POPULATION: Over 13 million
LANGUAGE: Arabic (official); French; English
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni, Alawi); Christianity; Druze; Judaism; Baha'i
1 • INTRODUCTION
Syrians live in the Syrian Arab Republic, more commonly known as Syria. It is a land that has been inhabited for more than 7,000 years. The fertile land of Syria lies at the crossroads of great trade routes between the East and West. It is also the site of many holy places in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Because of these advantages, it has been invaded, conquered, and occupied by many different peoples over its long history. These groups include the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, European Crusaders, Mongols from Central Asia, Turks, British, and French.
In 1946, the French gave up control over Syria, and the Syrian Arab Republic was created.
2 • LOCATION
The Syrian Arab Republic is a small country located on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. With a total area of 71,500 square mi1es (85,180 square kilometers), Syria is slightly larger than the state of North Dakota. Two-thirds of Syria is desert; the other third is part of the Fertile Crescent along the Mediterranean coast. About 80 percent of the population lives in that fertile region.
The total population of Syria is a little over 13 million. Half the people live in cities, 4 million in Damascus alone.
3 • LANGUAGE
Arabic is the official language of the Syrian Arab Republic and the language spoken by nearly all Syrians. French is the second-most-common language. However, it has started to be rivaled by English.
Oddly, Syrians do not use standard Arabic numerals. Instead they use numerals that came to them from India. "Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn . Other common greetings are As-salam alaykum (Peace be with you), with the reply of Walaykum assalam (and to you peace). Maassalama means "goodbye." "Thank you" is Shukran, and "You're welcome" is Afwan . "Yes" is naam, and "no" is laa . The numbers one to ten in Arabic are: wahad, ithnayn, thalatha, arbaa, khamsa, sita, saba, thamanya, tisa, and ashara .
Ice cream is called booza, and fruity soft drinks are known as gazooza . All other soft drinks are called cola.
At least half of Syria's men and boys are named Muhammad. (They often use their middle names to distinguish themselves from each other).
4 • FOLKLORE
Syrians are great believers in fate and frequently resign themselves to it. They also love proverbs. The following are two examples: "One who has no good for his family has no good for anyone," and "Where there are no people, there is Hell."
One of Syria's heroes is Queen Zenobia of the ancient city of Palmyra who took control in AD 267 when her husband and her son were both assassinated. Queen Zenobia led her troops in battle against the Romans. When a Syrian man tells a woman that she is incapable of doing something, she often retorts, "What about our Queen Zenobia?" This is supposed to remind him of a woman's ability to meet a great challenge.
5 • RELIGION
The majority religion in Syria is Islam: 85 percent of the population is Muslim (most are of the Sunni sect, the rest are Alawi). Other groups include Christians (mostly Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox), Druze, Jews, Baha'is, and others.
The Islamic religion has five "pillars," or practices, that must be observed by all Muslims: (1) praying five times a day; (2) giving alms, or zakat, to the poor; (3) fasting during the month of Ramadan; (4) making the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca; and (5) reciting the shahada (ashhadu an la illah ila Allah wa ashhadu in Muhammadu rasul Allah ), which means "I witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah."
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
Muslim holidays, Christmas and Easter (both the Western and Orthodox dates), and the Western New Year (January 1) are official days off in Syria. There are also many political holidays, celebrated with fireworks, parades, military air shows, and speeches. Some of these are Union Day (February 22), Revolution Day/Women's Day (March 8), Arab League Day (March 22), Evacuation Day (commemorating Syrian independence, April 17), and Martyr's Day (May 6).
Most businesses and services are closed on Friday, the Islamic day of rest. The main Muslim holidays are Eid al-Fitr, a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan; Eid al-Adha, a three-day feast of sacrifice at the end of the month of pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the hajj ), when families who can afford it slaughter a lamb and share the meat with poorer Muslims; the First of Muharram, or the Muslim New Year; Mawlid An-Nabawi, the prophet Muhammad's birthday; and Eid Al-Isra wa Al-Miraj, a feast celebrating Muhammad's legendary nocturnal visit to heaven.
