Sad in Saudi

Syrians in Saudi Arabia encounter numerous social barriers but the financial reward of emigrating there can be tempting. 

Illustration by Ghalia Lababidi
Illustration by Ghalia Lababidi

Nothing could have prepared Mohammad Ghannam for what he witnessed at age 12. A drug dealer was beheaded in the courtyard of a mosque near his house in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh. Ghannam, a 32-year-old Syrian who grew up in Saudi Arabia, said he could not sleep for days after the incident.

“Although executions are public, the Saudi authorities never inform people beforehand that a beheading will take place in the mosque. Since children in Saudi Arabia start going to mosques at age three, they often have to witness executions,” Ghannam explained. By the time he was 18, he said he had witnessed six beheadings, adding that they “become less shocking with time”.

Saudi Arabia is governed by a strict, Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia law and a conservative social code that prohibits interaction between the sexes. Thieves can have their hands cut off and adulterers can be stoned. Despite this stark reality, many young Syrian men move to the oil-rich country to save money to pay off the approximately SYP 300,000 (USD 6,500) fee for avoiding military service or to cope with the rising cost of living. Today, Saudi Arabia hosts 400,000 Syrian workers, thousands of whom are investors, he said.

With high unemployment back home, working in Saudi Arabia offers a better future for some young Syrians. Socially, however, life in Saudi Arabia can be stressful, Syrians living there told Syria Today.

“My job makes me financially comfortable, but, psychologically speaking, I am growing weary of it,” Moonzer al-Bitar, a Syrian who moved to Jeddah in 2007 to work for a medical company, said. The tradition of young Syrians travelling to Saudi Arabia for job opportunities goes back to the early 1930s, when oil was first discovered there. The country was developing rapidly and, with the lack of local expertise, it provided a job market for skilled workers from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt – many of whom eventually settled there.

Strict upbringing
Ghannam’s family moved to Riyadh in 1979, when he was one month old. The severity of punishments there teaches obedience from a young age, according to Ghannam. Missing prayer can result in lashes to the feet or detention by the moral police. Approaching unrelated women in public can lead to three days in jail. Ghannam said that as a teenager, he never spoke to women outside his family.

“It was too risky,” he said.

Ghannam’s family moved back to Damascus in 2007. While today he leads a liberal life, he said his family still practices the conservative lifestyle they grew accustomed to back in Saudi Arabia.

Anoud Souhail, a Syrian English literature student at the University of Damascus who grew up in Saudi Arabia, said that Syrians in Saudi Arabia often assimilate to the local culture.

“Some Syrian families I know in Saudi Arabia reorganised their houses to have two sitting rooms – one for men and another for women,” Souhail said.

Limited outlets
Life in Saudi Arabia has some enjoyable aspects, too.

Syrians living in Saudi Arabia enjoyed access to modern technology and fashionable cars. Even today, Syrian expatriates often show off their high-tech purchases when they come from the Gulf to visit their relatives in Syria.

“I had my first computer when I was in fourth grade in Saudi. Back then, computers, mobiles and internet, among other things, were not available in Syria. I used to feel that Syria was way behind civilisation,” Ghannam said.

In addition to his access to gadgets, Ghannam had a few social activities in Saudia Arabia that brought him enjoyment. For example, he enjoyed attending hunting trips in the desert with his school.

“Saudi Arabians are experts at hunting,” Ghannam said. “We used to hunt for jerboas (a desert-dwelling rodent with long hind legs), dhubs (a type of spine-tailed lizards) and locusts.”

Entertainment possibilities remain otherwise limited in Saudi Arabia, according to Syrians living there. Bitar said foreign embassies sometimes organise cultural events worth attending. Other than that, segregated visits to the beach, cafés and restaurants are the only social outlets. Women’s activities are restricted to shopping and to visiting female friends in their homes and they are prohibited from taking public transportation.

“Most Saudi women have a car with a private driver to take them around,” Souhail said. “As for Syrian and other Arab families, they mostly moved to Saudi Arabia to save money and cannot afford such luxuries. With no car at hand, women can only take taxis in groups or accompanied by a male relative or family friend.”

