Syria’s Funeral Traditions

Syria’s funeral customs are ritualised affairs which vary considerably from region to region.

Whether in church or at the mosque, funerary rites are very similar across Syria. The ceremonies held before and after burial, however, vary a lot from one region to another. Two young women from Damascus and Saida Zeinab, a grandmother from Hassakeh, a painter from Marmarita, an ‘arada band conductor from Damascus and the mayor of Jaramana tell Syria Today how they mark the passing of their loved ones.

Dancing at funerals

Cries of joy fill the air when the ‘arada band – a traditional music group that sings and performs swordplay during weddings and other celebrations – arrives. However, no happy couple is in sight. Instead, a group of men dressed in black approach with a coffin on their shoulders.

“When a pregnant woman or a young mother dies, we sing wedding songs at the funeral,” Nibal Abdoun, a journalism student from Damascus whose friend died in a car accident shortly after giving birth, explained. “I sounded cries of joy at her funeral and prayed for her soul to rest in peace.”

Abu Fayyad, the conductor of the Al-Cham Al-Qadimeh ‘arada band, said it is not uncommon for his group to be invited to perform at funerals throughout the city.

“Damascenes hire an ‘arada band after the death of young bachelors and children as well, to celebrate the wedding they will never have,” he said. “Some people are against having an ‘arada band at a funeral, but sometimes you are just so sad that you need to express your feelings and lose yourself in the music.”

Aside from these musical performances, Damascene funerals are solemn affairs. Prior to the funeral, the corpse is washed and wrapped in two or four pieces of linen or satin cloth. Before tying the cloth’s ends, the mghassel (the person who washes the corpse) asks the family whether the deceased has any debts and who will pay them. Traditionally, the eldest member of the family takes responsibility for the debts, allowing the departed to rest in peace.

To further absolve the sins of the deceased, wealthy Damascene families used to build a sabeel (water fountain) with the name of the deceased inscribed on it. Each person who used the fountain was then asked to recite the fateha (first verse of the Koran) for the soul of the departed.

A sacrifice for the soul

“When someone from my village dies, his family slaughters a ram or a bull as an offering to God to protect his soul,” Roula, a young woman from Qusmeyn, a village on the outskirts of Lattakia, said. “The sheikhs recite prayers and bless the knife before slaughtering the animal.”

The family then invites the poor to lunch, usually for a meal of meat with bulgur, saying a short prayer for the deceased. The sacrifice takes place after the wake and is repeated twice: 40 days after the funeral and again on its anniversary.

“Wakes in our village last for an odd number of days, usually five days for women and seven for men,” Roula said.

During the period of mourning, women dress in black and men grow beards as a sign of grief. The funeral itself is only attended by men; they carry the coffin to the grave, where the corpse is placed wrapped in a white shroud, in accordance with Islamic custom. Prayers are then recited as the grave is covered. Women visit the grave after it has been filled. Three days after the wake begins, the family returns to the grave.

“They go at sunrise and place flowers and myrtle on the grave,” Roula explained.

The tombstone, however, is only placed on the grave 40 days after the burial.

“People in my village believe that the soul dwells near the grave for 40 days,” she said. “That’s why they only place the tombstone afterwards, to avoid trapping it.”

Silent condolence

A large room in Saida Zeinab is filled with dozens of women dressed in black and white. In the background, a tape recorder plays Koranic verses. A woman wearing a loose white headscarf offers newcomers small cups of strong and bitter coffee. At the same time, Bushra, a woman in her thirties, invites groups of three to enter the adjacent room every few minutes. Here, the deceased’s family sits, with three empty chairs facing them. Mourners enter and sit in silence for a few minutes before quietly leaving.

“Mourners don’t speak to the family,” Bushra explains. “They only nod at them in silence and leave after softly reciting the fateha three times.”

Men and women attend separate wakes, which are usually held for three days at the home of the deceased. On the third day, a mouled (a night of religious chanting) is organised in memory of the deceased. The wake is then repeated on four successive Thursdays after the death. The period of mourning ends with a big lunch and a mouled on the fortieth day of mourning.

A week of wakes

Sitting in his living room, Nour al-Din Barakat, the mayor of Jaramana, points to one of many dusty photographs on the wall. In the picture he is dressed in black from head to toe, except for a white headscarf and a shining dagger on his waist.

