxes).

The cars are expensive in Syria yes. But that does not mean the public transportation system is any good. In fact, it is virtually non-existing.

In the absence of any serious attempt by the government at  addressing the situation, certain entrepreneurs, not too scrupulous by western standards (or any decent standards for that matter), saw a window of opportunity for themselves in the situation and decided to make a quick buck. In fact, quite a few millions of them quick bucks.

Using a loophole  in a law of investment that came out in the early nineties (Law number 10 of 1991 to be exact), they imported thousands upon thousands of microbuses and sold them all over Syria, with most, naturally, going to Damascus. Since then, microbuses have become a regular item of Syria’s ever-growing list of imports.

The introduction of the microbuses did indeed help meet (but not necessarily satisfy) a very serious need in Damascus (and elsewhere). But it also created many new problems of its own, such as: traffic jams, a substantial increase in the number of deadly traffic accidents, and, last but not least, air and noise pollution.

The problem of air pollution, to be fair, predates the importation  of microbuses, and has much to do with all these factories getting built in the Damascene Countryside in the face of all existing prohibitive laws in this regard (See note on baksheesh above). Still, the kerosene-operated microbuses served to exacerbate an already bad situation.  Hundreds of people die every year in Damascus of pollution related problems, thousands across Syria (as diplomats working in Damascus could verify, however, this is a problem for those already predisposed to or suffering from pulmonary problems).

Back to our courageous and adventurous pedestrians (not to mention tourists).

Unsurprisingly, they bear along all the contradictions of the Damascene society. There are veiled women (and veils come in all different shapes, sizes, colors, and strictness), and unveiled women – dressed conservatively, casually, or even daringly, depending on the neighborhood.

There are men with long beards and ‘abayahs, men dressed in a way suggesting a rural background, and men in jeans and shirts, with some even donning pigtails.

And there are all manners of peddlers all over the place, some with their stuff exhibited all over the sidewalks (between the parked cars, that is, and sometimes using the cars as show cases), some pushing small carts, and some, mostly vegetable peddlers, dragging their mules and donkeys, riding on their horse-drawn carts, or working from the back of a Suzuki van. Why not?

The amazing thing, though, is that, despite all this diversity of peoples, and despite the hard economic times, violent crime is a very rare occurrence in this city (and this country), and one, gender notwithstanding, can walk down the streets at any time, day or night, and still feel safe.

This is in part due to the omnipresence of security people in the streets. On the other hand, Arab culture, historically speaking, has shown itself to be incompatible with violent organized crime. Arabs have simply sought and developed different avenues for violence (throwing stones at Israeli soldiers in defense of one’s homeland and struggling for its independence not being one).

Nonviolent  crime, however, is quite prevalent so much so that not much imagination need be involved. Its occurrence is accepted you see (you really should review that remark on baksheesh above, if only for the hell of it, the literal hell of it), and its prevalence can be explained by the old Damascene saying: “The Protector is himself the Thief” (see what I mean?)

At the marketplace:

There is one major rule for dealing in the Damascene marketplace – haggling. If one does not haggle, with all the impunity in the world, one will, with all the certainty in the world, be screwed. That is part of the culture, part of the game, part of the fun and adventure of life in Damascus (“Come to us o ye heavy-laden tourists, we shall give you rest.”).

To haggle, then, is to live. For haggling regulates one’s relationship with his fellow citizen, on the one hand, and his relationship with God, on the other. Moreover, to haggle helps the seller get through his dreary day, and the buyer preserve as much as possible of his meager salary (not to mention dignity. Yeah really, let’s not mention that).

When it comes to foodstuffs, however, haggling ceases to be a necessity. Foodstuffs are not expensive in Syria, and once a stable relationship is established with a certain seller, or a peddler, the possibility of cheating is dramatically decreased. One simply does not cheat his regular customers (not unless one is a cretin of course, but then, cretins in Syria have long stopped peddling vegetables and are currently working for the government brown-nosing their way to glory).

Still, one has to take under consideration the fact that the prices of foodstuffs vary from one neighborhood to the other depending on affluence.

Relationships:

Relationships are difficult in this country, and not simply by western standards (you guys have it easy over there, and I should know, I have been there).

Western-style dating is almost non-existing. A girl cannot openly (except in very rare cases) have a boyfriend, nor vice versa. Yet men and women do date, and love-affairs are not exactly infrequent or innocent (innocence in a ten thousands years old civilization, and a seven thousands years old continuously inhabited city, is quite irrelevant really due to the multiplicity of its definitions).

