The Falafel factor: Syria’s disappearing middle class and rising polarization   

Edited by Enab Baladi

Edited by Enab Baladi

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Enab Baladi-Hussam al-Mahmoud

In different parts around the world, human societies are divided into three social classes— upper, middle, and lower—based on a set of socio-economic factors like income, education, race, and ethnicity among others, which contribute, one way or another, to shaping the cultural identity of an individual, a group, or even a residential area.  

Aggregated into such a social hierarchy, it is the middle class that often shows an urge to work, realize objectives, and achieve aspirations, enabled by resources obtained through its status within said stratification. Middle-class individuals and groups have average access to healthcare, education, and other basic services and needs, such as food and clothing.

Under typical grouping conditions, a middle class would consist of craftsmen and persons running their own small-scale, but independent, businesses. In Syria, however, the class expands to include white collars too, including doctors, engineers, and teachers. Coming from these varying professional backgrounds, the components of the Syrian middle class create a heterogeneous population mass, which shares a few common traits, such as the ability to make income sufficient to cover their consumerist trends.

The status of the Syrian middle class underwent several changes during Bashar al-Assad’s reign, compared to his father’s, Hafez al-Assad. Since 2000, under al-Assad governance policies, the middle class shrank socially and economically.

During his rule, Hafez al-Assad designed Syrians’ lives around aspects of similarity and uniformity, which applied to clothes, food, and livelihoods. This careful design aimed at avoiding tensions and establishing the rule of security authorities, or at least blind the poorer citizens to class differences. This design created the illusion that all citizens are equals under the rule of the Ba’ath Party. Everyone was indeed equal, but in being subjects to repression.

Only the fewest of Syrians were allowed to escape the boundaries of this equality, including businessmen, members of security services or the army, and politicians whose influence and bank accounts grew larger over the course of Bashar al-Assad’s presidential terms.

Fathers passing on the burden

According to a 2019 study by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung foundation, titled “Local Economies in Syria: Divisions and Dependencies”, the fragmentation experienced by the Syrian society during the revolution has deeply changed household financial dynamics. It even benefited many Syrian families, as it developed their living conditions.

The study demonstrates that in the earlier years of the revolution, “first-generation parents occupied the centers of economic strengths in the family, as they had more stable employment status due to their seniority, contrary to the second generation, who are relatively new to the job market.”

At the onset of the conflict, the study adds, parents controlled family savings and estate, which enabled them to take up chief familial economic roles—earning income, keeping jobs and lending money. However, strength centers shifted and roles, along with the familial financial burdens, were reassigned to children, “who were better equipped to adapt to the turbulent changes in the Syrian labor market.”

“Many members of the second generation were forced to change careers after 2011, unlike the older generation of parents who were less flexible in this regard.”

The shelling and military activities stripped several families of their properties and savings, foregrounding these role alterations, with children playing providers and parents retaining their social role, making the link between family members.

Expatriates are the new strength center

Social researcher Sultan Jalabi told Enab Baladi that the Syrian government had an open economy plan in view since 2000, but the policies set up to liberate the national economy from the State hegemony resulted in benefits for the influential businessmen of the period. These policies disrupted the path of market liberalization.

He added that the consequences of these policies constricted the State’s social and economic role and reinforced the income inequality, which later turned the country into a breeding ground for the forces that ignited the revolution.

Jalabi said that the economic and social relationships between Syrians, inside and outside the country, are governed by deep familial or social ties.

He added that the Syrian expatriates’ support for those who stayed in the country and the money they are sending them have played an operative role in improving the economy’s pace. This incoming money did not only benefit families but also the regime, which considers expatriates a support component that is boosting the country’s credit of foreign currencies.

Jalabi also summed up the findings of an upcoming study by the Operations and Policy Center, which concluded that the majority of Syrians inside the country consider immigrants—refugees and expatriates— either as lucky or unfortunate for being forced to leave the country and deprived of the ability to make the decision to stay or leave.

The study also found out that, despite the unfriendly discourse that the regime-affiliated media outlets are using against Syrians abroad, most of the selected study cases look on this group with favor or sympathy and would like to leave the country themselves if offered an opportunity.

Jalabi said that the country’s economic circumstances have given rise to social inequality, manifested in income gaps and disparate priorities, adding that inequality does exist even though Syrians are not aware of it.

Poor communication: rise of the gap

Based in Syria, Ammar, a 34-year-old teacher, is in favor of reconciling with the idea that the Syrian society is class-structured.

He added that the middle class which he was once a member of has disappeared and gave way to poverty.

Ammar told Enab Baladi that communication between Syrians still in the country and those abroad bears the impact of their living conditions. People inside Syria are toiling to make a living, and this has affected their interests, which are considerably different from the interests of those abroad.

He added that unmatching living conditions have created a cultural rift and a difference in discussion manners and approaches to subject matters.

Setting himself as an example, Ammar said that he barely or never communicates with his friends who live outside Syria, attributing under-communicating to the brutal lifestyle in the country that is forcing people to be over solitary. Drawn to their own worlds, these people would seek solutions to their problems, sometimes in self-absorbed ways, instead of sharing their troubles with persons who have overcome the same difficulties and moved into a better reality.

The Falafel factor

In a 23 March report, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) alarmingly states that Syria, along with 19 other countries, is “due to suffer acute hunger [over 2021].”

This ominous report predicts a bleaker image of the life of Syrians, who are already grabbling with extreme poverty, waking up to daily lows hit by the Syrian pound exchange rate to the US dollar and steeper rises in the prices of food and other necessary commodities.

Syrians in the country are battling to afford basic needs, starting with bread, while relatives and friends abroad are miles away from these cruel details.

Since 2020, over 90% of Syria’s population has been living under the poverty line according to Akjemal Magtymova, the World Health Organization (WHO) Representative in Syria.

Abdulkarim, a 28-year-old married man, said that the way Syrians abroad and those still in Syria treat each other is immensely different from the way they used when they were both inside the country, and this is basically due to their changing styles of living.

Abdulkarim told Enab Baladi that “the person with whom I used to share an invaluable meal of Falafel, today eats all sorts of expensive food and wears fancy clothes that I cannot afford to buy in my country,” stressing that he is living by the same financial conditions with large numbers of Syrians who stayed in the country and who are deeply concerned over their daily bread.

According to Abdulkarim, the changed-life-style approach does not only influence the extent of communication, but also its mode, because the persons involved in communication have different types of food, clothing, places of residence, nightmares, and dreams. The life-routine gap might lead to self-reproach and regret for having taken the decision to stay in Syria.

Mundane traumas

In his 2017 book The Broken Ladder, Keith Payne, a social psychologist at the University of North Carolina, argues that humans are instinctively inclined to identify the slightest differences. He also establishes a connection between vulnerability to poor health, anger, and political and religious polarization upon recognizing one’s own poverty and lack of power compared to wealthier and stronger others.

Payne in an interview with VOX, adds that “the perception of inequality around us has a couple of different effects. One is that it makes the average person feel poorer, [in] comparison to those who have more. And the second is that it raises our expectations. It raises our standards for what we think it is to be normal.”

Addressing inequality and its effect on Syrians within the context of the decade-long conflict, psychiatrist Muhammad Abu Hilal told Enab Baladi that, even though they are not classified as traumas per se, the horrifying impact of daily struggles and mundane hardships on individuals is not less adverse than the enormous impact of shelling or displacement, which are acknowledged as major causes to trauma.

He added that the perception of inequality— stemming from an economy that is based on unfair grounds—the inability to achieve priorities, and the feelings of injustice, all thicken the layers of psychological pressure and oppression that individuals are subjected to.

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