“We used to attend funerals in a black suit, but today young mourners sometimes wear white shirts – a disgrace,” he said disapprovingly.

The dress code is not the only thing that has changed in Jaramana’s funeral rituals. Since the building of the two maukefs (medium-sized auditoriums) in the Damascus suburb in 1948, they have become the official place for grieving families to receive condolences.

Men and women visit separate maukefs and carry out different rituals. Female relatives cry loudly and hit themselves to express their grief, while the men gather solemnly to reflect on the life of the recently departed. The wake that follows the funeral can last for a full week.

“When a loved one or someone of rank dies, the funeral must last at least one week,” Barakat said.

Communal mourning

In Um Hamzeh’s village located near Hassakeh in the Jazeera region, a family never mourns the death of a loved one alone.

“When someone dies, the whole village shares the family’s grief,” Hamzeh, a short woman in her sixties, said.

As part of the mourning period, the relatives of the deceased refuse to shave or bathe. In an act of solidarity, the whole village follows suit for at least eight days. After this period, friends will visit the grieving family and convince them to take a bath so that the rest of the village can also wash and shave again.

After this, the village continues mourning by not listening to music or watching TV for up to a year. Um Hamzeh explains that this tradition is slowly fading, however, and while the family of the deceased may not listen to music for a year, the rest of the village does.

“People today watch TV and listen to music, but they keep it very low as a sign of respect.”

Money rather than flowers

As the church bells sound the death knell, the people of Marmarita, a village in the Wadi Al-Nasarah (Valley of Christians) region of Homs, grimly make the sign of the cross over their chests. Someone has died.

“Church bells used to be the only way to announce someone’s death,” Fadi Yazigi, a Syrian painter from Marmarita, said. “Today, the name of the deceased is broadcast through loudspeakers and na’awes [obituaries] are pasted around the village.”

The corpse is buried 24 hours after death and only after the deceased’s family and friends have eaten the lukmet el rahmeh (bite of mercy). The deceased is then washed and dressed and the corpse is taken to church where the priest talks about the person’s good deeds.

Following the funeral, the deceased’s family used to wear black for a year – some wives never took off their mourning clothes. Today, however, the family mourns for no more than six months.

“Customs have changed a lot: people no longer bring flowers to the funeral,” Yazigi said. “Instead, they pay money to help the family and the church.”

Photos by Carole al-Farah

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

The Big Day (wedding customs in Syria)

A Western-style ‘white wedding’ is becoming increasingly popular in Syria, but traditional celebrations live on around the country.

The guests sound cries of joy as a thin, exotically dressed belly dancer enters the wedding hall at the Sheraton Ma’aret Hotel in Sednaya, a town 30km north-west of Damascus. After welcoming the guests with tempting twists and hip lifts, the dancer leads the newly weds into the hall.

“I wanted to have a belly dancer at my wedding because my husband Jean is French and I knew he would love to have something so Eastern and exotic at the party,” Rania Bdewi, 35, who hails from the predominately Christian village of Mesenye in the Hauran, said.

But belly dancing is not the only Syrian feature at Bdewi’s wedding. Piles of Syrian delicacies are spread over tables and the happy couple cut their wedding cake with a traditional Damascene sword.

“Apart from the type of food, music and belly dancing, Syrian weddings don’t differ much from French ones,” Jean-Christophe Canler, the lucky groom, said. “Except that we settle for a simple knife to cut the cake.”

Most Syrian couples today celebrate their big day along the lines of a Western-inspired ‘white wedding’. Some, however, still insist on maintaining their grandparents’ traditional wedding customs. An ‘arada band director – a traditional musical group that sings and conducts sword fights during weddings and other celebrations – from the Old City of Damascus, a grandmother from the Jazeera region, a teacher from the mixed Damascus suburb of Jaramana and a young musician from the coast tell Syria Today about traditional marriage customs in their area.

Party in the hammam

“God help him through this night,” sing the 12 members of the Al-Sham Al-Qadeymeh ‘arada band as they surround the anxious groom. Soon, the excited singers dressed in elaborately embroidered vests, white cotton shirts and loose dark trousers, draw forth their traditional Damascene swords and engage in ceremonial swordplay.

“This is an old wedding custom that still forms an important part of today’s weddings,” Abu Fayyad, the thin and restless 40-something who founded the Al-Sham Al-Qadeymeh band, said. “Today people start their wedding with an ‘arada show. In the old days, however, the hammam came first.”

