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Friday, September 17, 2010

Generations

It is not a simple task to tackle in depth the relationship between parents and children in one blog post. My intention is to describe, as an insider, parenting in Syria and its negative effect on the rise of a free society. My endeavor becomes all the more demanding since the country is extremely complex due to its underlying social mosaics and I’m forced yet again to make sweeping generalizations. This is the average Syrian family I am depicting, one that is as elusive as it is real, as extinct as it is pervasive.

On the most primitive level, one that is evident during the early life of offspring, homo sapiens, primates and most mammals share common parental instincts. We humans might have different ways of expressing our affection but until our children are in their mid teens we pamper/foster/raise them along parallel lines partially immune to cultural or racial variations. Adolescents may or may not be treated as children in various parts of the world but socioeconomic factors before cultural nuisances are significant during this stage of development in dictating the overall relationship between the subsequent generations.

The Syrian family adheres to a patriarchal form of morality and fairness. A significant proportion of parents feel that their financial responsibility toward their daughters are reduced or come to an end once these same darling daughters get married. This is certainly truer of devout Syrians of all faiths than the less religiously inclined. What these parents are doing in essence is relinquishing control over their daughters to the new husbands. The sons-in-law become the providers and thus hold the reins in their hands. Sons, on the other hand, remain under the protective custody of the parents for as long as it takes them to marry. Even then, the father, the mother or both maintain a too close for comfort distance and have a say in the day to day running of their son’s household. Money is a factor in an equation full of constants and variables but it is one that is hugely responsible for the smothering, the suffocation and the control of parents over their children that is prevalent in our society. Since the state had all but extricated itself from any contributing role in securing the financial present and future of its citizens this outdated model of the traditional family thrives. Most parents take meddling in their children’s dreams as a nonnegotiable fact of life because they are going to support their children for a far longer period of time than is normal human behavior. It is their right, as parents, to channel these dreams toward salvaging their own failures or as equally devastating to build on what they egoistically regard as their astonishing successes. Outside the immediate haven of home young men and women have practically no economic means of supporting themselves. Even if they pursue higher education, graduate from college and find a job there is very little chance, if any, for them to become self-sufficient before years or possibly decades of hard and often futile labor. The average income is pathetically low in comparison to the realities of the market. The demands of life are further compounded since this is the time when virgin Syrians suffer from the prolonged effects of celibacy. Men can afford to wait a little longer than women to get married. They might choose to work abroad and save enough to return one day, buy an apartment and get married. This is their first and perhaps only chance to live outside the cage that was their parents home or the subsequent “eternal” cage of marriage. Chastity is as much a result of economic servitude as it is of religious tyranny. While abroad and depending on where their fortunes had taken them they might encounter their first sexual experience (with another person) or in case their psyche had been irreversibly damaged they might keep believing that they are saving themselves for marriage. The truth of the matter could be that they are too shy and awkward to court and to lead a normal sexual life. Sad but true, life for most Syrians from their mid twenties to their late thirties evolves around affording their own place to live in for a fleeting moment of independence then getting married and bearing children and relinquishing whatever freedom they briefly experienced. They are obsessed with the notion of reproduction, of having a heir to carry their name into the future, preferably a son. They continue in our footsteps and soon enough they, our children, will have their own children and the repressive pattern of control and manipulation is repeated.


We are as deeply divided along socioeconomic lines as we are along sectarian ones. A marriage depends for its prosperity on the compatibility of the parents of the groom and bride more than on the true love between the young couple. It is as if, once the physical appearance of the prospective partner is not repulsive, love is an afterthought, something that can be planted now and harvested in the future. The implications of this submissive life pattern are far reaching. Democracy for such a society is a luxury. Competitiveness, ingenuity, creativity and daring are shunned at as unnecessary antics while unsportsmanlike rivalry, cheating, corruption and rudeness are adopted as acceptable rules of the game. Religion of course is the arbiter and as long as we sneak our way through its antiquated laws and prejudiced misconceptions our actions are socially correct and morally sound.

