When we tell people that we’re American, one of the things we are told is that we must go back and tell people what Syria is like, to combat ignorance and misperception. This post aims to fulfill this repeated request.
Coming to Syria, I had of course done some research. I knew the basic history of Syria, at least from ancient times to the Ottoman period, and knew which historical monuments I was most interested in seeing. We also very much looked forward to our reception by the Syrians, who we were told were, even by Middle Eastern standards, famous for their hospitality and the genuine warmth with which they treat foreign visitors. But there were, I am embarrassed to admit, many things about Syria I didn’t understand, and for purposes of this post I must explicitly address my ignorance. Travel at its best acts to lift such veils from our eyes, and I am thankful for my newfound understanding and hope that you find it a worthy read, even if you do not suffer from my prior shortcomings.
Syria has a secular government.
Because Syria is so often mentioned in the same breath as Iran (in U.S. foreign policy and media), and because it has supported Islamist groups outside its borders (most famously Hezbollah, the Party of God, in Lebanon), I was under the mistaken impression that Syria was politically Islamic. I didn’t think that it was a quasi-theocracy, but I did think that its government would have a more Islamic bent than other Arab countries and that its people would be more rigidly orthodox.
This could not be further from the truth. Syria’s government is almost totally secular and Islam has no special status under Syrian law (contrary to most other Arab countries). The president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, is, like his father Hafez (president, 1971-2000), an Alawite, a religious minority that is derived from Islam but which some Muslims believe to be a heresy, and the Assads have given a fair amount of power to Alawites and other religious minorities in the Syrian government. If anything, Islamists have been viewed as a threat to the regime, and Syria has already fought and won its war against Islamist militants: In 1982, in a huge show of force called the Hama Massacre (and a massacre it was, with up to 20,000 dead), the Syrian government wiped out the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood–even today, they are active in almost every Islamic country but Syria.
The Assads even use pagan iconography! Bashar as Sun God. [More images of Assads Sr. and Jr. to come in a future post]
Every Christian we have spoken to in Syria (and we have spoken to many–although a 10% or so minority I think they speak English or choose to speak to us disproportionately) states unequivocally that all religions are equal under Syrian law and that they have no issues whatsoever with freedom of worship. In this regard, they truly feel themselves fortunate to live in Syria rather than other Arab countries. People of different faiths seem to get along perfectly well and there are many interfaith friendships, even if they do not intermarry.
Mass, Armenian church, Aleppo
[A secular, developing Arab country, firmly governed–as a couple Iraqi refugees explained to us, Syria must be what Iraq was like, before we attacked. If we’re so keen on stopping Islamofascism or whatever, why are we targeting the secular countries?]
Arab does not equal Muslim.
Because the religion of Islam arose out of Arabia, and is so closely connected to Arab ethnicity and the Arabic language, it is easy to fall into the misunderstanding that all Arabs are Muslim and most Muslims Arabs. Of course the latter is not true (from Iran westward lives a huge percentage of the world’s Muslim population, including Iranians (who are not Arabs), South Asians, Indonesians, Central Asians and Chinese Muslims), but it’s also important to keep in mind all of the Arabs that are not Muslims.
Orthodox Christian procession, Aleppo
In Syria there are very large numbers of Arab Christians (some 10% of the population), belonging to numerous faiths (Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic and Maronite perhaps foremost among them). They form a sizable and visible minority in major cities and even a majority in certain towns. Syria has some of the world’s oldest Christian communities, given its proximity to the Holy Land, including in Maalula, where the local population still speaks Aramaic, the language that was spoken by Jesus. My namesake Paul was famously converted in Damascus, many important early saints and theologians lived their lives in Syria and Syria was a core part of the Christian Byzantine empire until the time of the Arab Islamic conquest (a testament to this being, in addition to the living churches, the huge numbers of religious sites and churches that lie among the Byzantine, and older, ruins).
Statue of Mary and crosses, Maalula
Even after the region came under the control of the caliphs, Christians prospered (freedom of worship for Christianity and Judaism is a core Islamic practice, as the three faiths all worship the same god) and formed a significant percentage of the population. In the twentieth century, because of Syria’s continuing tolerance and secular government, many Christians (ranging from Armenians fleeing Turkey to Iraqi refugees fleeing war) have sought refuge here, expanding the local Christian population.
Many faiths are represented in the Christian district of Aleppo.
Syria excels in the amount of apparent harmony there is among different religious groups, but there are also large Christian populations in other Arab countries. Lebanon was originally created by the French to be a majority Christian Arab country, and the Copts form a sizable minority in Egypt (one of my closer friends in high school came from a Coptic family). Christians make up a significant minority in Palestine as well. This may be stating the obvious, but Arab Christians are just as Arab as Arab Muslims, culturally (although Christian women may dress less modestly), linguistically (using the Arabic language for worship, including the Arabic word for god, Allah) and ethnically (that is, you cannot “tell them apart”).
