Archive | February, 2012

Syria: Memories of the “Religious” Trend

23 Feb

The religious “trend” in Syria … that was what Hafez al-Assad intended to wipe out between 1979 and 1982.  However, by the time I was doing research in Syria, Islamization was on the rise; new groups had appeared and most were careful not to

cross the red lines of political activity.

Not all were “new” groups.  Well-established families of Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Homs included those who were both very pious and conservative.  Never part of the Ba`th’s inner circle, or outer dependents, some of these families had suffered during the crackdown on the earlier Islamist resistance to the Assad regime even if they had not been personally active.  Others continued their customs of complete veiling – even though this irritated the youth leagues and women’s groups of the Ba`th Party, and all the complex traditions of additional fastings and extra prayers and other special rituals.

Their veiling was a head to toe black outergarment which varied from city to city.  In Homs, the traditional headgarb even included double horns coming up from the headpiece.   (Another interesting traditional style of dress is the mamlukeh and long dress of the Druze women, who did not cover their hair at all.  The mamlukeh itself is basically an apron made of metallic woven fabric not unlike assyut.   The dress is fitted at the waist, with a low neckline and a long full skirt).  But the women of the newer Islamic “trends” had begun wearing an overcoat, often belted and with a scarf tucked in.

I met men in several prayer and discussion circles which had arisen, in spite of, or because of the official discourse that suppressed the foregrounding of religious knowledge.  I had requested and received a copy of a fatwa – not an individual ruling, but a decision of the World Shari`ah Council on the issue of surrogacy (hiring a surrogate to give birth).  So I decided to ask various groups and authorities their opinions of the matter of reproductive innovations and family law while I had access through members of one of the “originally” religious families.

One interesting interview came about when I was brought to meet the Mufti of Syria.  I had already met the Mufti of Damascus, a rather down-at-the-heels position, reflected in the person and he had been uninterested in any legal discussion.  But this more lofty Mufti hosted a halqah and at first, challenged my assertion that the Shari`ah Council had even considered the issue.  When I said I had a copy of the groups’ decision (showing which cleric agreed or disagreed with the multi-point fatwa), he wanted to read it.  Climbing up an interior set of stairs in his flat, which rose a half-level from the salon as if onto a stage, he  disappeared into his study with the papers.  His wife came out to entertain me and offered me coffee while his seven young children bounced onto the couch next to me, and off it onto the floor.

I knew that the decision completely overturned the position of the foremost Syrian cleric writing about such matters at the time, and also the previous position of the Council (centered in Mecca) which had first claimed that there must be no medical interference, and no use of technology at all.   Now, in vitro fertilization had been assented to – but only so long as it involved gametes from the spouses.  Surrogacy, however, was regarded by the council as an inappropriate division of the functions of motherhood (conceiving, birthing, parenting) and they worried that wombs would be rented, and that poor women would be at a disadvantage.  Still the council was aware that the practice was already being adopted.

He emerged from his study waving the papers and indicating that he never would have believed such an advent in rulings on fiqh, if he had not seen it, and stating that he wasn’t sure where he himself stood now.  He did – in response to my questions – say with a little laugh, that if a man were to marry a surrogate as a second wife, then there would be nothing unlawful about the arrangement.

Now, so many years later, the Left which sees the Assad government as the last bastion of resistance to Israel (although the Assad government had done nothing to deserve that view and had been engaged in secret talks with the Israelis as far back as the Oslo period), has been quick to charge that the Syrian opposition is full of “the religious” and specifically warn against the Muslim Brotherhood.   Syria has always trailed other Arab states due to the political repression of its government and severe controls over information coming in and out of the country.  But the interest in Islam and Islamism has increased there and no doubt these trends will be among those who succeed the cruel government of Bashar al-Assad.

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Syria: Memories of the “Religious” Trend

23 Feb

The religious “trend” in Syria … that was what Hafez al-Assad intended to wipe out between 1979 and 1982.  However, by the time I was doing research in Syria, Islamization was on the rise; new groups had appeared and most were careful not to

cross the red lines of political activity.  

 

Not all were “new” groups.  Well-established families of Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Homs included those who were both very pious and conservative.  Never part of the Ba`th’s inner circle, or outer dependents, some of these families had suffered during the crackdown on the earlier Islamist resistance to the Assad regime even if they had not been personally active.  Others continued their customs of complete veiling – even though this irritated the youth leagues and women’s groups of the Ba`th Party, and all the complex traditions of additional fastings and extra prayers and other special rituals. 

 

Their veiling was a head to toe black outergarment which varied from city to city.  In Homs, the traditional headgarb even included double horns coming up from the headpiece.   (Another interesting traditional style of dress is the mamlukeh and long dress of the Druze women, who did not cover their hair at all.  The mamlukeh itself is basically an apron made of metallic woven fabric not unlike assyut.   The dress is fitted at the waist, with a low neckline and a long full skirt).  But the women of the newer Islamic “trends” had begun wearing an overcoat, often belted and with a scarf tucked in. 