When the clock strikes five in the afternoon, the groom’s friends knock on his door to take him to his wedding bath. Together, they bathe and celebrate with songs and food until sunset. Traditionally, an ‘arada band would be waiting at the door of the hammam to greet the freshly scrubbed groom. With cheerful songs and drum beats, the band would escort him to his family home where a mouled (a night of religious chanting) would already be underway.

During the mouled, friends of the groom gather to take off the groom’s bachelor clothes and dress him in his wedding suit, all the time singing traditional telbise (dressing) songs. Once the groom is dressed, the band engages in swordplay, before accompanying the groom to the location of the wedding ceremony. Here, the bride is already celebrating the marriage with traditional wedding songs and belly dancing.

“A Damascene proverb says everything needs to be concealed, except weddings,” Abu Fayyad laughed.

Indeed, Damascenes make sure that everyone knows about the wedding by making a mubarake (congratulations party) one week after the wedding ceremony. People who did not attend the wedding can come to this party to congratulate the happy couple and give them a wedding gift.

Blessed by the saints

“She saw it in her dream,” Maya Yousef, a 25-year-old qanun player from Qutelbeyeh, a small village near Lattakia, said. “My cousin Juliette saw the shrine of the saint who was going to bless her on her wedding day.”

His name is Saint Hassan and no toasts were made at Juliette’s wedding before she and her groom had received the saint’s blessing. In fact, no wedding takes place in Qutelbeyeh without getting the blessing of one of the saints whose shrines are scattered around the village.

Yousef, a slender woman with thick black curls, described the blessing ceremony with much reverence.

“The couple enters the shrine with their right foot first,” she explained. “After kissing the walls of the shrine, they walk three times around the saint’s tomb asking for his blessing with heartfelt piety. When leaving, the couple walks out backwards still facing the saint and carefully steps outside with their right foot first. People in the village believe that you should never turn your back to the saint’s tomb as it is a sign of disrespect.”

A long night of eating, drinking and dancing the dabke follows, the party only coming to an end when the sun rises.

Test of strength

Dabke dances, which differ from region to region, are also popular in the Jazeera area.

According to Um Ali, an old woman from a village near Hassakeh, everyone in the village dances together, except for the bride and groom.

“They only dance with the brazava [best friends], never together,” Um Ali said while adjusting the loose scarf on her head dotted with a colourful flower motif.

When taking a break from dancing, villagers fill their stomachs with mounds of rice, bulgur and meat – as long as it is red.

“If the couple is rich they will slaughter a bull or a cow,” Um Ali explained. “They could also slaughter sheep. But offering the guests chicken or duck is a disgrace.”

In Um Ali’s day, the bride would only enter the bridal home with her husband after she was sure she had married a real man. To prove this, the groom was compelled to climb onto their new home, traditionally made of mud brick, and kick off a small chunk of the roof. Unless he could break off a small part, he would not be considered a worthy husband.

“My husband was so manly that when he hit the roof a big piece of mud fell right onto my head!” Um Ali recalled with tears of laughter. “He then threw a big jar full of candy and money from the roof to ward off evil from the house. When the jar broke, all the children gathered to collect the presents inside.”

Children also stay alert throughout the wedding celebrations, keen to snatch any of the bride’s possessions. After the wedding, the groom is obliged to pay the children to get the items back.

A week of celebrations

As I sat with Ali Dakak, a teacher living in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, the piles of fruit and ice cream and cups of juice and coffee continue to expanded in front of me at an astonishing rate.

“I have Bedouin origins,” the stout man said cheerfully. “We love feeding our guests.”

Overfeeding guests – especially foreign ones – is a popular past-time throughout Syria, particularly at weddings. But while most people are happy to serve up a delicious spread on the wedding day, Dakak’s Bedouin roots demand a grander celebration.

“We start celebrations a week ahead,” he said enthusiastically.

On the menu is tannour (bread baked in traditional ovens) and kebbeh. The women gather during the day to cook and everyone sings and dances through the night.

“In the past, women would make around 100kg of bread to feed everyone,” Dakak recalled. “That is why every guest used to bring a sack of flour or rice or sugar or some other food item to the celebrations.”

Henna also forms part of many a bride’s wedding celebration. The bride’s unmarried girlfriends organise a special bridal henna party to decorate her body with the natural dye. Often the bride’s friends snatch some of her henna and decorate their hands as a good-luck gesture to increase their own chances of finding a husband.