Since the economic conditions are what they are today, marriages happen at an increasingly later stage. Men may not marry until their mid thirties and women until their mid twenties (this mainly applies to urban and suburban centers. In rural areas, teenage marriages, especially with regards to girls, are still quite common, economic considerations and pressures notwithstanding. In fact, virility and its symbols are the only things of note that can stand over there).

In these circumstances, traditional values can only seem to flourish on the surface of things, but beneath the surface, the complexity of this society, especially, when it comes to the matter of relationships, is simply unbelievable.

Indeed, this is a place where all sorts of rules exist, and all rules are simply broken (much in this regard will be left unsaid).

Despite all prohibitions and all difficulties (among them: finding a place where the couple can get some privacy – for there are no motels here, and young people stay in the parental home until they get married and often enough even afterwards), relationships do assume a sexual dimension, a rather restrained one for the most part (by western standards that is), but we’re talking sex nonetheless, and in a Middle Eastern Society.

For women are still expected to be virgins on their wedding nights, no matter how old they happen to be (assuming, of course, they are not divorced or widowed).

Nonetheless, going all the way is an option that is being increasingly taken these days, and though honor-killing is not exactly unheard of, especially in the countryside, abortions, though illegal, and hymen reconstitution surgery. A practice of dubious legality (and let’s not mention dignity again) are much more frequent.

Women bear the burden of relationships in this part of the world, and change is slow. Marriages are not exactly prearranged, but they are a family affair, and the whole process has a businesslike atmosphere. Emotions are not expected to be involved, not in the initial preparatory stage at least.

Even men and women with avowed “liberal’ convictions and attitudes, succumb, for the most part, to these powerful and deeply ingrained cultural attitudes about marriage. (Matters are made more complex by the fact that in such a paternalistic society and such economic hard times, men and women tend to exhibit teenager-ish qualities well into their thirties, and beyond).

Inter-sectarian marriages are becoming increasingly rare (though inter-sectarian love-affairs are not, and might even be on the rise if not all the rage).

By law a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim (the Islamic Law prohibits such an occurrence, and the Syrian government is making it very difficult for Christian men to convert to Islam these days to safeguard the existence of the Christian community). By social consensus, though not by Law, a Christian woman is not allowed to marry a Muslim.

But since the Law does not prohibit that last type (it being allowed in the Islamic Law), it does happen every now and then, with the Christian woman involved, and her family, paying the ultimate price of becoming personae non-grata in their communities.

The resulting “boycotts” are not always strictly enforced, but the psychological effects are, nonetheless, very real and very damaging.

Whenever a Christian man manages to bully or bribe his way into conversion in order to marry his Muslim girlfriend (which is the main, if not sole, reason for converting to Islam in Syria these days), he will be ostracized by his family.

The rage when it comes to marriage these days is to have one’s daughter marry a returning immigrant, who often returns strictly for this purpose and plans to leave the country as soon as the deal is done or initial agreement reached. Marriages to men from the Arabian Gulf come as a close second.

The weddings in both cases are usually quite lavish, and the divorce rates quite high. But then, lavishness and high divorce rates have always been undesired hallmarks of Syrian society.

Birthrates in Syria are very high (44 per thousand), and death rates relatively low (6 per thousand), the result being a population explosion that threatens the very fabric of this fragile society.

In Damascus, where the situation is exacerbated by a high immigration rate from the nearby rural communities as well as other Syrian provinces, the consequences of this are already too visible in the housing shortage, high rate of inflation and pollution, and the rising population density among other things.

The youth culture emerging out of all this, though, is quite interesting (in a macabre sense more likely). Syrian youths are not as educated as they used to be. The education system itself is imploding under the weight of increasing student density and the serious lack of good qualified teachers, not to mention the government continuing passive and rather indifferent attitude towards it all, despite its sharp rhetoric.

Still, the new generations exhibit high levels of westernization, and their capitalistic expectations are far from few. In a still constitutionally socialist country, this mixture could spell a lot of trouble for the future.

Hopefully, the characteristic Syrian aversion for violence, at least on the part of the inhabitants of the major urban centers, like Damascus, might still prove powerful enough to contain the population pressure for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government seriously needs to address some of the basic social and economic issues in the country, such as the state of the educational system, the high rate of unemployment, the deteriorating social and health services, the rehabilitation of the basic infrastructure…

and how about wriggling out some measure of respect for basic human rights in the process?

Now that will be something. And that will be a new and much desired addition to the contemporary manners and customs of modern day Damascenes (and Syrians).

And not a moment too soon.