Foreign discrimination
While at an official level, foreigners are treated as equal to Saudi Arabians, Souhail said foreign workers, including Syrians, feel discriminated against by the Saudi society.

“In general, Saudi people never fail to highlight that you, as a foreigner, are working for them and they treat you accordingly,” she said. “My teachers at school used to think I was Saudi because I come from the Mushawwah family which is also famous in Saudi Arabia. When they found out I was Syrian, they treated me differently and started giving me bad scores at school.”

Ghannam, however, pointed out that only poorer school children face discrimination.

“Syrians who could afford to study at private schools did not face this kind of discrimination,” he said. Nevertheless, even affluent Syrians never fully assimilate. “Saudis are very loyal to their community. If there is an argument, they always side with the Saudi against the foreigner, regardless of who was wrong.”

A policy issued in 1995 capped the number of foreign workers and also limited certain positions to Saudi Arabians.

“No matter how highly educated a Syrian is, he will never be promoted to a leading position in his company,” Souhail, the student in Damascus, asserted. But, she added, the high salaries mean she may return to Jeddah after graduating.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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History Endangered

Damascus is dotted with shrines and places of historic interest – the great majority of which are uncared for.

The 800-year-old shrine of al-Saheba Rabeea Khatoun serves as the teacher’s desk at Madrassat Al-Saheba in Damascus

The 800-year-old shrine of al-Saheba Rabeea Khatoun serves as the teacher’s desk at Madrassat Al-Saheba in Damascus

At first sight, Madrassat Al-Saheba seems like any other school in Damascus. In one of its classes, however, stands an 800-year-old shrine to al-Saheba Rabeea Khatoun, the niece of the famous Ayyubid leader Saladin. Once the school’s founder, Saheba’s shrine now serves as the teacher’s desk.

The Al-Saheba shrine is one of the many monuments, holy places and historical sites that have been misused or simply demolished over the past 40 years. While no one knows exactly how many such sites are scattered throughout Damascus activists warn that the future of many shrines could be in serious jeopardy unless more is done to catalogue and protect them.

The lack of care afforded these lesser known sites dates back to 1968 when French architect Michel Ecochard was appointed to produce a master plan for Damascus. The resulting blueprint ignored the city’s traditional urban fabric. Unlike Western city planning where, for example, a cathedral is usually located in front of a square or other space ensuring the building is seen in its true dimensions, mosques, historical buildings and other sites of interest are crammed within the urban fabric of Arab cities. As such, it is impossible to apply Western urban planning methods to Damascus without demolishing important historical buildings and sites. Although Ecochard’s plan was never fully implemented, a Western-based urban plan is still being forced on Damascus. The result is that many shrines and other historic sites are simply overlooked for preservation.

The Shrine of Darwish Basha in Bab al-Jabeyeh / Photos by Manaf Hassan

The Shrine of Darwish Basha in Bab al-Jabeyeh / Photos by Manaf Hassan

Poor management by Syrian authorities exacerbates the problem. The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) rents out numerous houses containing shrines for trivial rents. As many of these rental contracts do not contain a date of expiry, tenants cannot be forced to leave the houses. The MRA has also failed to check on the condition of the shrines and sites under its care and, as such, many have been demolished or damaged by uncaring renters.

“A shrine’s fate depends on a renter’s goodwill,” Hasnaa Jawish, a member of a joint committee investigating the condition of shrines in Damascus, said. “They either keep the room where the shrine lies or use it.”

Nadia Khost, a member of the Cultural Committee of the Governorate of Damascus, is the driving force behind a law which added the MRA’s estate of shrines, ancient mosques and historical buildings to the Ministry of Antiquities’ list of historical monuments. Such a move classifies the sites as antiquities and makes them subject to stricter protection measures. Khost was kicked into action after visiting a rental property and finding a shrine room being used to store timber.

Muhi al-Din Ibn Arabi is a popular Sufi sheikh and Islamic philosopher. His shrine, which was built in the Rukn el-Din area in 1240, is visited by dozens of Muslims every day.

Muhi al-Din Ibn Arabi is a popular Sufi sheikh and Islamic philosopher. His shrine, which was built in the Rukn el-Din area in 1240, is visited by dozens of Muslims every day.