The groom, on the other hand, is invited by his bachelor friends to the hammam where, after bathing, shaving and having his hair cut, he is playfully roughed-up and stung with sharp needles in the hope that his luck will rub off on his single friends.

“Grooms from our community often attend their wedding parties covered in bruises,” Dakak said with a grin.

Wearing black trousers, a white shirt and an imbaz (a kimono-like silk gown), the groom fixes a white scarf on his head with a traditional black head band and fastens a dagger to his waist to display at the wedding party. The bride, on the other hand, buys four to nine dresses for the occasion and changes her outfit every hour. When she finally puts on the traditional white wedding dress, it is to signal that the party is over.

“The wedding used to be a fashion show, it even ends with a wedding dress,” Dakak said. “Today, weddings last less than 24 hours. They just have a quick party and then everybody goes home. It doesn’t feel like a wedding anymore.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

The Big Question (Engagement Customs in Syria)

It is arguably the most important question you will ever ask or answer: the marriage proposal. So how do young Syrians pop the big question? And have engagement traditions changed over the years?

The tables are filled with guests chatting and munching on sweet biscuits, while a few couples dance lazily to the latest pop hits on a small dance floor. All eyes are fixed on the restaurant’s door. Suddenly, the zaghareed – trilling cries of joy – pierce the air. The happy couple has arrived and the engagement party can begin.

“It all started with a coffee visit,” says the future bride. “My fiancé visited us with his mother to drink coffee and introduce himself. He saw me before at a friend’s house and asked to get to know me better for the purpose of marriage.” More coffee visits followed and after a few months the couple announced their engagement.

Regardless of whether couples meet for the first time over small cups of cardamon-infused coffee, or they already know and love each other, coffee visits remain the most popular way of popping the big question among young Syrians. But what was it like for their parents, or their grandparents? A Damascene restaurant owner, an elderly Christian woman, a grandmother from the coast and a young painter from Hassakeh tell Syria Today about the engagement traditions in their hometowns.

Mother knows best

As I enter a restaurant in the Old City of Damascus, I am surrounded by a hodgepodge of Bedouin tent carpets, old Damascene lanterns and strange plaster decorations that I cannot identify. The stout restaurant owner welcomes me with open arms and a wide smile. Abu Reyyad heralds from an old Damascene family and boasts that he could walk around the Old City blindfolded. His city, however, has changed a lot since Abu Reyyad was a little child – as has love.

“Today, young lovers fill the cafés of old Damascus,” Reyyad says. “I witness countless rendezvous in my restaurant, but it wasn’t always like this. When I was little the couple only saw each other on their wedding day.”

This was how it was for Abu Reyyad. His mother searched for a suitable bride for her son on her weekly visit to the local hammam.

“The hammam used to be the main gathering point for women and therefore the best place to choose a bride,” he said. “In the steam bath, no make-up or fashion tricks can deceive the piercing eyes of the future mother-in-law.”

Once the mother found the right girl, she formed a jaha of women – a group of respected women from the neighbourhood. Together, they would visit the future bride’s mother to ask for the girl’s hand in marriage. If the offer was accepted, discussions would move on to settling the naed, the sum of money the bride receives before her marriage, and the jihaz, the new wardrobe of clothes befitting a married woman. Finally, the groom’s father would form another jaha, this one made up of men, who would visit the bride’s father and announce the engagement.

Even though engaged, the couple could not see each other until they were married in court. “Damascenes have the habit of marrying in court weeks or months before the wedding party,” Reyyad said. “This period is considered part of the engagement, so the couple could meet after this, but they did not move in together or experience the dakhle (entrance), the couple’s first night together, until they held their wedding party.”

Once married in court, the groom’s family was responsible for organising a mouled – a night of religious chanting just for the men. The union would also be celebrated with traditional sweets or ice-cream. The bride’s family, on the other hand, would organise a small, all-women’s party to mark the special day.

A test of strength

“I live in heaven,” Najla Salloum, an elderly woman from Enetreyeh, a small Christian village near Homs, says. “We have beautiful greenery, fresh fruits and water every day.” Indeed, time seems to have stopped in the small village where the villagers still wake to the rooster’s crow and go to bed when the sun goes down.

