Ten Things to Remember About Syria

As coverage of Syria turns evermore towards trauma and destruction, this list tends towards the positive focussing on those aspects of Syria that can’t be destroyed by war.

In the pre-revolution days, Syrians were ever ready to list ten of their favourite picnic spots, ten of their much-loved restaurants, or even ten of the sects participating in the imaginary happy mosaic. Today, lists of traumatisation leap to the mind: the ten largest refugee camps, ten major massacres, or perhaps ten of the numerous new militias.

This list tends towards the positive (only number ten is a bad thing but it’s something that cannot be ignored). It focuses on those aspects of Syrian reality that can’t be destroyed by war, things of enduring value that will survive (with the exception, we hope, of number ten).


1. Maté

Along with Turkish Coffee, Argentinian Yerba Maté is Syria’s quintessential drink. Drink it strong and sugary in a gourd or a glass, through a silver straw from the Qalamoun region; keep the water hot for continual fill-ups; and you’ll be telling Homsi and muhashish jokes all night. Maté connotes conviviality, and sometimes more specifically the Druze, Christian and Alawi mountain communities. When the martyred Free Army commander Abu Furat appealed to the Alawi community, he did so in terms every Syrian would understand: ‘I know the Alawis well. I’ve visited them in their houses. We’ve drunk maté together. We lived together before and we’ll live together again, despite you, Bashaar.’

How did a South American drink become a Syrian (and Lebanese) staple? The answer is to be found in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century mass migration of Syrian-Lebanese to South and North America, the Caribbean, and West Africa. A couple of hundred drowned with the Titanic. The ‘Street of the Turks’ in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fictional town Macondo, described in One Hundred Years of Solitude, is so-called because the people were Ottomans when they arrived in Colombia, but they were Syrian Ottomans, Arabs. Today twenty million people describe themselves as Syrian-Brazilians. Guyana’s richest family is the Maqdeesis. Carlos Menem, former Argentinian president, is of Syrian origin too.

2. Migrants

Abdul-Qadir al-Jaza’iri (1808–1883), the religious and military leader, led a long and heroic resistance against the French occupation of Algeria. Eventually captured and brought to Paris, he was given the choice of exile elsewhere in the Arab world. Abdul-Qadir chose Damascus, where he wrote Sufi poetry in the shrine of the mystic Ibn ‘Arabi, who was an earlier migrant, from Andalucía. In 1860, when the Christian quarter of the Old City was burnt in sectarian rioting, Abdul-Qadir protected hundreds of Christians in his house and garden.

The tomb of Ibn ‘Arabi stands between two inner-city neighbourhoods climbing the slope of Mount Qassiyoun: ‘Muhajireen’, or Migrants, is so-named because it once housed Muslim refugees from the Balkans; and ‘Akrad’ means Kurds – still a Kurdish area, it was first built for the Kurds who came with Salahudeen al-Ayyubi (Saladin’s) armies during the twelfth century.

Who else? Armenians, descendants of those who survived the forced march from Anatolia. Half a million registered Palestinian refugees and many more Palestinian-Syrians (Yarmouk camp in Damascus, Syria’s largest Palestinian population, is nearly empty now – its population refugees for a second time, mostly in Lebanon). Over a million and a half Iraqi refugees until Damascus and Aleppo became even less secure than Baghdad and Basra. And in 2006, a million refugees from the Lebanese South (fleeing Israeli bombs), who were welcomed in mosques, schools and private homes. Syrians angrily compare the way they welcomed refugees with the way they are now (not) welcomed, in their hour of need.

3. Sufis

Talking of Ibn ‘Arabi (1165–1240), that most famous and strangest of mystics, is by no means the only holy fool buried in Syria. The tombs of the friends of God crowd old markets, dot hilltops, sit next to streams. From Ghazali (1058–1111) to Suhrawardi (1155–1191), some of the most prominent figures of both sober and drunk traditions of Sufism passed through the country, considering it a way station to Mecca and a holy land in its own right.

‘Drunken’ Sufis were still a common feature of Syrian streets until recent decades. Private zikr sessions and Sufi-influenced nasheed and moulid singing continue to play an important role in urban life.

But Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328), the noted theologian, was in Syria too. In Aleppo he decided the blame for the Mongol sack of Baghdad lay with Shi‘ism and other such heresies. His anti-Shia, anti-Sufi theology led eventually to Wahhabism. Today the quietism of the traditionalist ulema – most notably Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun and the assassinated Shaikh Ramadan Bouti, both of whom preached loyalty to the regime even as the regime murdered, burnt and raped – has been a major factor in the spread of activist Salafism amongst Syrians. Other clerics of Sufi background, however, such as Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, who speaks intelligently against the regime and against sectarian extremism, have taken much more positive positions.

4. Poetry

And talking of Sufis… Syrian poet Adonis in his wonderful book Sufism and Surrealism, holds that ecstatic Sufi pronouncements as well as the selfconsciously ‘written’ court poetry of the classical past represented a subjective counter-culture to Arab-Islamic literalism and orthodoxy. Over the centuries, Syria has certainly suffered no shortage of flamboyantly subjective poets, Nizar Qabbani and Muhammad al-Maghut the most important of the late twentieth Century. Tenth Century poet al-Mutanabbi (915–965), his name means ‘the pretend prophet’, because he made messianic claims while leading a Qarmatian revolt, came from Kufa in Iraq but spent his most productive period in Aleppo – before being killed by a man insulted by his verses. The eleventh Century blind poet Abu Ala’a al-Ma‘arri (973–1058) was a vegan and an atheist. He witnessed religious war, including Crusader cannibalism in his home town Ma‘arat al-Nowman. None of it endeared him to religion:

Humanity follows two global sects:
One, man intelligent, without religion,
The second, man religious, without intellect.

