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Friday, September 17, 2010


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all but extricated itself from any contributing role in securing the financial present and future of its citizens this outdated model of the traditional family thrives.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.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Cloud People

A dull thud chased by a deafening shriek cleaved the sleep from my eyes. I tumbled down fastened to my seat in loud silence. Strewed debris plummeted around. The plane had exploded in midair and although I was not dead yet I was soon to be. In a surge of defiance entwined with acceptance I unbuckled the seat-belt and floated free.

I assumed a spread-eagle position bringing my fall under control. Fragments of memory whooshed with the rushing wind illuminating pinpoints of realization on a giant blank screen. Seconds earlier I was fast asleep at a cruising altitude of 37,000 feet. Now that my body had reached terminal velocity nothing stood between me and the solid ground but 45 seconds of feckless time and a bank of clouds. An endless bank of clouds.

As the white expanse loomed closer the silence grew quieter. I was involuntarily slowing down and upon reaching a mushrooming top its ethereal substance brought my plunge to a gentle halt. I pranced, furtively evading the unseen and distant ground below, shaking with disbelief. I gasped to breathe and was instantly rewarded with a lung-full of brisk air. I floated in the pleasure of near weightlessness. Every cell in me cried with incredulity. “I am dead. I must be...”

“No you’re not!” her mellow voice came from below and a little to my right. I strained my eyes to see her, almost invisible in her whiteness, my heart pounding savagely in my chest.
“This can’t be real”, I stammered. “Who are you? Where am I?”
“This is very real to me and believe me you’re not dead my handsome man. I am Gwen and I live in the clouds.”
“But... but I just... I was..” my memory faded.
“Come follow me. Let me show you.” She flittered closer and softly pushed me forward. “Pick a name to call you by in your new home.”
The way we moved together defying every known law of physics was neither clumsy walking nor bird flying but a delightful hybrid of hovering and capering, As we skimmed the top of the adjoining nimbi I shed my clothing and rejoiced in my translucency. “My name is Baal, tell me about the clouds.”
We drifted over land and sea, our evanescent home receding then expanding, ever-changing, wrapping the earth like a shawl of silk.
“This is your home Baal. You will follow the clouds in their endless voyage above the white-caped mountains and the luscious forests of emerald. The wind shall take you over distant lands across the ocean and bring you back. You will precariously get close to the edge of the desert and seeing the vapor disappear from underneath your feet you will scurry upwind hopping from one lonely puff to another to be with me again. You will make love to me here and there. Everywhere! Your seed will infuse me with your thunder and our progeny, a flock of cirrus strands, will grow and propagate to inundate that distant ancestral land that is forever on the fringe of memory.

Day and night came and went. One misty evening we escorted a brood of dripping grays over a park to the north. A small fountain encircled by wooden benches gurgled in a whisper. Two lovers sat hand in hand oblivious to the world. Gwen saw a tear forming in the young man’s eye and reached with an invisible hand and wiped it away. She put it to my lips to taste. “Every once in a while we are blessed with a drop of moisture more precious than all the water of the oceans below,” she breathed softly in my ear.
With the tip of my finger I carried the tear back and delicately placed it on the girl’s cheek. The young man held her face in both hands and kissed her with thirst. “There! It’s back where it belongs.” I enfolded Gwen with my body becoming one with her.

Lightening awoke the shadows in the dark and they hurried along the passageways looking for a place to hide. We made love and rained all night. When morning yawned we watched the wet streets coming back to life. The rising sun dried them quickly helping us reclaim what‘s always been ours. Our cloud bank broke then scattered across the sky. We drifted apart and waived so long. “Till we meet again my handsome man.” She waved at me. The wind carried my kiss to her ears alone, “I won’t be long I promise.”
Cloud people, that’s what we are.