An Introduction to Syria – Syrian Series pt 1
Updated: Aug 3, 2022
Marhaba, meaning hello.
I can also keep this simple and just say هاي (which is literally the word “hi”, but if you want to be especially fancy, you can stick to the “marhaba”).
My name is Hiba, and I am entering my third year in college. I have a passion for the Arabic language and Arab/Middle Eastern culture, and I hope to be able to share my love of it with you all through my writing.
With that being said, I extend my warmest welcomes to one of my favorite countries on this planet, Syria (which may or may not be because I am of Syrian origin, but that’s neither here nor there).
A Rich History
Syrian culture is shared among 18.35 million people and consists of thousands of years of tradition, history, architecture, stories, and memories – no other country within the Arab world or outside the Arab world is like it. Whether it be descendants of Assyrian people living within the Syrian nation, or Bedouin nomads who foster their traditions while maintaining cultural ties across Syria, no Syrian’s daily experience is based on a stereotype. While the media may portray the culture of Syrians as damaged by war and internal conflict, they are wrong; Syrian culture is strong, and it lives on through gatherings, storytelling, and music.
Views from the top of Le Krak des Chevaliers- قلعة الحصن \ حصن الفرسان . Not only does this castle have one thousand years of history embedded within its walls, but it overlooks the bountiful lands of Syria.
An Honorable Culture
The concept of honor can seem outdated in parts of the world; Syria is an exception. Honor and integrity are at the foundation of many traditions and societal norms. By honor, I don’t mean the kind we see in films. The honor I refer to is not about suiting up in armor and jousting or engaging in duels (although, I must confess– stories of that sort of honor are entertaining). Rather, it’s about being a kind, generous person– and most of all – having respect for oneself, their family, and societal norms.
Respect can be tied to the most fundamental aspect of identity– the name. In Syria, the name is more than the letters and sounds a person uses to address you. It’s about who you are – While you might read this and think, “yeah, obviously, my name would tell a person who I am,” this complex and diverse structure has a deeper meaning.
Imagine as soon as you tell someone your name, a sort of Wikipedia page pops up about you. Well, not you exactly, but everything you might tell someone as you get to know them. Things like where you were born, where you grew up, and what religion you practice are revealed by your name. And if someone is truly nosey, it is not difficult for them to learn everything about your upbringing, your ancestors, your job, your parent’s job, and any deep, dark, scary secrets you have.
I am just kidding, of course (kind of…), but the fact is that names are important and are carefully chosen at birth for this reason. There is even a formula of sorts for the naming process. This doesn’t go for every family, but it is used for many of them (including mine). The first name is usually chosen based on meaning (can be religious or otherwise), or the child is named after a relative. The middle name is the first name of the father of the child, a tradition that differs from Western cultures. The last name, also known as العيلة اسم (meaning “name of the family”), is the father’s last name. The last name typically does not change, even when someone gets married.
The idea of honor and respect is also prevalent in the treatment of elders. Elders are highly respected in Syrian society, and they are looked upon as fountains of wisdom and knowledge with all their years. Arguing or even disagreeing with someone older than you is a dishonorable act. If they walk into a room, one must stand up, greet them, and offer them a seat immediately, even if they aren’t close friends or family. This is a “must” for everyone, which shocked me when I was younger… I did not understand the concept of getting up and saying “Marhaba” (hello) or “a-salaam-u-Alaikum” (peace be upon you) to a stranger when I’ve been told to avoid strangers my whole life. However, you learn the rules over time with some trial and error, which is a part of growing up as a Syrian.
A Hospitable Society
Onto one of my favorite parts of Syrian culture: hospitality. If there’s one thing I can promise you, it’s this: you will never go hungry, thirsty, or be in need of anything as a guest in a Syrian household. From the moment you walk in (which we will get to in a minute) to the moment you walk out (getting to that in two minutes), you will be constantly offered an array of foods, drinks, and anything else you could possibly desire. Walking in through the door – you might first take off your shoes depending on the household – you will immediately be greeted in 1 of 2 ways:
1. With a handshake and cheek kisses
2. With a hug and cheek kisses
There are variations and exceptions to this rule which could be because of gender or degrees of perceived social “closeness”, but generally speaking, that’s how you’ll be greeted. The one thing a person should watch for is the number of cheek kisses. I’ve dealt with this my whole life, and I can tell you this for sure, the internal struggle that occurs when figuring out how many to give never goes away.
Some people just do a brief, clean 1-2 on each cheek. Others, a 1-2-1, alternating between the cheeks. Alternatively, there’s a technique people use to show they’ve missed you dearly, or perhaps they have a flair for the dramatic, so they do a 1-2-1-1 where the last two kisses are on the same cheek.