Half a century ago, when the population of Syria was around the 4 millions mark, there were enough resources to go around to support this utterly obsolete lifestyle which we mistakenly confuse with altruistic family ties and a proof of social efficacy. Now that we have more than quintupled in numbers a truly secular approach to civil individual and family laws is our only hope of getting out of this cesspool we insist on considering the envy of the rest of the world. I am glad to report that writers of recent Syrian television drama are becoming increasingly aware of their central role in stirring social stagnation by exposing the prevailing hypocrisy of the average Syrian family and the overall inadequacy of a disenchanted society. The high television ratings for Syrian drama in Levantine countries and the Middle East are an indication that at long last a realistic rendition of our “conservative” societies is in demand. Equal rights activists and feminists are making themselves heard and read on TV shows, magazine interviews and the Internet. Parliament Member, Mohamad Habash, was fired last week from his (Imam) job by the anachronistic Ministry of Religious Affairs for voicing his “liberal” views on social acceptance but mainly for his support for a secular Syria, one which must embrace differences and deviations. It is a pivotal time we live in, one which might change the direction of Syrian society in the coming years toward emancipation or strangulation. It is imperative that humanists play an active role as parents in this revival by at least admitting our wrong ways and encouraging our children to become free thinkers without the burdens of a photoshopped history and the fossilized righteousness of centuries long gone.

24 comments:

Isobel said...

A excellent post, Abufares, and a great comment on Syrian society. As usual with your posts, I've learned a lot. Interestingly, I have witnessed this type of child-rearing here in Canada. It is a well ingrained tradition in many different cultures - although they all vary slightly in intensity and "technique". People who have immigrated here more recently tend to hold onto their traditions even more tightly than they might have if they had stayed in their homeland. But, I digress...I think that is another whole study on it's own. I hope that more and more parents adopt yours, and other more liberal thinking people's, hands-off approach to parenting. In the end, it can only create a "freer" society. Then again, I suppose that's what traditionalist are fighting against. Ok...my comment is turning into an essay...sorry. You got me thinking though...thank you!!! :)

Gabriela said...

What a great post.
I think it's not easy at all to depict one's own society and uses. It's kind of taking a look into ourselves and trying to be objective, which is always a very hard task.

BIL said...

Is it not strange, how parents seemingly treat their daughters differently than their sons? The paradox in your statement is that they simply “let loose of the daughters upon marriage” giving them “away” to a son-in-law to look after and provide for them. At the same time they keep a tight hold on the sons (you know the ones who are suppose to be the providers). Looks like they suffer as the rest of us...just cannot make up their minds what is really best. That is kind of like betting on opposing teams in a ball game. While the people as you describe, talk a trash about other societies where the norm is to let loose and give the next generation a chance to grow on their own. When one does not take a risk, one cannot gain. That just goes hand in hand or as we say “no pain ... no gain”. To move forward one cannot always be looking back. This also goes for societies in general. Parenting is just a part of that bigger picture. Well written, and a small insight to Syrian life as seen from an insider. Say hello to the family and take care. BIL

KJ said...

You are correct in many aspects abufares. I have been lucky to be brought up by a very diverse, multi religious and liberal family, though my childhood rearing at school combined with my formerly shy self has led to some stubbornly and morally self-fulfilling mentality thatni have been breaking from the past couple of years.

But of course, being Syrian, reproduction has always been at the forefront of priorities, and everything I do has to ultimately lead to increase my chances of being rich enough to afford marriage and kids. My friends who have married have already been producing children like rabbits. Personally now I am not so much concerned about bearing kids, though admittedly I still feel socially responsible to, but am rather trying to find love or let it find me... And enjoying the experiences that corm along. I've semi broken the sense of guilt, and unlike many other male Arabs I don't claim to be free of sin and Godlike while I do everything possible undercover. I'm happy with things, mostly, and the most important thing is that I be honest with myself and not need to convince myself of things I am not comfortable with.