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
Weddings are a major social event and rite of passage. The actual exchange of vows often takes place a few days or weeks before the wedding reception. In the presence of a religious leader, a marriage contract is signed before witnesses. A mahr (dowry) is paid by the groom's family to the bride's family.
Children live at home until marriage. Sons might bring their wives to live with their families. Upon the death of one parent, an adult child (usually a son) is required to take care of the surviving parent until death.
After a death, there are three days of mourning. Friends, relatives, and neighbors visit the family of the deceased. Close women relatives wear black for many months. Later they can start wearing half black and half white. Traditionally, it can be up to a year before the women can wear colors again.
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
Syrians are often aggressive in public. They cut in line, bump into people without apologizing, and honk their car horns constantly. Haggling over prices is a way of life. Punctuality is not considered important. Both men and women are very affectionate with others of the same sex. They may touch, hold hands, or even kiss their friends on the mouth in public. This is not considered sexual behavior.
Syrians stand close together, talk loudly, and use vigorous hand gestures. A downward nod of the head to one side means "Yes." Brushing open palms together quickly as if to brush off dirt means "I'm finished with it (or you)." Patting the hand over the heart when meeting someone expresses affection for that person.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
Syria is not a wealthy country; most people have a mediocre standard of living at best. City dwellers live in apartments. Those who are wealthy enough build villas or large vacation homes in the mountains or on the sea coast.
Villagers live in small, one-to three-room houses with a small courtyard. The older ones are made of adobe bricks and plaster. The central point of the house is the front door. It is often huge and painted with multicolored geometric patterns. The interiors of most Syrian homes are ornate and highly decorated. A favorite Syrian decoration is a massive crystal chandelier that can be seen from outside the house.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
Children live with their parents until they marry and sometimes after. There are no nursing homes in Syria; the elderly are cared for at home by their families. Children are sometimes punished harshly. However, children and parents show a great deal of affection for each other. Arranged marriages are still common. First cousins are the preferred match. Divorce is rare. When a divorce is granted, the father usually gets custody of the children. Women are constitutionally guaranteed equal rights. In reality, however, traditional duties and expectations usually keep them from enjoying those rights.
11 • CLOTHING
Syrians wear a mix of traditional Arab and Western-style clothing. However, casual Western clothes such as jeans, T-shirts, and running shoes are rarely seen. Both men and women cover their legs to at least below the knee. Their arms are covered to below the elbow. Neither men nor women wear shorts. Middle-and upper-class women, especially younger ones, are flashy dressers. They like bright colors, lots of jewelry and make-up, high-heeled shoes, and "big hair." Young men have very short, closely cropped hair and also dress stylishly.
12 • FOOD
Syrians eat typical Middle Eastern food. Common dishes include hummus ( a ground chickpea paste), falafel (fried, ground chickpeas), and shish kebab (lamb chunks on skewers). A special Syrian dish is farooj, roasted chicken with chilies and onions. In general, Syrians love their food either very sweet or very sour. Common basic ingredients in Syrian food include lamb, chicken, chickpeas, eggplant, rice, burghul (cracked wheat), olives, and yogurt. Syrians drink their coffee (qahwa) strong and sweet; tea (shay) is also drunk frequently.
Stuffed grape leaves are a common dish in Syria, as elsewhere in the Middle East. Leaves are picked off the vine, washed, and dipped briefly in boiling water. Each leaf is laid out on a flat surface. A mixture of rice, margarine, spices, and ground meat is prepared. A small portion of the filling is laid in a straight line across the bottom of the leaf. The leaf is then rolled up over the rice mixture. The stuffed grape leaves are set in a pot and covered with water, salt, and tomato sauce. They are cooked on the stovetop until tender, about one-half hour.
