From excessive buying habits to austerity, how war changed Syrians’ consumption mindset

Illustration (Human Rights Watch)

From excessive buying habits to austerity, how war changed Syrians’ consumption mindset

Illustration (Human Rights Watch)

Illustration (Human Rights Watch)

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Enab Baladi – Lujain Mourad

“I still carry the memories of our house filled with piles of purchases upon my father’s return from the al-Hal main vegetable market in Damascus.”

These memory engravings are one of the hundreds of memories that can never be re-lived under the hardships we experienced in the war years,” Dania recalls in a phone call with Enab Baladi from her home in the al-Adawi neighborhood in Syria’s capital.

The 36-year-old, who preferred to be called Dania for security reasons, says participation in arranging weekly and monthly food supplies was an obligation for all family members, as well participation in preparing seasonal commodities and food was obligatory even for the neighbors.

As she laughs, she recalled her mother harnessing all the neighbors to help her prepare the long-term food supplies or “el-Mouneh” in the Damascene dialect.

“I used my mother’s buying style, as I kept preparing for supplies and buying large quantities of everything that could be stored for reasons related to saving when buying at wholesale stores, or perhaps out of habit,” Dania said.

“My father was a friend of Souk al-Hal” even in terms of daily necessities, he used to go to the marketplace to bring our needs on a weekly basis to ensure that they were always available at home, as he was angry that there was any shortage in the house,” she added.

The Souk al-Hal market, previously known as the Mardam Bey garden, is part of the consumption culture in the Damascene household, which relies on buying large quantities of food in preparation for the weekly and seasonal food supplies that carries a family ritual experienced by most Damascenes of all social classes.

“Al-Hal” extends over a large area in Damascus where selling is in wholesale or large quantities, mainly vegetables and fruits. It is divided into many small markets such as the meat market, al-Bzouriya market, and the “covered” market, as Dania described it. 

Ammar, another Damascene who talked to Enab Baladi via a phone call, said, “Our house was one of the old Arab houses that contained food supplies and storage room, which was never empty from anything that could or could not be stored.” 

“Storing food supplies was done in many ways, especially in the Damascus suburbs,” he added.

Ammar also recalled his family’s gathering in preparation for long-term food supplies for each season.

“We used to gather in the courtyard to remove broad beans and peas from the husks at the beginning of May and cut fruits to make jam in the summer, and we would gather around the fireplace in late October to slice and salt the olives.”

According to Mohammed al-Abdullah, a researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, consumer behavior in different societies tends to be an inherited habit among members of society, as it is affected by the whole behavioral values ​​and traditions of the society.

Austerity

The conditions imposed by the conflict did not leave room for the Damascene families to keep their “food storing” rituals or even to buy in large quantities, and we were forced to buy the minimum of our needs, as Dania said, expressing her dissatisfaction with the circumstances that changed many details in her life and limited her purchasing power.

“We used to get tired from preparing kitchen supplies and from visiting the al-Hal market, but today we miss it, not because it is related to the family’s feelings, but because it reflects the luxury of buying your basic needs.” 

Dania described the Damascene house today as an “incomplete” and “unstable” house, considering that the previous purchasing habits imposed a state of stability on the house and kept its family reassured that their food meal would be available for at least another day.

“The family that used to buy vegetables and fruits in boxes now counts their purchases by the piece, and the ounce has become the most used purchasing unit instead of the kilo,” the woman said.

The Syrian conflict has transformed the Souk al-Hal visit from a “routine” ritual into a monopoly for a certain class, who can afford to buy large quantities that most families consider a dream, according to Dania.

Consumption culture

Al-Abdullah, of the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, said the consumer culture in Syria was characterized by rationality and the presence of consumer awareness among the majority of society members due to the low level of income in general and priority patterns of most Syrian families, which secured a kind of social and economic stability.

“The consequences of the Syrian conflict have cast a shadow over the determinants of consumer culture, and individuals have resorted to significantly reducing the volume of their purchases,” the researcher added.