It's a very difficult and long journey given the years of indcotrinations but every day when I look back om the previous day I am a bit more happy with myself.

abufares said...

@Isobel
Thank you for the insight about new immigrants to Canada adhering to or trying to enforce customs and traditions from the old country. I'm certain that you will be able to draw parallels between Syria and other cultures as far as several behavioral patterns are concerned. I believe that "strong family ties" are way over-rated in terms of their positive social effect especially in an urban context. The inherent possessiveness of parents toward their children and spouses toward each other was a survival mechanism during a period of time when population number and density were low enough to justify this inefficient lifestyle. Accordingly, it is a pattern more fitting to rural and agricultural areas but not suitable for the modern cosmopolitan city where independence is a necessary ingredient for success.
While I wholeheartedly agree that certain traditions related to the essence of one's heritage make a pleasant and positive contribution to the well-being of the individual, being controlled and/or controlling others in financial and sexual matters do not impress me as benevolent. They are mechanisms for oppression and whoever find solace in them at home is unable to properly function and take part of the democratic process.

abufares said...

@Gabriela
It is very hard, I agree. I have taken a gamble with this post and the price I paid is flagrant over generalization. Yet, all the information presented is correct.
I'm glad you enjoyed what was a dry article to say the least.

abufares said...

@BIL
Favoring sons over daughters is an inherent characteristic of all cultures, including the West up till the industrial revolution. This facet of Syrian society, although very negative is not the only problem I am addressing. There are mothers who control every aspect in their married daughters' households transforming the lives of their sons-in-law into a living hell.
Parental control over the choice of a future spouse, the obsession with virginity as an indisputable requisite (especially for women) and the absence of civil marriage as a legal option conspire, all together, in stifling life and turning it into a boring journey between different cells in one large prison.
For the vast majority of Syrians of all socioeconomic classes, being unmarried and living alone is not an option. Syrian society accepts a 50 year old unmarried man living with his mother as normal while looks in disdain at one who chooses to live alone (leaving his poor old mother by herself) even if he is fully supporting her. What is the point of living alone if he's not married? This is really how Syrian society considers the matter and this is what I'm addressing and trying to expose in this article.
You either live with your parents or with your spouse. There is no third choice except during college perhaps, and even then it's with roommates or in dorms. Syrians do not live alone. They die without having ever experienced the joy of loneliness, competitiveness, ingenuity, creativity and daring... mere words in an unfamiliar vocabulary.

abufares said...

@KJ
You were lucky indeed to have such a diverse, multi religious and liberal family!
Our journey of self discovery begins when we live alone, when we soar for the first time away from our parents cozy nest. You have to understand, and I'm sure you do, that I have nothing against commitment but I abhor the insistence that we should avoid mistakes and jump from one controlled environmental to the next. We are a society that might forgive a young man his "mistakes" but not a young woman. We are hypocrites, paranoid and disillusioned. We are psychotically sad or idiotically happy.
The only way to evaluate one's successes and failures is money, not how he earned it or how many backs he climbed on to make it but how much he has of it NOW.
As long as we pay our monetary and moral dues to the corrupted institutions and ultimately to God we are today's model citizens.

CD68 said...

Abufares, your post reached my very core. I am the child you speak of, I am the Syrian girl, running to Europe, pretending to follow my educational ‘jihad’. People think Im here suffering life as a single Muslim girl, facing the obscene western society and standing strong against all hell infested temptations just to get a higher degree and make my family proud. In truth I am having the one and last party of my life. Whether I have a PhD degree to hang on some empty lonely wall of my future ‘correct’ marital home shared with another Syrian well suited for me and hand picked by my parents, is less than meaningless to me. I am living out what I think is my only chance of freedom, the one time I don’t have to live in hypocrisy between my thoughts and beliefs and my life style. But alas, my days are numbered, 2 years to go and I am already dreading the day I have to go back. The day I have to adhere to what I call the ‘Parental guilt’. I have to pay up. What kind of horrible self centered daughter would follow her dreams around the world and leave her 2 parents to age alone? To be thrown in the streets (everything has to be dramatized as you know), to die a lonely death. I would be directly responsible for their heartbreak, how could they face there rest of their society and tell them the daughter they brought up turned out to be a self-loving, family-hating bitch. All their hard work, and sacrifice got nothing in return… they must have made a mistake with my upbringing…