There are always people that’ll go astray from the known patterns, or when you think you’re done, they pull you back in for more. For those, I have no advice. You just have to go with the flow and hope you don’t mess up in some way, shape, or form.
After the greeting is the fun part: you’ll be seated and offered drinks. This can range from Arab coffee, tea, mate, fruit juices, smoothies, or water if you’re incredibly picky. At this stage, you have to be very careful. There’s a sort of unspoken rule that you should first refuse drinks. It’s sort of a little tango one does. They offer, you say no, and then they offer again, and then from there on out, you just play it by ear. One thing is true though, you will drink something whether you like it or not.
If you’re there for dinner, you’ve hopefully abstained from eating that day because there will be a lot of food. And I mean a lot. You’ll have food offered at the dinner table, food put on your plate, and food to take home (the food is somehow even better the next day).
Food will be encouraged even when you’re stuffed full. Food will be encouraged even when you’re about to pass out from all the food you ate. Food will be encouraged even as you sit on the couch in a sort of food coma – even if you’ve eaten enough for 10 grown adults. I hope you get the message. Bring your largest, stretchiest pair of pants if you’re eating at a Syrian household. You’ll need it.
I don’t mean to make you hungry, but I figured I needed to show you what I meant with the huge, delicious table spreads. Pictured here on the left is what is considered a “نقروشة” (naq-rou-shi) or a snack— compliments of one of my favorite people who makes some of the most amazing food—my aunt. On the right is a traditional Arab breakfast, minus the tea that is usually drunk alongside it.
Afterward, you’ll have drinks again (with sweets this time) and repeat the unspoken tango I mentioned earlier.
And when all is said and done, you’ll get up to leave. However, this is probably the most challenging part of the entire night. You’ll get up to leave, and they’ll say, please stay. This will go back and forth and back and forth until you end up staying there for another hour or more. At that point, you might get up to leave again, and depending on how strong your will is, you might make it to the door. Of course, at the door, you could be stuck in an enthralling conversation because, for some reason, conversations are always more enjoyable on your way out. But regardless of how the ending goes, you’ll always go home with a full stomach and a full heart.
A Generous People
Syrians have a personal duty to be generous – to take care of others, to love others, and to treat anyone and everyone as family. Walking in the street, you’ll be greeted by random people or smiled at. In a smaller village, people could be sitting outside their main doors, drinking mate, tea, or coffee. You’ll hear yells to “حول) “how-il), which means “come over” in the Syrian dialect.
A traditional mate spread- You’ll find an abundance of people drinking mate throughout the day. Pictured here is mate, an assortment of “موالح”(mow-a-lah), which basically means “salty” and includes things like nuts, seeds, and occasionally chips. In the center is a special sweet treat called “المشبك”(m-shab-ak).
If you’re lost, you can approach almost anyone, and they’ll explain how to get somewhere. And if a Syrian does not know (an infrequent occurrence that they’ll never admit), they’ll run to ask someone that does.
If you compliment a Syrian– whether it be on clothing or furniture or an object they own– they’ll say “مقدمة) “mu-qa-di-ma) and insist on it, meaning that the thing you complimented is yours now or will be given to you shortly. The clothes I’ve unintentionally received as a result of my complimenting habit take up half of my closet.
If you go out to dinner, there will be arguments at the table about who will pay because everyone wants to pay for everyone. There are many tricks and techniques to try and get your way. There’s the one where you tip the host/waiter before you even sit down to let you pay. Or where you pay on your way to the “bathroom.” Or where you simply start bargaining at the table: “I’ll pay this time; you pay next time” (which never happens). But if you’re at dinner with an expert, all your plans to pay can and will be foiled.
Syria maintains a huge collectivist culture. Family, friends, society, etc., are often prioritized. For this reason, many things in daily life are altered from what is seen as “typical.” For example, businesses close from 2 pm-5 pm in the day to go home, relax, and spend time with family and friends. Afterward, they go back to work. Schedules are loose and not followed precisely because of this priority given to the community. While this lifestyle might seem odd, where one gives everything they possibly can for others, it is what makes Syria, and Syrians, unique. It is what I love and appreciate about this country (although I may be ever-so-slightly biased in what I say).
This love, this passion, this care, this sense of belonging that Syrians have – this duty to one another keeps them strong and fighting against all odds, even in times of struggle and anguish.
At ReDefiner’s, we believe that the best way to learn about another culture is through their language. If you would like to learn more about Syria, try signing up for our Arabic courses here. We also offer courses in English, Mandarin, and Spanish. For more information, visit www.redefinerswl.org or email email@example.com.