Meals in Syria last a long time, two to three hours or more. Most food is eaten by hand or scooped up with flatbread.
13 • EDUCATION
Schooling is required for six years. School-children wear green, military-style uniforms and attend school six days a week. In high school, students must study either English or French for two years. Higher education is paid for by the government at the four Syrian universities. These universities, however, are overcrowded and use outdated teaching methods. Thus, those who can afford it study abroad.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
Syria's literary heritage includes mostly theologians, philosophers, and scientists. Jacob of Edessa (late seventh century AD ) is best known for his Syriac Grammar . The philosopher Bar Hebraeus (mid-thirteenth century AD ) wrote on logic, physics, mathematics, and astronomy.
The Arabic poetry tradition remains strong in Syria. Ali Ahmad Said (1930–), pen-named Adunis, is an influential Syrian poet. He was exiled to Beirut in 1956 and still lives there. A popular contemporary woman writer is Ghada al-Samman, who also lives in Beirut.
The ' oud is a popular musical instrument. An ancient stringed instrument, it is an ancestor of the European lute.
The Islamic ban on depicting the human form has greatly shaped Muslim visual art. This art finds its greatest expression in mosques.
15 • EMPLOYMENT
Engineering graduates must work for a government agency for five years. Otherwise, however, most Syrians may work at any job they can find. All jobs pay low wages, so almost all Syrians work two or three jobs. Unemployment was high in the 1970s and 1980s and remains a serious problem. One out of five workers is employed by the government. Many work in unnecessary jobs created mostly to reduce unemployment. Fewer than 10 percent of Syrian women work outside the home. There is a large standing army, which employs a number of young men.
16 • SPORTS
Syrians enjoy soccer as a spectator sport. They also play the game in friendly street competitions. One can regularly spot boys playing soccer in open fields, school playgrounds, or anywhere there is enough space for a game. Martial arts are very popular. Syrians also enjoying swimming, tennis, track meets, and ping-pong tournaments. There are soccer and basketball teams, and camel racing is a popular spectator sport.
17 • RECREATION
Eating and socializing are the main forms of entertainment. Some public activities are considered socially unacceptable for women. Men sit for hours in all-male teahouses drinking tea or Turkish coffee. They smoke water-pipes, talk, and sometimes play a favorite board game—a Turkish form of backgammon. Young men often hang out in the streets. If they have cars, they cruise the streets. On Fridays, the Islamic day of rest, Syrians with cars often drive to mountain resorts. There they eat, talk, and take strolls.
Cinemas show American and Asian action films that are popular with young men. Wealthy Syrians own VCRs and like to rent videos. All Syrians enjoy concerts, from jazz to classical. They especially love parties. At celebrations men and women, either separately or together, perform the dabka, a line dance. It is performed to the music of a band or a hand-held drum called a tabla . A leader guides the dancers by shouting out moves as he or she dances in front of them.
There is a well-attended international folk music and dance festival every September in an ancient Roman amphitheater in Busra.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
Syrian crafts include jewelry-making, inlaid woodworking, glass-blowing, weaving, and embroidery. Textiles include clothing, tablecloths, pillow covers, and carpets. A special brocaded fabric called "damask" is named for the city of Damascus. Modern damask is still woven by hand.
Syria is known for an alum charm that is supposed to ward off evil. The charm is blue and triangular. It is adorned with strands of beads and a symbolic blue hand that protects its owner. Taxis and buses have the charms hanging from their rearview mirrors.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
A struggling economy, high unemployment, and a low standard of living make life difficult for most Syrians. Many of the brightest students go abroad to study and never return. Social status is associated with skin color, with the lightest-skinned people at the top and the darkest-skinned at the bottom.
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
Beaton, M. Syria. Chicago: Children's Press, 1988.
Mulloy, Martin. Syria. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
Roberts, David. The Ba'th and the Creation of
Modern Syria. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.
South, Coleman. Cultures of the World: Syria. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1995.