I know all this is ridiculous. I know I must step out of it. I know it’s no ones right to take away my future. But in 2 years I will nevertheless pack my bag, forget the amazing life I have lived, and go back to what I know for me will be slow agonizing torture.

From my earliest memories I remember being fed the ‘parental guilt’ trip we are brought up with ‘ if you don’t come back you don’t love us…. We love you, we want you to do what you want but do not disgrace us and start speaking of the absurdity of religion and its control on our life, not get married to someone you think is right, not voice your opinion about politics and our wonderful Arab family upbringing (which I have to say is so full of guilt, injustice, hatred and envy). Why do we all think we have the best family values, and all the rest of the world is living in family-sin? I think we have the most painful family values in the world, we do not love each other without asking for something in return!…

All of this doesn’t matter… because its too late for me, the guilt has already been planted so deep inside me I can not escape it. Because no matter how terrible it will be to go back and willingly have my chains, shackles and muzzle placed back on me… its all still better than living out in the world thinking ‘I broke my parents’ hearts’.

My Syrian/Arabian/Religious reared love for them will make sure they win the final round every single time.

abufares said...

@CD68
Thank you for making this post worthwhile. Your comment is much more than I bargained for.
I knew I was writing something many Syrians can I identify with but your comment meant so much to me because it reminded me of loved ones, now gone, and to a certain extent about my own return :-)
I'm in no place to give you a piece of advice. I can only say this: Enjoy the hell out of every FREE moment in your life... and one day when you're back because a woman got to do what a woman got to do don't let anything or anyone break your great spirit. Perhaps maintaining that intimate relationship, that selfish affair, with yourself will turn the future into a haven of personal bliss. No one can take that away from you:-)
Again, thank you for sharing your story. I'm humbled.

KJ said...

Unfortunately abufares money is how many people are measured, initially at first (if you're lucky) or exclusively (a typical situation). When I am socializing in Dubai, admittedly hosting the collective crap of all Arab nations, I am judged and assessed by my position in what company and at what age. My unemployment status has rendered me ignorable in many social gatherings as I am "useless" to people, but thankfully I have friends who know me well and someone special who doesn't care that I don't have much money left cuz I can provide an infinite amount of affection - a currency not valued by many.

One of my distant family members, referring to my ex who was American, called me "stupid" for not have used that opportunity to "marry for the passport" then "do whatever I want" and that I was a "fool" to prioritize feelings above "worldly needs".

The world is the way it is now because most people have come to believe it is this way and go with the flow, whether or not they agree. Some people, like myself, would rather live the world differently. Admittedly it is very difficult to do so, and my rear does get violated, but I'd rather live through this pain knowing I'd be visiting train stops very few, if at all, have stopped by.

Karim said...

Abu Fares,

A great read as usual, which I relate to strongly as a new parent. Raising children (although this is still my 3rd year doing it) is the most difficult thing I have ever done. No one warns you how really hard it is before the fact - and after the fact, they all say "well, yeah, what did you expect!?"

Anyway, as if it isn't difficult enough in its own right, raising your children in Syria makes it all the more difficult. I'm constantly faced with the dilemma of whether to communicate the values I believe in, or to show them how to be "7arabee2" (Arabic for cheaters who always find a way around anything) so they can survive and be 'successful' in this f***ed up society!

When you say this is a pivotal moment for us in Syria "which might change the direction of Syrian society in the coming years toward emancipation or strangulation", I sense a certain optimism in your tone, that I unfortunately cannot relate to. I just don't see the necessary critical mass of secular humanists building up to make a change. Maybe its because I live in Damascus and you live in Tartous!