[It is important to note here, although the topic really merits a separate post, the extent to which Christian and Muslim Arab opinion on the issue of Israel is essentially the same–for Arabs, the Israeli issue is not fundamentally a religious one but a national and political one; in fact, given that Israel grants citizenship to all Jews regardless of national origin, enlarging the Israeli population and arguably displacing both Muslim and Christian Arabs from their ancestral homes, some people we have spoken to see the Jewish position as the fundamentally religion-based one, perhaps somewhat contrary to what people think in America, which is that the Arabs must be the ones who are religiously driven. Especially seeing the bizarre support by some American evangelical Christians for Israel, it is tempting to agree that Zionism is far more faith-based than the Arab position.]
Syria is as much a part of the Mediterranean world as it is a part of the Middle East.
Though I, not having traveled much in southern Europe, cannot make this observation definitively as to lifestyle, it seems to me evident in the diet and character of the people, the terrain and of course history, that Syria can be viewed as part of the Mediterranean world. The staples here include olives and cheese, and the cuisine is of the universal mediterranean variety that one finds in the Levant, Turkey and Greece. People are expressive and in appearance (and often dress, as far as the men are concerned) no different than southern Europeans. [Post on this to come.] The hillsides surrounding the Crusader castles reminded me far more of southern France than I thought they would, leading me to think that the Crusaders may not have felt so far from home after all. And, historically, the region has been oriented westward toward the sea (as part of the worlds of the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders) as much as east- and southward toward Iran and Arabia (and has often been a balancing point between the two).
In the souk
Countryside near Krak des Chevaliers (in upper right)
Syria is ethnically diverse.
There are two points here. The first is that there are significant and visible ethnic minorities in Syria, including Kurds (2 million, or about 10%) and Armenians (100,000). While they all speak Arabic and are integrated into the country (identify themselves as Syrians), they often know their ancestral tongue and participate in their own cultures. One Kurdish driver we hitched a ride with (Kurds are sometimes quick to identify themselves as Kurds, even unsolicited) proudly blasted loud Kurdish music. Other Kurds we have met were eager to discuss our perception of Kurds. Armenians are united not only by ethnicity but by their faith, and can be seen attending church services. Unlike the Kurds (who to us are not easily identified by appearance), Armenians tend to be fair in coloration and somewhat easier to distinguish. One Armenian woman explained to us how flights from Aleppo (the main home of the Armenian community in Syria) to Yerevan were always full and hard to book.
A Kurdish woman
Armenian youth outside an Armenian church in Aleppo
The second point, and I think the more interesting one, is that “Arab” ethnic identity is far more complicated than I imagined. Unlike in the Gulf, where Arab carries with it a certain homogeneous outward appearance, Arab people in Syria have very diverse appearances. This must be because of the many, many peoples who have flowed in and out of the area over time, and gradually become assimilated to Arab language, culture and identity. The Arab armies at the time of the Arab conquest, after all, did not massacre and replace the local population–it is that the (largely already Semitic) people who were here became Arabized over time (not to mention the people who arrived after the Arab conquest–presumably there are descendents of Crusaders and Mongols in Syria). Color in terms of skin, hair and eyes varies widely, far more widely than I expected–so much so, that there are people here who could pass for almost any caucasian ethnic group, from Indian to northern European (who knew we would see so many redheads in the Middle East!). [Post on this to come.]
Traditional dress does not indicate a puritanical mindset.
Does not really illustrate the point, but a fun picture–the women apologized for getting in the way, although of course they were an essential part of the composition.
I think, before coming here, I had a sense that people who dressed in very traditional Arab Islamic clothing must take themselves (and their religion) very seriously, and so were so pious as to be un-fun. It seemed that people who wanted to set themselves apart from the modern world in such manner must want also to keep their distance from outsiders and their ways. While it is true that a woman wearing a burka is likely to be fairly reserved and cautious in her interactions with a foreign man, many people we’ve met in what in the West would be considered some form of Islamic dress have not at all matched the stereotype that I held.
At play in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque in Aleppo
A friendly cleric outside the Grand Mosque in Aleppo
In terms of behavior, wearing a veil here in Syria seems to predict almost nothing. Young women in Syria wear all sorts of modern western clothing (often tight, though not exposing much skin), and sometimes accessorize with a sexy scarf to cover the head (often topped with a pair of trendy sunglasses). The “veil”, though perhaps dictated by custom, merely becomes another accessory and not one that defines their modern outlook. And some of these young ladies are among the most flirtatious in the world!
A modern Syrian woman, Aleppo
A group that we met at Apamea. The young ladies, though dressed in black, were very made up and sexy. As they passed us, they asked us (in Arabic) to take their pictures (as many Syrians do). When we took the camera out, however, the older woman who was with them (a teacher?) scolded them and tried to block us, while the girls kept trying to evade her and get photographed. Even after they passed us, they kept looking back and giving us very, um, warm, smiles.
Similarly, we’ve met older women in full black dress who are incredibly friendly and even playful, sometimes encouraging their children and even daughters to interact with us and practice the English they’ve been learning. Derek swears that a woman in a burka shot him with a squirtgun at the Aleppo Citadel.
Waving hello, Aleppo Citadel
Enjoying an ice cream in the Damascus souk (incidentally, the ice cream, which is from a very famous store called Bekdach, is horrible). This woman posed for Derek for what must have been at least thirty clicks.