In spite of all appearances, however, many things have changed in this little village – particularly regarding affairs of the heart. While today young couples interact freely in public, it was not all that long ago that socialising between young sweethearts was quite scandalous. And while money and education are the most highly-prized traits of any good suitor today, things were a little different in Salloum’s day.

“Back then the suitor had to carry a big rock or a jar full of wheat to prove that he is a man,” Salloum says with a smile. “Unless he lifted it, his marriage proposal would be refused.”

Once accepted, the suitor brought sacks of sugar, rice and other food items to his future bride’s house. He would also visit the girl’s house with his father and grandfather to officially ask for her hand. Wealthier suitors would also invite the girl’s family for dinner.

Looking at today’s young men, Salloum is sure most would fail to make the grade. “Young suitors today are like nylon bags, they can’t lift anything,” she says.

Love cannot wait

Sometimes, asking for a girl’s hand in marriage can just take too long. After all, if you are in love, why wait? In Mourik, a small village on the outskirts of Hassakeh in the Jazeera area, suitors did not waste time asking families for permission. Men of the desert, young suitors would kidnap the object of their affections and only return her to the village once she was pregnant, forcing the family to accept their union.

“Kidnapping brides was popular and accepted by society up until the end of the sixties,” Abdul Karim Majdal al-Beik, a tall artist with a light beard who was born in Mourik, recalls.

“My grandfather kidnapped my grandmother and even though customs have changed, he told his sons that if they were men they should kidnap a bride for themselves,” he adds laughing.

For those who preferred to follow a more traditional path to marriage – asking the girl’s family for permission – getting engaged in Mourik was a major event. A party for the whole village was expected and the celebrations took place during the day, from 11am until sunset. The suitor’s family would bring large trays made of straw filled with sweets, while the girl’s family would slaughter up to 15 sheep to feed everyone.

“I still remember the dabke we danced in the village’s square,” Beik says. “I can almost hear the traditional music the gypsy bands used to play at every party.”

Keep it simple

Such elaborate celebrations were not popular in all parts of Syria. Coastal villages such as Rama Al-Kabeera, a small village near Tartous, did not celebrate engagements at all. In fact, when I ask Jureyeh, an elderly grandmother from the village, she lost her temper. “Today you can’t distinguish a wedding from an engagement party,” she said disapprovingly. “It’s as if people are searching for an excuse to throw a party.”

Jureyeh tells me that when a man wanted to become engaged to a woman in her village, he used to buy her a scarf and give it to her as a present. If she found golden coins hidden within its folds then this was an ‘alame (sign) that he wanted to marry her.

“God bless those good old days,” she said. “After all, why create such a big fuss?”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

A Month Like No Other (Ramadan Customs in Syria)

Ramadan is here again. Shops have put out their lanterns and believers have adopted the spirit of worship and Islamic fasting. No food or drink from sunrise until sunset – or at least that is how most people think of the holy month.

But while Ramadan is primarily a religious occasion, for many the month’s social customs are just as important. And while all fasters abstain from food and drink during daylight hours, many of Ramadan’s other rituals differ from region to region. To get a better insight into the diversity of Ramadan customs and traditions, I spoke to a wedding band leader from old Damascus, a young woman from the coast and a young Christian, asking each one what Ramadan means to them.

Socialising, worshipping and shopping

Entering a traditional restaurant in old Damascus, a slender man in his early fifties greets me with a wide smile and heavy Damascene accent. Abu Fayyad proudly shows me photos of young men wearing elaborate traditional suits. They are members of the country’s oldest ‘arada band – a traditional musical group that sings and conducts sword fights during weddings and other occasions – formed by Abu Fayyad in the 1980s.

This month, however, Abu Fayyad is not going to work. It is the holy month of Ramadan, which he dedicates to God and his family. According to Abu Fayyad, many people who own their own businesses or work as freelancers take the month off as well. “All through the year we work for ourselves, this one month is for God,” he says with a smile.

As the Koran stresses the importance of strong family ties, Damascenes spend the first 10 days of Ramadan, mubaraket el-shaher (the month’s congratulations), visiting relatives, starting with the most closely related. “We always gather at my parents’ house on the first day of Ramadan,” Abu Fayyad says. “In large families, you can have up to 60 people eating at one table.” The socialising usually stretches until the early hours and often only finishes with suhur, a small breakfast people eat an hour before sunrise to help them get through the day without food or drink.