Enlighten me, please!

abufares said...

@Karim
I'm so glad to read your feedback. Being a parent is one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences in life. I try, not succeeding all the time, to give my kids as much personal space and freedom as possible.
My optimism, if we want to call it so, is due to the fact that we are finally (after about 15 years of silence) starting to see, hear and read open criticism against the unperturbed meddling and infiltration of not religion per say but "religiosity" and fundamentalism in our every day's life. I have finally read a critical article directed toward one of the leading clerics in Syria, who for years has been immune to any form of disagreement.

http://bit.ly/auOsi5

That this same Sheikh butted heads with a TV drama director asking the "authorities" to ban his show in Ramadan and that the "authorities" did not comply is a very positive indication.

What I find most interesting are the comments on the article mentioned above. Some, I would say the majority of, commentators were flabbergasted that a journalist even dared argue with the Sheikh!!! That's how bad our situation is! How can we expect this type of person, who was appalled that a journalist mildly criticized a Sheikh, to aspire for or participate in a Democracy???
That the authorities and after more than a decade of turning a blind eye to the transgressions and infiltration of religious fanaticism in all aspects of our society has finally reconsidered their position is to be embraced, appreciated and taken full advantage of.
I have only mentioned one example of course but the writing is on the wall. Silent humanists in Sryia are fed up and are starting to talk.
Many thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

I discovered your blogg recently after a search for Tartous.I visited Syria as a teenager together with my parents in the ...70`s and I stayed at the hotel Ambassador.I seee that much happened since then.I remember the corniche and how lively it was on fridays with people coming in busses and cars from distances,the music,the amazing sunset and the boats to Arouad Island.Now to my point: I cannot locate the hotel Ambassador either in the pictures i Googled or on hotel lists.But most of all how the owner and his family are after so many years.His name was Abuthaleb and we kept contact a while but time took its toll...Your blogg is the best "with love about my hometown" blogg I have ever red with its unique local-global humanism.

(old)Tartous visitor

abufares said...

@(old) Tartous visitor
Thank you for your visit. The Ambassadors Hotel is still in business as far as I know.
Please feel free to drop in at anytime.

50% Syrian said...

I'm glad I read this post... It's an eye-opener! I have seen the corruption you talk about; I have been trying to understand it, but since I lived most of my life in countries other than Syria, I really don't have a real clue about the dynamics of the society.
This post explains so many things I have been trying to grasp. Thank you!
I just took out a quote to support a post I just wrote about economic progress and ethics.

abufares said...

@50% Syrian
It's always a joy to read you here and of course on your blog. You have the uncanny ability to make simple out of complex matters. As I pointed out on your blog you've certainly inspired me to delve deeper into "corporate" Syria. I might need sometimes to formulate my thoughts into a cohesive article but it's already picking momentum in my head.

Joseph said...

Congratulations on the new theme, Abufares, I love it. Very Mac like. :-)

You've hit the nail on the head with this account, Abufares. I guess the same applies to Lebanon and the neighboring countries, with slight variations taking into consideration some complicated and very often superficial communities and re-fabricated traditions. And since I'm clueless, I shall say no more.

On a different note, this was displayed on the train a while back. I thought it was smart and humorous.



Gerry Murphy
(born 1952)



NIAMH IN DOHENY & NESBITT”S


When you came into the bar
that Sunday afternoon,
the entire clientele
tilted precariously on their stools
to steal a glimpse
of your spell-binding beauty.
When you reached across the counter
to collect your pint and crisps,
creaking in those poured-into denims,
the famous stopped clock shuddered
and began to click again.

Welcome to oblivion.

Kessak...

abufares said...

@Joseph
Coming from you, a MAC Look is something GOOD, so I take it that you like it :-)

Of course we share more social absurdities between Syrian and Lebanon than we differ.

Awesome Quote!!!

Zoubida said...