In turn, Akram Afif, an advisor at the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Agriculture, had criticized, in an interview published by the pro-regime al-Watan newspaper in March 2021, the consumption habits, proposing several solutions to reduce the economic crises experienced by citizens in the regime-held areas.

Afif, who is also a development expert, said the Syrians’ consumer habits are “not sound” because they “are living so far as if they were in the pre-crisis stage since they resort to buying their food needs by the kilo or by the box, and they are ashamed to buy by piece like the Europeans.”

Basic needs on margin

The consumption habits of the Syrians included the transfer of many foodstuffs from the list of basic requirements to the “list of requirements that can be postponed,” according to what Enab Baladi monitored.

This is what made Ammar say that the meal turned from a healthy and fun benefit to an attempt to get a minimum benefit or enough food to live.

“Today, we have to choose between different types of food to buy the most filling at the lowest possible cost, which has transformed our home meal that was once rich in many types of food into a meal of limited products and quantities,” Ammar said.

Most families’ food became limited to one nutrient meal “to a certain extent,” while many families are unable to secure it, according to what Dania said, noting her fears that most families will be unable to secure it soon.

Lamb meat has also become a “luxury” that is often limited to the distribution of sacrificial meat by Syrians abroad in Eid al-Adha and religious events, as families have resorted to relying on chicken for cooking or dispensing with meat completely, Dania reveals.

According to the researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, al-Abdullah, many simple foodstuffs were left out of the families’ consumption list due to their high prices over the past years, which began to threaten the health and food security of these families.

Syria ranks first among the ten most food-insecure countries in the world, with 12 million people suffering from limited or uncertain access to food, and about 14.6 million Syrians are dependent on aid this year, with an increase of 9 percent over 2021, and an increase of 32 percent in 2020, says the United Nations.

Factors that changed consumption mindset

The consequences of the conflict in Syria played a major role in changing the culture of consumption in the Syrian house and unified the culture of consumption, as it imposed a “minimum” purchase culture for most classes of society.

“While our monthly income is less than half of our minimum expenditure, not only our buying habits have changed, but even how much we eat and the way we eat,” says Dania.

According to the estimates of Action Against Hunger, the change in the lives of most Syrian families, who spend about 50 percent of their monthly income, forces them to buy less than they need to survive.

The power outage is also one of the main reasons preventing Syrians from buying large quantities of food due to the lack of an appropriate way to store it. Dania said that food spoilage is a disaster for most Syrians today, pointing out that many people are drying vegetables in order to store them if they can secure the price of buying them in large quantities.

“There is no dining table that brings together family members today, as most families miss at least one person, and my family’s table misses three people,” Ammar said, explaining another reason why the buying rituals were not the same as they were before in his house after his brothers had to live in Turkey.

The researcher, al-Abdullah, stressed that the consumer culture was mainly affected by low levels of income and high prices, as the change is linked to certain economic conditions that society is going through.

The level of income is the main controller of consuming culture, and individuals with limited income are often characterized by having a rational consumption pattern, unlike individuals with high incomes who have many purchasing options for any product.

Al-Abdullah also attributed the change in the consumer culture of individuals and reduced purchasing power to the decision to lift subsidies.

The government plays a key role in influencing the consumption pattern of members of society in several ways, most notably the level of support provided by it for goods and services, which significantly reduces the level of fluctuation in their prices, he said.

What also played a role in reducing purchasing power was the gradual lifting of subsidies on consumer goods and the sharp decline in purchasing power by the regime’s government.

The regime-controlled areas are witnessing electricity rationing, as the regime’s government does not set a fixed standard for the number of outage hours that may reach 23 hours outage.

It is also witnessing a daily increase in prices amid conflicting justifications between officials and traders, coinciding with the decision to lift subsidies and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the global economy, in addition to the Russian war on Ukraine, which caused a state of panic over the possibility of losing imported materials from the two warring countries to the Middle East countries, including Syria, according to the Washington Post.

 

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