“Renters still use the shrines for their own good and the Governorate of Damascus often sacrifices historical buildings and shrines for the sake of opening a new road,” she said.

Khost said the attitude of Damascus Governorate and the MRA regarding shrines and historical buildings needed to change, from viewing them as any other piece of real estate to that of deserving the utmost care and respect. She points to the Madrassa Al Shameyah, a 1,161-year-old Ayyubid school built by Sit al-Sham, Saladin’s sister. Damascus Governorate had planned to turn its courtyard into a car park, but as a member of a panel charged with preserving sites of historical importance in Damascus succeeded in saving the area from falling under the development sledgehammer. The panel eventually forced the governorate to locate the new development 360 metres from the school and also successfully lobbied to restrict the building’s height so as not to obscure the school’s minarets.

The shrine of Seif al-Din Abu Baker, the brother of famous Ayyubid leader Saladin, is hidden in the Maktaba Al Adeleya Al Kubra, an 800-year-old library that was built in the Asrouneyeh area near the Omayyad mosque.

The shrine of Seif al-Din Abu Baker, the brother of famous Ayyubid leader Saladin, is hidden in the Maktaba Al Adeleya Al Kubra, an 800-year-old library that was built in the Asrouneyeh area near the Omayyad mosque.

“The MRA didn’t care about the school which is from its own portfolio of properties,” Khost said. “It was the panel and the Ministry of Antiquities who fought to save it from demolition.”

The panel’s success in blocking development plans soon brought it under heavy fire. Property developers, real estate traders and Damascus Governorate banded together to overthrow the organisation little more than two years after its establishment. It was replaced with the Municipality of Old Damascus which draws the majority of its members from Damascus Governorate.

Since then, the Madrassa Al-Kahereya, a 1,210-year-old school, has vanished along with several other important buildings. “The Governorate of Damascus simply erased the school from its new urban plan,” Jawish said.

The shrine of Baybars, a Mamluk Sultan of Egypt, lies in the Maktaba Al Zahereya Al Kubra in the Asrouneyeh area, near the Omayyad Mosque. The shrine, which was ereceted in 1277, is currently under restoration.

The shrine of Baybars, a Mamluk Sultan of Egypt, lies in the Maktaba Al Zahereya Al Kubra in the Asrouneyeh area, near the Omayyad Mosque. The shrine, which was ereceted in 1277, is currently under restoration.

Jawish said the governorate has also tried to remove the shrines of Ibn Asaker, one of the most important Syrian historians, along with Arslan al-Dimashqi, a well-known Sufi sheikh credited with miracles, and Farroukh Shah, the nephew of Saladin and one-time Emir of Baalbek. Given the shrines were dedicated to well-known personalities, Syrians among them, the MRA prevented their demolition. Shrines and tombs dedicated to lesser known historical figures are, however, easily removed as few people know of their importance.

The absence of a clear database logging each historical site and its condition also hampers preservation efforts. When applying for permission to take photos for this article, approval was delayed for several months because the MRA could not provide an address for many of the requested sites. While the MRA, Damascus Governorate and the Ministries of Tourism and Antiquities established a joint committee in 2006 to document all shrines in Damascus, its findings remain unavailable.

“Putting signs on each shrine and historical building is necessary to save them from demolition,” Khost said.

For some, the lack of care afforded to many of Damascus’ historical sites has become too much to take lying down. Muhammad al-Khatib, a Syrian sheikh who studies the history of Damascus shrines, became so frustrated at what he saw as a lack of respect for local history he decided to take matters into his own hands. In an attempt to raise awareness about the problem, Khatib spent an hour every Friday following afternoon prayers recalling the history of the Dar Al Hadith Al-Ashrafiya, one of the most prestigious religious institutes for the study of the Hadith in the Islamic world.

Khatib said he held the talks to raise awareness about the treasures housed in Damascus. He is disappointed lectures on the shrines of Damascus and lesser known public buildings, along with tours introducing them to the public, have not been organised as part of the Damascus Arab Capital of Culture festivities.

“While the Roman monuments in Syria are preserved as an important touristic attraction, we turn our backs on countless monuments of the Arab and Islamic civilisation and leave them to fall apart,” Khatib said.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.