Despite his unorthodox views, al-Ma‘arri was highly respected at the time. But Salafist extremists beheaded al-Ma‘arri’s statue – to great local outrage – in 2013. The statue of the great ninth Century poet Abu Tammam (788–845) was also executed in his southern hometown, Jassim. And the revolutionary poet Ibrahim Qashoush’s vocal chords – flesh, not metal – were ripped out by the regime. Abu Ala’a al-Ma‘ari provided a warning for today’s desperate situation:

But some hope a divine leader with prophetic voice
Will rise amid the gazing silent ranks.
An idle thought! There’s none to lead but reason,
To point the morning and the evening ways.

5. Fatteh

Damascus and particularly Aleppo are famous for their haute-cuisine, and used to boast some truly world-class restaurants, but the ‘working man’s food’ of Syria is just as good in cheap cafés. The queen of cheap dishes is fatteh – strips of bread and chickpeas soaked in oil and yoghurt, with hummus paste and pomegranate, sometimes with mince or even sheep’s feet. It’s supposed to set you up for solid work, but has the exact opposite effect on most. Syrian olive oil is good enough to drink neat, and some country people do. The eggs – we swear – are richer and tastier than eggs anywhere else, the chickens less bland, the fruit more juicy. Ask any Syrian, they’ll tell you the same.

6. Makdous

This is one of the things that make exile so hard for Syrians – the makdous you find outside the country is never like the makdous inside. Like araqmakdous is best made at home. Most Syrian families know someone who knows someone who makes makdous – stuffing aubergines with nuts and peppers and pickling them in olive oil.

Shingleesh, Syria’s uranium (actually balls of strong rotten cheese impregnated with spices, best eaten with tomatoes, onions, and oil), is the same – best home-made, and never as good outside the country.

7. ‘amiyeh

From the Damascene drawl (lek shooooooo? Waaaaaynaaak?) to Beduin ‘hasaniya’, the various Syrian colloquialisms make up Syrian ‘amiyeh, the common speech. Textured with pre-Arabic Semitic, especially Aramaic, words and rhythms, and laced with endearments (men as well as women address each other as ‘my dear’, ‘my moon’, ‘my life’, ‘o love of my heart’), polite formulae, gritty obscenities, and peppering of poetry and scripture, it’s no surprise the other Arabs prize Syrian Arabic in particular – a boon to the country’s actors, poets and news presenters.

Syria is also a great place to study Arabic – not only are the hospitable people who will even go out of their way to speak fus-ha (classical Arabic) to students. For that matter, it’s a great place to learn some Kurdish, Armenian, Turkmen, Syriac, or Aramaic (which still survives in the Ma‘aloula region) – there’s just a little problem with bombs at the moment…

8. Upside-down Writing in the Walls

You can see Greek script upside down in the walls of the Umawi Mosque in Damascus. Before it was a mosque it was a cathedral (it still houses the head of John the Baptist); before it was a cathedral it was a Roman-style temple to Jupiter; before that, a temple to Haddad, the Aramean thunder god. Those ancient stones are beneath and around you as you sit in the prayer hall.

Syria contains remnants of Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite, Greek, Roman, Persian, Macedonian, Umawi, Ayyubid, Zengid, Ottoman and French civilisations, among others. The world’s best preserved medieval European castle – Qala‘at al-Hosn or Krak des Chevalliers – is not in Europe but near Homs, on the edge of an old Crusading principality. The world’s first alphabet (Phoenician) was excavated north of Lattakia. The country is pocked with tells, hills made of millennia of human habitation. The pebbles beneath your feet are not pebbles but the shards of ten million pots manufactured and discarded generation after generation after generation.

9. The Nowfara

The Nowfara is the best-known of the traditional cafés in Damascus. Here you can hear the hakawati (storyteller) roar and clatter his sword while you sip at your zuhurat (a herbal drink), puff the argileh water pipe, and watch the world pass. In every city and town there’s a café on every street, a place where you (if you’re a man, usually) can refresh yourself while reading the newspaper, playing games, or gossiping. There are bars and restaurants which serve araq, Syria’s favourite spirit, and there are musical nights, either in a restaurant or laid on at home alongside someone playing an oud. Along with weddings, family visits and picnics, the Eids and Christmas, Syria’s social life is rich.

10. Men in White Socks

The antithesis of social life, the various branches of the mukhabarat or secret police, and their network of informers, were omnipresent in Assad’s Syria. Some wear white socks and shiny suits; some leather jackets hoisted to show a gun. Some are enormous, and many Syrians have formative memories of their fists. Some drive the Mercedes ‘Ghost’ – and that’s one origin of the shabeeha word used to describe pro-Assad death squads today, from shabah, ‘ghost’. Many informers are taxi drivers, or school teachers, or the shopkeepers who stay open long hours, and at least one colleague in your office environment. You never quite know who might be writing a report…

Syria’s revolution was not provoked by an American-Zionist-Saudi cabal, as the conspiracy theorists claim, but by these men in white socks, and their clumsy, casual brutality.

‘Ten Things to Remember About Syria’ appears in Critical Muslim | 11: Syria. Critical Muslim is a quarterly of ideas and issues which presents Muslim perspectives on the great debates of our times,  edited by Ziauddin Sardar and Robin Yassin-Kassab and is published in conjunction with the Muslim Institute, London.

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