The second third of the month is called maghfirah (forgiveness). It is during this period that people contemplate their wrongful deeds of the past year and ask God for forgiveness. But it is not only God whose forgiveness is sought. People also reflect on quarrels they had with neighbours, work colleagues and friends and ask them for forgiveness.

“Just like traders take stock at the end of the year, Ramadan used to be the month when people took stock of their deeds over the past year,” Abu Fayyad, who believes only some people follow this habit today, said.

The last third of the month is spent shopping and preparing for Eid, with clothes, perfumes and traditional sweets topping shopping lists. All of which Abu Fayyad strongly disapproves of. “Before Eid people shop as if the markets are going to die out during the three-day celebration,” he says.

While people usually perform their morning prayers alone at home, during Ramadan men frequently go to the mosque after suhur to pray in a group. Another prayer which is only performed in a group at the mosque is the Taraweeh – an extended prayer performed every day during Ramadan after the last of the five daily prayers. Many women also pray the Taraweeh in groups at the mosque.

A month of charity

Charitable activities form an important part of Ramadan. Most Damascene traders distribute boxes containing SYP 5,000 (USD 108) worth of food – including oil, rice and sugar – to the poor. “This is a new tradition in Damascus that started some five years ago,” Abu Fayyad says. “Rich traders distribute thousands of food boxes during the holy month.”

Fitret Ramadan (Ramadan’s fast breaking) requires another donation of around SYP 75 (USD 1.60) which every Damascene Muslim – young or old, rich or poor – should pay before Eid. The money goes to those most in need. “It’s a way to keep society together and make the poor realise that there are people who are needier than they are,” Abu Fayyad explains.

In some coastal villages like Dweret el-Sheikh Sa’ed near Tartous, charity takes a different form. Arwa Nasir, an energetic little woman, tells me about the two-day celebration that is held in her hometown.

“Large families buy lamb or chicken and kilos of bulgur [cracked wheat] for the celebration,” Nasir explains enthusiastically. “We have so much bulgur during the celebration that I call it the ‘Day of Bulgur’.”

The occasion is celebrated over two days, one in the middle of Ramadan and another at the end of it. Families gather at religious schools to cook the bulgur and meat and distribute it to the people.

Many people then gather at the local shrines. They burn incense before entering, kissing the shrine and donating money for its upkeep. Afterwards, they sit on the grass near the shrine to break their fast. Nasir said that as many coastal villages do not have a mosque, villagers cannot hear the call to prayer. Instead, people break their fast at different times and start eating when they see that the sun has set.

A month of collective celebrations

Many Christians join in on the Ramadan celebrations as well. Rafik Bouz, a young Christian from Damascus, sends dozens of emails every Ramadan to congratulate his Muslim friends at the beginning of their fasting period and later on for Eid. Bouz even fasts for one or two days every Ramadan.

“My best friend is Muslim,” Bouz says. “I don’t feel that we are different. We fast together to share each other’s customs – we both like eating,” he adds with a smile.

Among Bouz’s favourite seasonal snack are the Ramadan bread and the traditional na’em sweets, which he eagerly looks forward to every year. But the fact that he cannot enjoy these delicious snacks in public before sunset bothers him.

“I have to change my habits because eating in public while others are fasting is rude,” Bouz said. “I believe the central message of Ramadan is about sympathising with the poor and your fellow human beings, not fasting. But at the end of the day it’s your personal choice to fast or not.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

Before the advent of electricity and loudspeakers, the muezzin at the Umayyad Mosque would raise a metal ball from the mosque’s middle minaret – known as the Bride’s Minaret – to signal the exact time of sunset to the other mosques in Old Damascus that could not hear the call to prayer.

Another way to signal the exact time of sunset is the firing of midfaa’ or cannons. This tradition is still practiced today: throughout Ramadan two cannons are fired from Mount Qassioun and Mezzeh every day.

Only sheikhs with good singing voices used to work as the musaharati, the men who wake people for suhur during Ramadan. Traditionally, the musaharati used to sing rhyming tales to wake people. They would also receive a plate of food from each family they woke during the night, a custom still practiced by some families.

In addition to refraining from food and drink from sunrise until sunset, Muslim fasters should not swear, smoke or have sex during daylight hours.

The Last Mohican of a Dying Tradition

Famous for his dramatic narration of heroic tales in Syrian cafés, the traditional storyteller is today threatened by TV culture and a change in attitudes.


