Syrians Express Feelings about the West, Religious Tolerance and Women’s Rights

If there’s one phrase a visitor can count on hearing from every Syrian he meets, it would be, “you are welcome.”

From the big cities to the tents of Bedouins, from the coast to the desert, hospitality is a central tenet of Syrian life. And no matter how little English a person speaks, he or she will know enough to utter a “welcome” to visitors from overseas—and, of course, offer a round of tea.

Many Westerners might be surprised to find that the average Syrian separates politics from the people and bears no grudges against American or European citizens, despite the impression one may get from reading newspapers or watching television.

“The Syrian people are a peaceful people,” said a middle-age businessman named Abu Walid as he sipped herbal tea at the al-Seyaya coffeehouse in Damascus. “A true Syrian doesn’t like to disturb others and doesn’t like being disturbed himself.”

Abu Walid and his friend Abu Amin were taking part in a typical Syrian custom on a warm summer night—relaxing at a coffeehouse, sipping tea, smoking flavored tobacco from water pipes, and playing backgammon. Here at al-Seyaya, the conversation ranges from Hollywood movies to reform in Syria.

“We feel there are a lot of changes going on in Syria—it’s slow but sure,” said Abu Amin amid the clacking of backgammon pieces. “We expect more and more. We are thirsty for more changes.” With politics out of the way, Abu Amin invited his interviewer to join him in a cup of strong, cardamom-flavored coffee.

Abu Amin and others at al-Seyaya also showered this reporter with questions about America and Americans and what they think of Syria and Syrians. Their inquiries reflected a genuine curiosity about the West and its people, which they hope is reciprocated on the other end.

“Some people believe the West is the West and the East is East, and the two shall never meet,” said Suhail Zakar, a Syrian historian. “I do not believe in that. Not in the past, not in the recent history, not in the future. In the past there was never an East without West or a West without East.”

Zakar, who has written a 20-volume history of Jerusalem and is working on a similar oeuvre about the Crusades, said both sides can learn from each other. “We in the Arab world taught human beings civilization, philosophy, every kind of science—and even from our country we taught all human beings Christianity.”

He was referring to what is perhaps Syria’s most famous Christian: Saul of Tarsus. As the Bible tells it, Saul left his home, the port city now known as Tartus, and was blinded by a vision of God on his way to Damascus. The experience prompted him to convert to Christianity and begin spreading the faith across the Roman Empire, starting in what is now Syria.

Today, Syria has a thriving Christian population that coexists peacefully and freely with the country’s Muslim majority. Around 10 percent of Syria’s 21 million people are Christian, mostly Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic.

“Syria is the beginning of Christianity, and Syria has been intertwined in the entire history of the church,” said Isidore Battikha, the Greek Catholic archbishop of Damascus. “We have a good historical relationship with the Muslims. When they arrived here, the Christians opened the door to the Muslims. They did not live as occupiers but as brothers.”

Battikha, who lived for much of his youth in Italy, has adorned his office with paintings of Mother Teresa, Gandhi and one of Jesus that he painted himself.

“Islam in Syria is very special. It’s authentic. There is no fanaticism, no terrorists. It’s the people’s religion,” Battikha said. “If a Syrian doesn’t know you, he’ll help you, give you food and drink. They don’t ask your religion or where you’re from. If you are not Syrian or don’t speak Arabic, they respect you more.”

Many Syrians say they don’t even know the religion of their friends or colleagues because the issue simply does not come up in day-to-day life.

“Love is the essence of all religions,” said Nabil Mallah, a tour guide who regularly takes tourists to visit Christian sites around Syria. “If you walk into a church it doesn’t mean you’re Christian. If you walk into a mosque, it doesn’t mean you’re a Muslim. Just like if you walk into a garage, it doesn’t mean you’re a mechanic!”

In addition to religious tolerance, the status of women in Syria might surprise some Westerners. For starters, not all Syrian women wear the hijab veil. On any given street, women in tight jeans and makeup will mingle with more conservative women wearing hjiabs and long robes.

You will also find many women at the governmental level in Syria. Last year, Najah Attar, the former culture minister, was appointed vice president; the highest governmental position held by a woman in the Arab World. Also, in October 2006, Colette Khouri, the famous novelist, was appointed as an advisor to the President. Women hold 12 percent of the parliamentary seats, one of the highest rates in the Arab world.

Mouna Ghanem, who heads the Cabinet-level Family Affairs Commission, said Syrian women have made great political and economic strides in recent years. “We are here; we’ve reached high political positions. We enjoy a good range of freedoms in our life. I would say we’re in a better position than women in many developing countries.”

May Massoud, a 32-year-old public relations officer at the University of Kalamoon, said she has noticed a change just in her lifetime. “I have been working for 14 years almost and I feel things are changing,” she said. “In the beginning I sensed a more male-dominated society, but now I feel that women are everywhere, and they can do everything they want: study, travel, work. They can be independent more than before.”

That doesn’t mean Syrian women have obtained a status completely equal to men, added Ghanem of the Family Affairs Commission. Women in Syria commonly attend university and enter the workforce, but sometimes they must leave their jobs to raise children because of a lack of supportive services, she said.

The Family Affairs Commission was established in 2003 to help develop and improve those supportive services for women and children. The agency has about 15 staff members now, but that number should reach 40 over the next three years, said Ghanem, who has a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and spent eight years working for the United Nations.

For Hala Atassi, a retired journalist and children’s rights activist, there is plenty that a Westerner might not know about women in Syria—but the same holds true in reverse.

“Even though we have globalization and the world is becoming a small village, in the end, people around the world don’t really know each other. Arab people have this general picture of Americans, and Americans have this image of the Arab world that is not entirely true,” she said.

“Both sides should make more efforts to discover the other,” said Atassi, who has a daughter living in Chicago. “Before I went to the States, I didn’t know that Americans are one of the sweetest and most polite people in the world.”

When Americans visit Syria and the Arab world, they’ll discover the same thing, she added. “When people really have the chance to know each other, debate and conflict will decrease.”

Abdul-Fattah al-Bizem, the mufti of Damascus, would agree. He perhaps summed it up best: “What humanity suffers [from] these days, all the problems cannot be solved by artillery or by rockets or by tanks. They can only be solved by reason, by culture and civilization.”

About the Author

Imad Moustapha, Ambassador of Syria to the United States