From south to north, how war affected hospitality traditions in Syria
Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli
The people of Syrian rural areas and the Badia region have always put hospitality at the forefront of their interests, and honoring the guest was an inherent feature in those areas, and in the Syrian cities, the Syrians preserved the customs and traditions of hospitality in the men’s gatherings and the “morning sessions” for women.
Serving the lamb meal in Deir Ezzor and Daraa, the “Tharood” (the most famous traditional meal) in al-Hasakah and Raqqa, and the “Alnazzalah” meal for the people of the city of al-Hasakah were an indispensable custom when a new guest arrived.
The guesthouses did not close their doors in Houran, from Quneitra to As-Suwayda, passing through Daraa, so the cups of Arabic coffee were placed on standby, waiting for a guest or a passer-by for 24 hours.
During the last decade, with the war that ravaged the country, and the accompanying living crisis that spread to various regions, things changed, and long queues of people spread to buy basic commodities in cities. There is also the suffering of the internally displaced and the shantytowns spreading on the margins and outskirts of cities.
Year after year, the crisis affected the lives of millions of Syrians, and they became unable even to secure their own bread, let alone to preserve the customs of honoring the guest associated with their culture, and the simplest means of receiving guests have become among the matters that must be carefully scheduled and dealt with carefully.
Enab Baladi visited some regions and cities to monitor the changes in hospitality habits.
The rituals of hospitality among Syrians have always differed between the countryside of the provinces of rural environment and the city centers, as honoring the guest in rural culture is one of the main issues, even if he/she is just a passer-by.
It was customary for Daraa governorate, from which the 55-year-old Jabr hails, that hospitality differs according to whether the guest is from the town or from outside it. If he is a stranger to the region, a feast is given to him by slaughtering a sheep, then followed by a meal of chicken for the second meal.
As for the guests of the town, whether in the evening gatherings that the residents used to hold or in the non-routine banquets, they are received in one of the guesthouses, where sweet tea and coffee are served, in addition to the bitter coffee, which is an essential element in every session for the region known for its tribal structure.
However, the situation today is not the same as it was before, especially since the prices of basic commodities and meat have increased tens of times, coinciding with the decline in income for most of the people of Daraa governorate.
Hospitality habits have changed with the change in the living conditions in the house of Abu Muhammad, 65, as livestock were slaughtered in the past in honor of the guest, but today the price of the carcass ranges between 400,000 and 500,000 Syrian pounds, while the price of one kilo of chicken meat is 17,000 pounds.
Despite the hardships suffered by the residents of Daraa governorate, they still adhere to the traditions of generosity and hospitality despite the high costs, and they replace high-priced necessities with sweets and home-cooked foods.
Among the hospitality rituals in which Daraa is distinguished are sweets known locally as “Lazakiyat,” which is a type of popular sweet that is baked on the “saj” with sugar and nuts as toppings, which is what Saeed, 50, relies on today when receiving guests, in addition to chicken meat.
As for Daraa city, Abu Ali, who is one of the city’s notables, said that the people of Daraa have preserved the “custom of hospitality,” as it is inherited from the ancestors, and it is fixed and will not change with changing circumstances, no matter what hardships happen to people.
He added that life has become difficult for the general public, but the principles of honoring the guest are still a duty for every Hourani man, even if he is forced to borrow money, “he must fulfill his duty towards his guest.”
A change in culture
From the far south to northeastern Syria, where the Syrian Jazeera is located, Jassim, 63, from the village of Jaza’a, east of al-Hasakah, talked about the deep-rooted clan nature of the people of the province and their interest in the principles of honoring guests.
According to Jassim, the region is most famous for serving the “Tharood” meal to express the extent of respect the owner of the house has for his guest.
“Tharood” is a meal consisting mainly of loaves of saj bread layered on top of each other (six or eight loaves on average), over which broth and sheep meat are poured exclusively.
With the changes that occurred in the lives of Syrians in terms of living conditions, the ingredients of this meal changed in Jassim’s house, as “Tharood” is now prepared with chicken meat, although it was a “shameful” thing for the residents of the area previously, according to what he told Enab Baladi.
It is no longer possible for the residents of the eastern countryside of al-Hasakah to buy carcasses as they used to, as the price of one sheep has reached about 500,000 Syrian pounds.
The high prices changed the culture of the region, and there is a flexibility that allows chicken meat to be served, although its prices are also high and not affordable for everyone, according to Jassim.
Very few of the tribal figures and notables have preserved the traditions of hospitality in their old form, as they still prepare banquets and prepare “Tharood” from sheep meat to this day, Jassim said.
The deteriorating living conditions affected the way of life of Saleh, 48, who hails from the city of al-Hasakah, and the nature of social relations, including the principles of hospitality.
“Alnazzalah” is absent
Even in the absence of guests, the table became less varied, even for the members of the same family, and limited to a few items of food, Saleh told Enab Baladi.
With the majority of the population aware of the deteriorating living conditions, most of them now avoid visits during mealtimes, such as lunchtime, with the aim of not embarrassing the host and forcing him to prepare an expensive lunch that is sometimes equivalent to half of his monthly salary.
It was one of the habits of the people of the neighborhood in which Saleh lived to prepare a meal called “Alnazzalah,” which was prepared in case a new person moved to live in the neighborhood.
This meal requires that it be prepared from sheep meat exclusively and is considered an initiative to get to know the new neighbor and the residents of the neighborhood.
The name of the “Alnazzalah” meal was derived from the arrival of a new inhabitant in the neighborhood, but the living conditions also affected this custom.
This custom has been absent from al-Hasakah for years due to the inability to hold it, and it was embarrassing at first, but it has become normal today, as the conditions are known to everyone, according to Saleh.
Badia and Urban areas
Contrasting with tribal customs in the Syrian countryside and the Badia region, things varied in the cities, according to the person’s income and economic circumstances, but things changed in general.
The deteriorating living conditions affected the style of hospitality in the cities, and there are those who abolished it completely, especially in the city centers where the clan nature did not enter into the principles of hospitality, such as the city of Salamiyah, east of Hama, that is located on the edge of the Badia region.
Although Salamiyah is surrounded by dozens of villages inhabited by Bedouins and clans, the customs of honoring the guest did not coincide with the tribal areas.
The Salamiyah-based Raghad, an alias for a woman in her forties, told Enab Baladi that the basics of receiving guests were always associated with preparing mate (a herbal tea) and sweets, but the high prices in the city, which is mainly known for its poor population, prevented these customs from being preserved.
Today, some of the city’s poor residents resort to replacing tea with mate drink for hospitality purposes since the price of a box of mate today is about 16,000 Syrian pounds, which is not enough for a few days for personal use.
As an example of the decline in the ability of the city’s residents to host one another, Hassan, 34, spoke to Enab Baladi about his marriage a few months ago and the many visits from relatives and friends to congratulate him.
Since everyone lived with the difficult situation and understood its circumstances, the guests asked not to offer anything but tea to avoid embarrassing their host, Hassan concluded.
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