 

I met men in several prayer and discussion circles which had arisen, in spite of, or because of the official discourse that suppressed the foregrounding of religious knowledge.  I had requested and received a copy of a fatwa – not an individual ruling, but a decision of the World Shari`ah Council on the issue of surrogacy (hiring a surrogate to give birth).  So I decided to ask various groups and authorities their opinions of the matter of reproductive innovations and family law while I had access through members of one of the “originally” religious families. 

 

One interesting interview came about when I was brought to meet the Mufti of Syria.  I had already met the Mufti of Damascus, a rather down-at-the-heels position, reflected in the person and he had been uninterested in any legal discussion.  But this more lofty Mufti hosted a halqah and at first, challenged my assertion that the Shari`ah Council had even considered the issue.  When I said I had a copy of the groups’ decision (showing which cleric agreed or disagreed with the multi-point fatwa), he wanted to read it.  Climbing up an interior set of stairs in his flat, which rose a half-level from the salon as if onto a stage, he  disappeared into his study with the papers.  His wife came out to entertain me and offered me coffee while his seven young children bounced onto the couch next to me, and off it onto the floor. 

 

I knew that the decision completely overturned the position of the foremost Syrian cleric writing about such matters at the time, and also the previous position of the Council (centered in Mecca) which had first claimed that there must be no medical interference, and no use of technology at all.   Now, in vitro fertilization had been assented to – but only so long as it involved gametes from the spouses.  Surrogacy, however, was regarded by the council as an inappropriate division of the functions of motherhood (conceiving, birthing, parenting) and they worried that wombs would be rented, and that poor women would be at a disadvantage.  Still the council was aware that the practice was already being adopted. 

 

He emerged from his study waving the papers and indicating that he never would have believed such an advent in rulings on fiqh, if he had not seen it, and stating that he wasn’t sure where he himself stood now.  He did – in response to my questions – say with a little laugh, that if a man were to marry a surrogate as a second wife, then there would be nothing unlawful about the arrangement.  

 

Now, so many years later, the Left which sees the Assad government as the last bastion of resistance to Israel (although the Assad government had done nothing to deserve that view and had been engaged in secret talks with the Israelis as far back as the Oslo period), has been quick to charge that the Syrian opposition is full of “the religious” and specifically warn against the Muslim Brotherhood.   Syria has always trailed other Arab states due to the political repression of its government and severe controls over information coming in and out of the country.  But the interest in Islam and Islamism has increased there and no doubt these trends will be among those who succeed the cruel government of Bashar al-Assad.

Damascus Then

1 Feb

A satisfying steamy cup of coffee brings back more recollections of Damascus. It’s a fairly hot summer day. Everyone jokes that the newscasters never report the temperature as being warmer than 41, because otherwise, the Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti tourists won’t bother coming up from the Gulf, when they hear it’s just as hot here. My sister-in-law is learning how to cook over the telephone to her mother. She’s 22 years old and has recently married my brother-in-law, Jamal. His mother was so angry that she was not the one to choose the bride, that she has decamped to her home in Homs. She is equally irritated by my presence in this household, but she complains to her sons and not to me. Next week, we’ll drive up to Homs to see her, and her mother, whose ancient home is about to be destroyed. She sends us back to Damascus with huge jars of maqdus (picked eggplant) so her thoughtless progeny won’t starve.

Today, Rasha is trying to follow directions to make a type of pudding. She never had to cook at home. Her husband and his two brothers are better cooks than she. She cries when the pudding won’t set. Today, I pitch in, and we also have carry-out kabsa from the “secret place” – a dark shop off of an alley in the Sha`lan. Every day, the cooks there prepare 3 or 4 hearty specialties like feriqeh bi-djaj, (hulled wheat and chicken) or kabsa (a Saudi Arabian dish), sambusik bi-labnah (stuffed dough cooked in yoghurt) or mahshi. Not far away is a small shop that exclusively serves roasted chicken with garlic sauce, and another vendor offers shwarma. Most of the customers are men who purchase the food on their way home for the extended lunch and siesta hours that break up the work day. In the afternoon, vendors set up little stands with cactus fruit cooling in trays of ice. People sit for a minute in the shade of these stands to enjoy a break from the heat. When autumn and winter arrive, there will be vendors with small wheeled stoves selling roasted corn and chestnuts in the streets. Women shop, but many men like to claim that they are the ones who purchase all the food, including produce to save women the effort (and from being harassed in the street).

We eat outside in the back garden at a large table on the stone paving. Canaries in cages warble to us. They have to be brought inside in the wintertime and today, they need shade. Not much is growing but a vine with a large clock-like flower and blue stamens that I’ve also saw growing in Bosra and a few roses. The house has another little addition – just one bedroom and bathroom off of an inner courtyard giving some privacy to the newlyweds. The street continues and is known as Arnus Square, and then on the left is a very large and imposing mosque built by Kuwaitis. Beyond is a small bakery where I walk in the early mornings to buy delicious croissants filled with za`tar and hazelnuts.