Seated in a high, ornamented wooden chair in the middle of Noufara café in the Old City of Damascus, Abu Shadi slowly raises his sword before fervently striking the copper table in front of him. Silence fills the room for a brief moment as the audience turns its gaze on the old storyteller. “The battle is finished… Antara survived!” Abu Shadi exclaims, as he draws his spectators into a magical world of heroes and villains.

Before radios and TVs found their way into people’s homes, hakawatis like Abu Shadi could be found all around old Damascus. The traditional storyteller’s narratives were recounted in cafés after sunset, captivating both young and old and giving them something to look forward to after the long workday. “The day seemed to go on forever when we were waiting for sunset,” Khaled al-Masri, a hakawati aficionado, said. “We couldn’t wait to hear the next chapter of the story.”

The hakawati’s stories were not just fiction and fantasy. The heroes were kings and knights such as Baybars I (1233-1277), noble Muslim leaders like Saladin (1138-1193), and pre-Islamic heroes like Antara and his beloved Ablah. “I loved listening to hakawati tales because they were all based on true stories,” Safwan Bounsi, a local who remembers the hakawati’s heyday, explained. “It was fascinating to hear about the victories of Saladin, especially when we knew that this hero was buried just a few meters away from our house!”

To tell a tale however, the hakawati needed more than just reading skills. His great talent lay in his ability to leave his audience spellbound by the story and desperate to hear more. To do this, he would use different dialects and animated body language to bring his characters to life. He would even walk around the room, interrupting the story to ask the avid listeners for their opinions about the story’s characters, speculating about the lessons that could be learnt from the tale.

The hakawati’s readings also focused on the social issues of the time. His short stories offered wise words of advice which addressed the neighbourhood’s collective problems and helped people deal with the hardships of life. “The hakawati was a social guide,” Abu Shadi explained. “People respected him and listened to his advice.”

However, the spread of modern technology such as TVs, radios and computers drove the hakawati tradition to gradual extinction so that the profession was hardly practiced anymore by the 1970s. Today, shiny flat screen TVs and trendy pop songs have replaced the old narrators who once took centre stage in Damascus’ local cafés.

It was only in 1990 that Ahmad al-Rabbat, the owner of Noufara café, decided to revive the dying tradition and ask Abu Shadi to perform readings in his old coffeehouse as a modern-day hakawati.

Although Abu Shadi had often attended hakawati readings with his father as a child, the thought of becoming a storyteller himself was a daunting prospect. “I first told him that it was impossible,” he explained. “I had never been a hakawati before!”

Abu Shadi has since become a renowned modern hakawati, performing in several traditional Syrian cafés and at international festivals in Lebanon, Jordan and Dubai. He explains that the storylines have changed and that certain traditional elements have been lost. He slips some English and Spanish phrases into his narratives and flirts with his female audience. The evening’s narrative is usually interrupted at the climax by his mobile: “It’s only my wife,” Abu Shadi smiles. “The story itself is no longer enough to keep the listener’s attention,” he said. “Without making some jokes, the audience won’t listen for long.”

In addition, the content of the stories is no longer interesting for the younger generations, who fail to find tales of pre-Islamic chivalry and 13th-century victories inspiring anymore. “Obviously, we are more interested in contemporary events and the current problems in Syrian society,” a young hakawati spectator said.

With little money to be earned in the hakawati industry and the Syrian Government seemingly indifferent towards preserving this old tradition, Abu Shadi sees little hope for storytellers in the future. “I do this job because I love it,” he said. “But the younger generation is not interested in such a low-income job.”

According to Thafer Mustafa, a regular customer at Noufara, most cafés have little interest in employing hakawatis anyway. “All they want is for customers to pay and go,” he said. He added that in the past, listeners could order a cup of tea and stay for two hours just listening to the hakawati’s story. But now, the menu is more expensive and anyone who wants to listen to the hakawati’s stories on a daily basis ends up paying a fortune. “Attending once a week isn’t enough to understand a long story such as Saladin’s,” Mustafa said. “It’s like watching four out of 30 episodes in a TV series.”

“With his traditional outfit, the hakawati is seen by many as a folkloric puppet that is used for mere entertainment,” Mustafa added. “People come to the café just to laugh at the hakawati’s jokes and maybe take some photos of the last Mohican of his profession.”

Abu Shadi however, has no intention of stopping. “I’ll keep telling my stories until the last table in Noufara cafe is empty.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.