Spending summers in Syria meant taking part in traditions. Some I welcomed, others I dreaded.
Lunchtime with mom’s family was one of the most memorable traditions. Khalo Ameed (Uncle), Khalto Hazar and Khalto Nowara (Aunts) and later my younger cousins, sat at my Jiddo’s dinner table, feasting over his signature dishes. Baked meat (Lahmeh Bissenieh), meat, cheese and spinach pies (Sfeeha) and fresh yogurt we brought in a pail from the corner store. Jiddo lived a healthy life, aside from being a smoker. He ate well for breakfast, a big meal for lunch and a light meal for dinner. At lunch he told us the latest track and field stories; as a coach, he had many. He gave us updates on Ali Beik and Aleka Khanoum, his close friends, and recounted stories of his younger days traveling on horseback between Damascus and Hama.
On Eid day (Adha or Fiter), Jiddo would arrive to our house after attending Eid Prayer and visiting the cemetery where his elder family members were left to rest. He wore a Kumbaz (traditional Syrian costume). By the time he arrived, we would have mopped the house, and got dressed in newly purchased outfits commemorating Eid. After drinking a cup of Turkish coffee we set out to visit family.
We started with a visit to the Turbeh (cemetery) to lay Aas (a flower used for cemetery visits), read Quran verses and ask God to forgive and bless our departed family members. Then we moved on to visit elder family members, my Jiddo’s older sister, his uncle, and my An’a Radia’s older brothers Khalo Mazhar. We returned home to receive younger family members who came to visit Jiddo Naim. Visitors would come in waves all day. By the time evening came, I would be ready to sit on the balcony and watch the glittering stars, while listening to Jiddo reading Quran or telling stories.
Jiddo was a great storyteller. His memory seemed supernatural to me. He recounted dates by the day, month and year and went well into history. I attributed that to his love for reading. His library seemed huge; the fact that he had read all those books made him an authority on everything in my eyes! He seemed to have lived a full life; he told stories on politics, sports, religion. Stories on culture and poetry having been close to many of the famous Syrian authors and poets; stories on travel to Europe, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and the far ends of Syria. He was still traveling as the coach of the Syrian National Track and Field Team and writing articles on his passion, sports. When he wasn’t telling stories, he would write; surrounded by books and magazines, he wrote for hours; occasionally looking up at me with a tender smile.
My least favorite tradition was mourning rituals (Aaza). Riddled with protocol, shrouded with sadness, and sufficient insincerity to make me shy away from any Aaza as an adult. Since my parents had lived in Damascus, it seemed we only visited Hama to attend Aaza’s. A few I attended, remain vivid in my memory; An’a Radia’s and Jiddo Mohamad’s Aazas were painful. I was very young when An’a Radia passed on in Damascus; hers was the first and last Aaza I attended there. I hid under a coffee table, as women wearing black, with shear black head-scarves poured into her family room. Qu’ran recitation echoed in the halls of their home. My mother cried, and was consoled by Tant Aleka and others of An’a Radia’s friends. In the next room, men filed in to pay their respects to my grandfather, who was seated in the far end of the living room.
My Jiddo Mohamad’s Aaza in his hometown of Hama was noisy. All I remember was the house filled with women. It seemed the men’s Aaza took place elsewhere. As women walked through the front door, they looked at their reflection in the foyer mirror, fixed their head scarfs, turned left, and howled loud cries. I couldn’t understand what brought the frenzy on. I knew their screeching voices bothered me, and seemed to bother members
of my family who set out in panic anytime someone came in howling. Who were these people, and how could they go from full composure to utter madness in a few seconds? On that day, I decided that I wouldn’t attend anymore Aaza’s in Hama; and since my Jiddo Mohamad had died, I saw no reason for us to go there, ever again!
Tradition dictates that visitors enter the room, heading straight to the close family, seated at the far end of the mourning hall. There’s an order to who sits at the head of the hall; wife, mother, first born daughter. They shake hands, say a few consoling words and move to an empty seat. They stay long enough to read a few Qur’anic versus, and drink a cup of black, bitter coffee. While tradition dictates that after drinking at someone’s home you should say “may it last” (Daymeh), during a Aaza, the verse is replaced with one of a number of Aaza appropriate replies such as “May Allah console you” (Awad Allah Ajerkon” or “May you live a long life” (Elbaeyeh bi hayatkon).
Remembering the departed took on another form in Syria; visiting their burial sites on special occasions. My mother would take us to visit An’a’s burial place for Eid. This was not fun for several reasons. First, An’a Radia was buried in a cemetery on Qasyoun Mountain. After a taxi ride that seemed like a vertical climb, we had to trek up very steep steps to get to the cemetery. Second, the place seemed awfully crowded. We struggled to reach our destination burial ground without stepping on other people’s graves. My maternal aunt (Khalto Nowar) explained during one visit that families purchase a site, and that member of the family are buried together, or next to each other. Our family location seemed too small to me to accommodate one let alone many family members. I hated crowded spaces. Finally, the visit brought on sadness; everyone came away crying. Why did we do this on Eid? A day that was meant to be festive and happy!
I disliked Hama’s cemetery visits for different reasons. Shortly after my paternal aunt’s husband passed on, Jiddo Mohamad took me with him and my youngest uncle Samir to a cemetery in Hama where our family members are buried. I must have been between 5 to 7 years old because on the way to the cemetery, a tooth that had been wiggling for a while finally came loose. I held it in my hand and walked out of the car closely following Jiddo Mohamad.
The place seemed hazy brownish beige. An open space, that seemed endless at the time, with domes of sand all around. We walked for a while until we got to one that Jiddo Mohamad confirmed was my uncle’s tomb. How he could tell the difference was beyond me. But I didn’t care much, I was consumed with my fallen tooth which had dropped along the way. As my uncle Samir and Jiddo Mohamad stood reciting versus of the Quran, I got busy looking around for my tooth. I felt a great sense of loss when it was time to leave, and I had to leave my tooth behind in this empty place. I was also upset because Jiddo Mohamad seemed quite sad.
A year later, I would visit Jiddo Mohamad’s grave site in the same location with my uncle Samir and my cousin Bashar. I searched again for my tooth, after doing a very quick Quran reading at Jiddo’s tomb. In reality, that would be the last time I visited that cemetery in Hama. In my dreams, it would visit me years later. When Hama became the target of a government raid, stories emerged at the mass grave sites that were dug in the cemetery, where hundreds of our family members were piled on top of each other. The only way the world would learn about this was from the half-dead who managed to crawl out of the grave site to nearby villages. That image haunted my dreams for years and reconfirmed my distaste for cemeteries.
My hatred for cemetery visits would later be confirmed by a Wahabi education in Saudi. The Wahabi sect deemed the practice un-Islamic. We were taught that visiting the cemetery was a pagan tradition left over from past regional cultures. Given my experiences in Syria, I didn’t need to questions that. Anytime my mother asked me to visit my An’a Radia’s burial site, I would recite a few versus from my religion book and tell her I can’t. I was happy to have the excuse to keep me away.
In hindsight all traditions contributed to my sense of identity. Whether I accepted that at the time or not, the effect became clear when I had my children.