Rasha has one more party in the post-wedding blitz of events, this one attended by her mother and her mother’s friends – all fully veiled ladies of older Damascene families, who never heeded the Ba`th Party’s call to drop that archaic form of outer covering. As they arrive and are seated in the parlor, Jihad, the younger brother retreats inside the house. They remove their coverings and are fashionably dressed and coifed. Rasha dresses up in a sexy backless number. A few more gifts are presented. The ladies do not inquire about Jamal’s mother, even though she is the real mistress of the house. A few of Rasha’s friends arrive and after the older women depart, they put on music and dance, and then go out together. I leave as well with my daughter to walk her to karate class. The gym has separate hours for women and men, and we were happy to find a Shotokan teacher who taught girls.

On our way back from the karate class, we walk by a house where a man sits outdoors at the basement level with a little brown spider monkey. “Abu Yusuf, Abu Yusuf,” calls Natasha, my daughter, meaning the monkey. The man explodes with laughter at that. “Abu Yousef” (recorded by DJ Abu Youssef) was very popular Jordanian rap song, which swept into Syria in the year before we arrived here.

Amman, Irbid, Baqa’, Sawaylih
Everybody talk about it, Abu Yousef… Abu Youssef …

Mashi fi al-shari`
Shuft hilwa btirkud (and in the repeat of the verse – Shuft hilwa jogging)
Ruht irkud ma`ha
Qultilha yalla nuq’ud
‘Aalitli “ka’k bi `ajawi
Qultilha “ma’aki?”
‘Aalitli “la,” qultilha
“laysh?”
‘Aalitli “mish zaki “

Walking in the street
I saw a pretty girl jogging
I went and jogged with her
I told her let’s sit
She said “ka`k (like a biscuit or hard cake) with dates”
I said to her “do you have?”
She said no, I said why?
She said, it’s not tasty

Natasha giggles. It’s her favorite song to play at home too. Ziyad brings us cassette “cocktails” from the music store called Venus. Music copying (no-one thinks of it as pirating) is big business here.

Kahk bi-ajwa can be found at the Suq al-Hamidiyya. We go over to this ancient part of the city sometimes as I hunt for printed music, but it is touristy and there’s a lot of pressure to look, have tea and buy. We always go to the Great Mosque, and sometimes to the little side building where the head of Hussein is kept and the Iranian pilgrims are pushing us from the right and the left. There are two wonderful restaurants here – one outside the walls of the great mosque, turning to the right, and going underground. The other lies on a street parallel but further north than the main entrance to the suq. This one is above ground, and as you enter, a tiny man offers coffee. Unsweetened. Often, but not always there is a musical ensemble here, and the high ceiling and fountains create a beautiful atmosphere.

About coffee – sugar should be boiled first with the water. Then add the coffee, and hail (cardamom). Bring it to boil seven times. Finally take it off the flame and add a little rose water. I already knew how to make coffee before I came here. But I never bothered to boil it seven times and was oblivious to the etiquette of serving it with a glass of water for a guest. If the guest drinks the water, it’s a sign that the coffee isn’t good. No-one can understand why I heat up milk and add it to my Arabic coffee; it’s a habit that means that I must search in the grocery store for boxed milk and for my daughter, cereal – an incredibly expensive item sold on the black market, as are cigarettes, batteries, nuts and other products that seem to be smuggled in from Lebanon. I don’t smoke, but I buy boxes as cigarettes as gifts for the dentist and the employees at the Assad National Library.

At the Library, whatever manuscript or book I request is usually denied. And then, that’s the right time to offer cigarettes, and the item magically appears, although I usually don’t have time to read through it entirely, I must request that it be xeroxed (and we aren’t allowed to Xerox anything ourselves) since it won’t appear the second or third time I need it. Working time is brief at the Library – it doesn’t open until after 10:00 a.m. The electricity is usually cut off in this part of Damascus by 1:00 p.m. It won’t come on again until about 5:00 p.m. and the Library closes an hour earlier. When I first arrived, the Library officials question me about my topic; I meet the director, Ghassan Laham and his number two, a woman. They refer me to another man who concludes that I only need to read two books to know about Asmahan and her family since that is all he is aware of in the holdings. I explain that in fact, I need many other documents and books concerning the politics of the pre-war period, since I intend to write about her “times” as well as her life. This leads to a wonderful discovery of copies of all of Syria’s diplomatic files – from the turn of the century onto the Vichy period that I am particularly interested in. I read through everything, and the librarians become concerned about what I xerox. For example, there are interesting documents about the French treatment of the Druze and the Alawite areas, which are self-governed. I find a document with the stamp of Hafiz al-Assad’s father which opposes unity (with the central government of Syria). Closer to my topic are a few documents on the Druze, the role in the rebellion, the status of the post-1925 rebels (who flee to the Wadi Sirhan), and various assessments of Hasan al-Atrash.

It is difficult for the library officials to understand why I need to leave the library and begin fieldwork. They do understand the idea of conducting interviews, but the study of any setting, and how people behave in it, when these are not directly related to a narrow topic – well that seems rather ephemeral and silly, but I tell them (as it is true) that I will learn more about Syria.