Very interesting article, somewhat painful though.
Hope! Strong family ties don't always work the way they do. And I smile widely as I write this. I was brought up in a conservative family. My parents had immigrated to France in 1954. We painflully made it through teenage years to young adults, lost in the cultural clash between our education at home and the one we recieved outside home both in conventionnal way at school and through our social interaction with our french friends. And to make things worse, we were treated with contend in our country of origin.
As Isobel stated in the first comment, our parents did hold on tighter to traditions while living abroad than parents of their generation in our country of origin. That nurtered in us the seed of revolt and rejection of the doomed life awaiting us if we'd abide to our parents' control of all aspects of life (financial, marital and down to details like the furniture of our future conjugal bedroom.
@CD68, it wasn't an easy decision we made but we made it and lived with the heart tearing consequences for years! We, my 5 sisters and 2 brothers, tied in this all together, took front together against the social prison we lived in and the prison coming for us in the guise of controlled marriage.
This is why I say hope! Yes, family ties helped us tremendeously going through the process of saying "No!" The family ties I'm talking about are those uniting us, my sisters and brother, together against the tyranny of our secular traditions. The traditions which, as you very well expressed Abu Fares, had a "raison d'ĂȘtre" 60 years ago and were totally allienating for us when we reached teenage age.
@CD68, that is not to say we were more courageous than you are or more heroic. Actually, your decision or ours, it doesn't make a difference, which way we decide to go is a painful and difficult way. The choice is to live with the conventions (guilt instilled too deep and soft love toward our parents) or reject them (guilt instilled by our very own self about what we make our parents go through and tough love showing them after several difficult years how futile in the grand scheme of things holding on traditions ill-fitted to our ethnic group -arabs- living in todays world and the challenges we face as such.
It's a way too long comment! And my limited english skills don't allow me to explain too well. So I'll conclude... Ties between us, siblings reinforced our courage to live in a style we chose for us and our children.
So Abu Fares, as we used to say in taht time we were young adults or teengaers fighing our parents and our community over the freedom we felt entitled to and the control they felt entitled to, the rope helding us down either would tighten or break loose. It broke loose. We all suffered tremendously but it broke loose. You say "emencipation or strangulation". For us it brought, at a very hard price to pay, emencipation. So... Hope!
(I hope this comment makes some sense, I hope it isn't as clear as mud).

abufares said...

@Zoubida
Thank you so much for this extremely well written account of a personal experience. I think reading a story like yours sheds a light on the scope of the dilemma and the fact that you and your siblings came on top brings hope to a young generation. They have to pick the thorns with our own hands to win their freedom.

Serene said...

This was a very interesting post, Abu Fares... thank you for writing with such frankness, without mincing words. I am not Arab, and am seeking to understand and know more about Arab culture, Syrian in particular, so this has been an eye-opener. Thank you once more. I will definitely be following your excellent blog.

abufares said...

@Serene
Thank you for your visit and your comment.
I'm happy you found my post useful but you have to remember that many compatriots don't agree with my outlook on things :-)
I like to believe that I call'em as I see'em :-)
Please come again.

Serene said...

I'll remember that - they might not agree with you but you appear to see things clearly, with a modern and open-minded attitude (which I appreciate and empathise with). Are you speaking generally about Syrian families though, or specifically about those in Tartous? Is there much of a difference in say, Damascus, for instance?

I am Asian, and in some ways it would seem that the traditional Asian family is fairly similar to the traditional Syrian/Arab family in the way they deal with their children.

I have the good fortune of coming from a fairly relaxed and liberal family. They do have their ideas of how one should carry out one's life (i.e. study hard, get a good job, get married to a good reliable spouse and produce children), but I have been able to choose the roads less travelled in some ways and there has not been a huge resistance from either parent so far. Of course I have not deviated SO far from the 'safe' path, but I have to say that my life in the past few years has not been that conventional.

P/S: I really enjoy your descriptive writing, especially on the hedonistic pleasures of food and drink. :)